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Lamenting Lannan’s labors

May 3, 2010, 2:19 PM EST

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
This has been perhaps the roughest stretch of John Lannan's career.

There is much angst this morning in NatsTown over the de facto ace of the pitching staff, who has pitched nothing like an ace so far this season.

John Lannan may not have ace stuff, but he entered the season as the Nationals' best starter, and his track record over the last 2 1/2 years suggested he'd established himself as a solid big-league pitcher.

The left-hander's numbers through six outings — 1-2, 6.34 ERA, a staggering 1.93 WHIP — suggest he's anything but solid. And yesterday's ragged outing in Miami, in which he was roughed up for six runs on nine hits in five innings, suggests this may be more than a blip on the radar screen.

So what's going on here? Is Lannan merely going through a rough patch, or is he finally regressing into the sub-par major leaguer many stathounds have been saying he would become?

For those unaware with the sabermetrics argument against Lannan, it basically boils down to this: He's the least-effective pitcher in baseball at making hitters swing and miss. Batters make more contact against him than any other pitcher in the game. For the last 2 1/2 years, Lannan has merely been lucky that all those balls put into play have been hit right at fielders, especially groundballs. Eventually, the law of averages was going to start turning those outs into base hits.

Indeed, it is really tough to be a successful pitcher when only 24 of the 561 pitches you've thrown this season have been swinging strikes. So that may in part explain Lannan's struggles.

Here, though, is another explanation: Lannan has had no command of his pitches whatsoever.

I just re-watched the first three innings of yesterday's game, paying particular attention to catcher Wil Nieves' positioning as Lannan begins his windup. I'd say Lannan missed the target at least 80Read more »

  1. Doc - May 3, 2010 at 2:35 PM

    Good analysis Mark. All Lannan can do is focus on his mechanics, which he is probably doing. Maybe tuning up his breaking stuff is another option. Other than that there is not much to say. Let's wish him luck.

  2. Anonymous - May 3, 2010 at 2:36 PM

    Two and a half years of success proves that it wasn't just luck – that's a statistically significant sample size if I've ever seen one.However, the nature of his stuff means that if he doesn't have control, he's going to suck. Period. If Lannan can't locate, he won't even be a useful mop-up reliever in Syracuse.

  3. greg - May 3, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    to get more in depth about what you're talking about with sabermetrics, there's a stat called BABiP (Batting Average on balls put into play). a normal average is 300. Lannan's numbers:2007: 2732008: 2732009: 2762010: 336what that shows is he's been much better than normal average on BABIP for 3 years, but this year he's worse than the average by a similar percentage. essentially people are hitting 60 points higher against him with balls put into play. and since most times he's pitching to someone, the ball is being put into play, that 60 points is magnified tremendously compared to a real strikeout pitcher. this would affect someone like strasburg significantly less than someone like lannan. infield hit % has almost doubled (6.7% in 2009, 11.5% 2010). he has given up 7 infield hits in 6 games.

  4. Mark Zuckerman - May 3, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    Thanks, Greg, for spelling that out so well for everyone!

  5. Sam - May 3, 2010 at 3:01 PM

    I always believed that groundball pitchers weren't as lucky as the other non-swing-and-miss pitchers as they are good at what they do. In other words, I think Lannan has been a pretty good groundball pitcher, even if stats like FIP suggest that he has been very lucky. I would imagine that groundball pitchers have less variance in their BABIPs than other types of pitchers because they can control where the ball is going to end up better than other types of pitchers. I'm not sure if anyone has done this study (or if I am smart enough to do it), but the results would be interesting.What has been studied is that slugging percentages on non-groundballs against groundball pitchers tend to skyrocket. Thus, whenever Lannan gives up a line drive or flyball, it will probably go further than other types of pitchers. That is because Lannan's pitches are meant to keep the ball on the ground, and when the ball is off the ground, it means the pitch isn't working. Just like any other pitcher, a bad pitch will be hit far.If you read all of that and follow my logic, then you should realize that I agree with Mark. This is probably a bad stretch for Lannan. Either that, or I'm a biased fool (which is very likely too).

  6. Scooter - May 3, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    Sam, you biased fool, you'll like this: I read an article this past offseason that touched on some of this stuff. The upshot was, a pitcher *can* consistently post a BABIP under .300 (going back to Greg's numbers). You need a very large sample (somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 6 years — sorry, I really can't remember, but I know it was several seasons) to be confident that a given pitcher can repeat the performance going forward. I don't recall where I saw it, but I'm pretty sure it was by Tom Tango on the Inside the Book site. I trust him a lot.

  7. ckstevenson - May 3, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    Mark,Any chance that the new "high intensity, we want to win every game, we're gonna compete and win now" attitude of the Nats isn't a good fit for Lannan's natural perfectionist nature? It's fine to want to do better every time, even when you pitch a good game, but an unrelenting drive to be perfect, coupled with vigorous peer pressure to do better, seems like it could be recipe for disaster for Lannan.He really struggled in May and August of last year, maybe this is a repeat of that?

  8. Scooter - May 3, 2010 at 3:35 PM

    One last thought on the BABIP/luck thing: as used by sabermetric types, the word "luck" also includes "skill, but a skill that's very very very hard to repeat consistently."

  9. NatinBeantown - May 3, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    Can one of the sabre guys give me a quick explanation of FIP? (BABIP I'm fine with.)And I'd tend to agree with Mark's analysis. Even the Fangraphs post talks about how Lannan's swinging strike rate is absurdly low, even by his modest career numbers. So even if you question whether an "On" Lannan can be effective long term, we're not seeing anything close to him being "on" yet.It's May 3rd. It's May 3rd. It's May 3rd. (taking deep breaths).

  10. Steve M. - May 3, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    Saturday and Sunday in the middle innings looked like batting practice.

  11. bumsfan4 - May 3, 2010 at 4:10 PM

    BatinBeantown:FIP is a measure of what thing the pitcher controls, independent what happens when the ball is put in play, i.e. homeruns, walks, etc. Thus:Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. FIP was invented by Tangotiger.

  12. Doc - May 3, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    Great analysis guys! Really good discussion. Players are DFA'd and traded based on small sample sizes, as noted with the Great Clippard and the Yankees, and Torre's analysis. Can the Nats afford,this year,to expand Lannan's sample size?

  13. Aeoliano - May 3, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    I wonder how much is related to Nieves always catching Lannan. Atilano, Olsen, and Livan appear to be more effective when Pudge is catching. Have to assume that throwing to a sure-bet HOF catcher at age 25 or 26 is a lot different from throwing to your buddy who happens to be a journeyman catcher.

  14. Capitol Baseball - May 3, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    @Doc -I can't see how the Nats can afford not to expand his sample size. I agree with Anonymous at 10:36. His sample size is two large from the last two seasons to think the he broke down this badly. He has location to work on; once he has that figured out, his numbers will come down. And he will figure it out.

  15. Capitol Baseball - May 3, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    And to Aeoliano -I read somewhere (maybe here, Mark?) that Lannan prefers to throw to Nieves. His complete game shutout last year was with Wil behind the plate. Maybe if he keeps pitching this poorly, though, he loses the right to prefer a catcher.

  16. NatinBeantown - May 3, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    bumsfan4- thanks for the breakdown, very helpful. And Capital Baseball, the "preferred catcher" subject has been covered here in a great deal of detail.Short version:Riggs: NO ONE gets a catcher preference. That's not how we roll. On night games followed by day games, I let Pudge have input on which one he'll play, plus I like to have flexibility to utilize good matchups when we have them.Personally, I think the Lannan/Nieves (who?) alignment has more to do with coincidence on the limited number of starts thus far. And I'd buy the catcher preference if Lannan relied on wicked breaking stuff where he needs to be confident the guy can keep the ball in front of him. When Lannan's missing his outside-corner target by a foot, I don't think it matters who is holding the mitt.

  17. Aeoliano - May 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    When Lannan's missing his outside-corner target by a foot, I don't think it matters who is holding the mitt.Perhaps, but wouldn't throwing to HOF Pudge be like throwing to McCatty or Riggleman / McLaren? They seem to listen to and defer to what he says. AND, this is a contract year for Lannan isn't it? The offseason would be when that side of things would get rolling? I watched with interest what Pudge did to manage Clippard when he was having these problems. When he couldn't get his fast ball slider down and in the strike zone, Pudge had him throw his changeup three times in a row. It worked. The batter whiffed on it.

  18. Gus in FFX - May 3, 2010 at 5:21 PM

    I've always wondered how much of the "HOF" catcher impact is from "calling a game/experience" vs. generally getting more respect or borderline calls from umpires. I have to believe that there is a degree of familiarity and respect which someone like Pudge has with major league umpires and which enables him/our pitchers to get the benefit of calls at times. Of course, we would prefer to chalk this improvement up the more acceptable "experience" or "field mgt." which Pudge brings to the game. It's hard for me to say cause, if anything, I would say our pitchers have been getting squeezed this year. (And yes, I know I'm biased watching games on MASN and hearing Dibs complain all the time). Interested in whether any one else has looked at or analyzed how a potential HOF catcher might impact an umpires strike zone. Thanks,

  19. Anonymous - May 3, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    Maybe it's Pudge who does not want to catch Lannan, rather than the other way around. And maybe he's on to something.Seriously, they need to have Pudge catch Lannan for at least the next few starts (even if he has to take the Saturday night game off). I don't think Nieves does much to adjust to a pitcher's stuff in real time–he's a slave to the game plan. If the guy can't hit your mitt low and away that day, then don't keep putting the mitt low and away. Maybe set up right over the middle of the plate and go with a high and tight game the rest of the way. If nothing else, it will get the hitters to back off the plate a bit (then you can go back to missing your spots low and away).

  20. Aeoliano - May 3, 2010 at 5:49 PM

    Guess we'll have to wait and see what sort of roster changes / player transactions are made on this off day by the Nats brain trust. Have to think they are going to do something about the bullpen at least. Plus there seem to be way too many good fielding sub Mendoza hitting right fielders. Good citizens with good attitudes can only get Riggleman so far … there has to be talent. I don't think Mike Rizzo is in as much a rush when it comes to moving Strasburg to AAA Syracuse as Bill Ladson is. He seems to like to jump in predictions on what Mike Rizzo will do or not do. As Spradlin clearly looked to be the odd man out for Storen (plus the presence of Bergmann), you have to figure that Ballystar is the odd man out for Strasburg. Both Balester and Martis are still pretty young in the grand scheme of things. Handling their egos as gingerly as possible may be the order of the day. Moving Balester to Harrisburg seems like the right move … yet perhaps a trade is in order to give him a change of scenery as opposed to a demotion?

  21. Capitol Baseball - May 3, 2010 at 6:41 PM

    @NatinBeantown -I agree about the day after night game thing. I was just pushing forward an idea from previous discussions on the blog. But like I said, I agree wholeheartedly. Switching catchers (and other position players) the day after night games is common practice across the league.

  22. Anonymous - May 3, 2010 at 7:22 PM

    I can't believe how short everyone's memory is. Lannan had a bad start on Sunday with Nieves catching him, so Pudge should catch him: next game/from now on/somewhere in between.Is everyone forgetting that Nieves caught Lannan quite a lot in 2008, when Lannan began to establish himself as the Nats most reliable starter, and that he caught some of Lannan's better games in 2009 and just this April? Or that Pudge caught Lannan on Opening Day, when Lannan was less than stellar?A catcher can only do so much when a pitcher is missing his spots, especially when he doesn't have overpowering or nasty stuff, and needs to be low in the zone to be effective, but is lacking command and missing up in the zone. That's like saying Pudge shouldn't be catching Stammen and the parade of relievers who failed on Saturday.

  23. Aeoliano - May 3, 2010 at 8:58 PM

    As usual Bill Ladson jumped the gun. Looks like he is beginning his retraction.The Nationals have not determined if right-hander Stephen Strasburg will be promoted from Double-A Harrisburg to Triple-A Syracuse. and general manager Mike Rizzo will determine where Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, will make his next start.

  24. Anonymous - May 3, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    Lannan's the only one who has a strong preference as to catchers, to my knowledge. So, if Sunday (and, really, most of his starts so far this year) is evidence of how he is more comfortable with Nieves behind the plate, then he may have even bigger problems than we think. It's still rather stunning to imagine that someone would rather pitch to Nieves than Pudge, especially when it means trading Pudge's bat for Nieves' to get you some runs, but wudever.

  25. Ephesius Remsen Hammersley - May 3, 2010 at 9:32 PM

    Mark,Once Strasburg comes up where in the rotation do you think we will put him? Since #1 and #2 (Lannan and Marquis) are the least effective on the staff, would we reshuffle the rotation to make Livan #1 and Strasburg #2, just imagine pitchers swinging at a 65 mph curveball one day and a 100 mph heater the next!? I am interested in your thoughts on what you are hearing when that eventuality of Strasburg coming to DC happens.

  26. Mark Zuckerman - May 3, 2010 at 9:49 PM

    ERM (Is it OK if I abbreviate your name?): The notion of No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 5 starters during the season is pretty much thrown out the window. It only really applies on Opening Day, and maybe coming out of the All-Star break. Because of injuries, call-ups, etc., a team rarely has its starters lined up from best to worst all season. They may make some effort to put Strasburg one day ahead or behind Livan to take advantage of the contrasting styles. Though to be honest, no matter who they put behind Strasburg is going to have a contrasting style. The Nats don't have any other legitimate power pitchers in their rotation as it currently stands.

  27. waddu eye no - May 4, 2010 at 12:16 AM

    didn't see the game, heard a few innings, but i heard a lot of complaints from charlie and dave about the strike zone and the ump. to the effect that 'if he takes away that strike, he's taking away lannan's best pitch." not a direct quote. any other umpire complaints? was it the same for the marlins pitching?

  28. Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me - May 4, 2010 at 1:08 AM

    @Waddu eye no:Yeah, Josh Johnson was getting squeezed too. The difference was he could adjust, go upstairs with 94 mph heat and nobody touched him. Lannan adjusted by going middle of the plate with his 88 mph stuff, and Hanley Ramirez et al went 400 feet on him. Though, in the eyes and mind of Sir Dibble, the difference was only that the Nats pitcher refused to pitch inside. That thinking was like the Japanese blaming their defeat in World War II on the fact that the wind was blowing from the East when the bombs landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That may well have been true. But it's totally irrelevant. Much like Sir Dibs himself.

  29. Aeoliano - May 4, 2010 at 3:24 AM

    Someone mentioned Cliff Lee and the fact that its unlikely Seattle will sign him after this season. Be nice to have Lee the lefty to go with Steven Strasburg and a hopefully fully recovered Jordan Zimmermann. Throw in your pitch to contact 4 and 5 starter plus Storen to go with Clippard and Capps? Might be a pitching staff that could contend with anyone's?

  30. Tcostant - May 4, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    I can't see this owner group giving Lee that Lackey like contract needed to get him. If any big move is made in the offseason, it will be to get one of the young stud 1B's (Prince Fielder or Adrian Gonzalez) since they aleady proved that they would pay for Teixeira but couldn't close the deal.I'm not saying it will happen, but that is is more likely than us signing Cliff Lee.





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