What is an "Ace" and Where Does the Washington Nationals' John Lannan Fit In?

An recent anonymous comment to another blog went something like this:  "The Nats need to go out and find a #1 and #2 type starter so John Lannan can be a No. 3 and win 15 games next year."

That got me to thinking about several things.

1)  If the typical fan of the Washington Nationals thinks a #3 starter should win 15 games a year, no wonder only 15,000 show up to see the Nats play even the good teams.

2)  Why does that same fan automatically use wins to measure...eh, forget it.  One battle at a time.

2)  Just how many 15 game winners are there in the major leagues?

3)  Where does John Lannan fit into that equation?

So I spent a little time on a baseball statistic website that will remain nameless.  Currently, in the N.L. there are exactly five pitchers with 15 or more wins:  Adam Wainwright, STL (18-8), Chris Carpenter, STL (16-4), Jason Marquis, COL (15-11), Josh Johnson, FLA (15-4), Jorge de la Rosa, COL (15-9).   There are six at 14 and six at 13.  With two starts for most pitchers remaining, you have to figure no more than half of those with 13 or more will hit 15.

So we're looking at 11 pitchers -- tops -- to win 15 or more games this season in the National League.  This is consistent with wins totals the last several seasons. 

What does this mean?  Well, to start with, the anonymous commenter was a dope. 

A 15-game winner IS a #1 starter in the N.L..  If there is less than one 15-game winner per team in the league, then that's our "magic number" to look for when describing a #1 starter.  The days of pitchers winning 20 games is, for the most part, a thing of the past.  It happens on occasion (like seeing Haley's comet), but it's not what pitchers should be judged against.

As stated before, I'm not going to get all wonky on the numbers and provide evidence that wins are a lousy way to measure a pitcher's effectiveness.  Lots of others have done it more eloquently that I would.  Go google it -- when you finish reading Federal Baseball, anyway -- if you're still interested and don't want to take my word for it.

The really interesting thing I discovered though, while looking these numbers up, is that of the 17 pitchers with 13 or more wins this season in the N.L., 12 of them come from just five teams:  STL (3), COL (3), ATL (2), SF (2), MIL (2).

So in our equation, we've determined that 15 games won in a season makes you and "Ace", only about half the teams in the league have one (or more).

It's no shock, of course,  to find St. Louis and Colorado in the list of teams with big winners.  They are, after all, two of the four N.L. playoff teams.  And Atlanta and San Fran both have winning records, due largely to the success of their starting pitching.  Again, chicken-and-egg stuff.

So let's bring this back to Lannan.  I'm prefacing all of the rest of this commentary based on the fact that I love John Lannan as a pitcher.  He has a great idea of what he wants to do, stays within himself, and gives everything he's got every time he's on the mound.  At 24, he pitches like he's 34.  In a good way.

The guy is 9-12 in 192.1 IP in 31 starts with a 4.07 ERA.  HIs K rate (3.7 per nine) is the lowest of 82 pitchers in the major leagues with nine or more wins.  It's actually down from last season's 5.8, which is bad but tolerable. 

Lannan's BABIP this season is at .280, which is a little low compared to league average (.299 this season), but right at what he's established as his norm (.277, .272, .280 in his three seasons).  This shows us a pitcher that teams have a tough time "squaring up" on, for the most part.

So the anonymous poster that thinks Lannan is a 15-win pitcher is probably dreaming.  But Lannan's career 108 ERA+ shows he should be a .500 pitcher, capable of sitting at the back of a staff, eat innings, win 10-12 games a year and give your team a chance to win when he's on the mound.  Essentially, he has learned to be Jamie Moyer, 10 years before Moyer himself figured it out in his career.

And it the Nats come through on promises of shoring up their middle infield defense and a full season of Nyjer Morgan patrolling center field?  Maybe, just maybe, Lannan can dream of a winning records, with a couple of breakthrough years like Moyer enjoyed.  But Lannan's got to get his K-rate back up in the 5.5 range like in 2008.

Cause as soft as Moyer was, even he struck out five and a half per nine.

But let's not make Lannan into something he's not, simply because he's the best that the Nats have right now.  Let's just let him be who he is and enjoy watching a guy pitch -- as opposed to throw -- every time he takes the hill.

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