The Phillies' John Lannan is pretty much the Nationals' John Lannan

Dilip Vishwanat

After an unremarkable but sentimental tenure with the Washington Nationals, the Philadelphia Phillies' John Lannan has found a major league rotation spot. He's still mostly the same guy, but has reduced his gopher-ball tendencies somewhat. As a result, he's close to posting a career-high fWAR.

With the National League East Division Champion banner fading from view, the Nationals need a serious performance adjustment to make a run at a playoff berth via the wild card spot. Likely? Not really; if you believe Fangraphs, for example, the team won't even hit .500. But until the "x" representing mathematical elimination is beside the Washington name, there remains a shot at the postseason.

Taking the mound for the Phillies tonight is John Lannan, who did a fair share of good for the Nats during his time with D.C. Perhaps he can continue that effort -- unlike the last time the Nats faced him, where he gave up no runs over eight innings of work.

Early Career to Present

The Nats took Lannan, a Siena College graduate, in the 11th round of the 2005 draft. After pitching a little over 133 innings at Low-A Savannah in 2006, he saw an okay strikeout rate and a reasonably high walk rate. Still, it was good enough for Baseball America to rank him as the 20th best prospect in the Nats system. Then again, the minor league cupboard was quite bare, and you can understand why people weren't pinning "sure-fire major league pitcher" on him.

But Lannan continued to post reasonable results. In 2007, he pitched at three different minor league levels, ending with a combined 1.07 WHIP across 124.1 innings pitched. He had fair (although not outstanding) FIP values at each of High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. Baseball America vaulted him to the 10th best prospect in the Nats system after the season.

Lannan debuted at age 22, or at the same age that Mike Trout is today. Unlike Trout, though, injuries and ineffectiveness forced him into duty. Pitching against the Phillies in his first major league start, Lannan made some history -- although not the desirable kind -- as he was ejected after hitting the Phils' Chase Utley.

Things got better. Lannan would post close to +1.0 fWAR seasons in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. A one-win season won't set the world on fire, but the lefty wasn't a hurler that WAR typically favored: Ground ball outs were his forte, while strikeouts came infrequently. For the perennially losing Nationals and their fan base, one could do worse (Shairon Martis, Daniel Cabrera, Scott Olsen...alright, I'll stop) than him.

After joining the Phillies this year, Lannan has pitched just 68 innings due to an early-season injury. He's impressing fWAR, though, as he's reached nearly a career high +0.8 value in a fraction of the time it took him to do so in past seasons.  His 3.67 FIP is also 3% better than the MLB average.  At the same time, he still won't strike many hitters out (11.6%), but he isn't walking a lot (6.5%), either.

Pitches, Velocity, Usage, Value

Lannan will come at the Nats with a four seam fastball, sinker, change up, slider, curve, and a cutter. He isn't going to blow batters away, but is dependent on location and movement to achieve success.

Pitch

Velocity

Usage

Value

Fourseam

88.5

25%

-4.5

Sinker

88.5

30%

-2.4

Change Up

84.1

22%

+5.1

Slider

81.3

9%

-0.1

Curve

73.0

10%

+0.3

Cutter

87.6

4%

N/A

Usage-wise, Lannan prefers to go to the slider against lefties when he's ahead in the count, and to the curve against righties when he has the advantage.

If Brooks Baseball is to be believed, Lannan has started throwing a cutter this year for the first time in his career.  Lannan himself hasn't confirmed this (anywhere I can find, at least), but Ian Desmond seems to think it's now in Lannan's quiver. He's only seen 8 results on the pitch, earning one strikeout, one walk, one hit by pitch, and one single.  The cutter will likely be a non-factor.

What will be a factor is Lannan's sinker. The pitch is generating ground balls 63% of the time, and with a league-wide average on grounders of .231, you'd think -- like I did -- that the pitch would be more of a plus.

But it hasn't been.  This is in part because his sinker is rocking a .372 BABIP value. And line drives on the pitch aren't the culprit, since he's seeing just a bit more with the pitch than the average twirler (~22%).

Depending on how you figure his infield hits and bunts against the sinker, his expected batting average on balls in play ends up somewhere between .320-.340. This indicates that he's given up a fair amount of infield hits. Indeed, if you figure him for double his current value of 12 infield and bunt hits over ~140 innings (roughly double his current amount as well), where most MLB starters are sitting, he'd be tied for third worst in the league by the metric.

Batted Ball Profile

The infield/bunt hits figure tells me that although the BABIP value you see below is above league average, he may be "earning" it.

Year

GB%

LD%

FB%

HR/FB%

BABIP

LOB%

2013

53.3%

17.3%

29.3%

4.5%

.302

66.8%

Lannan is often between 25-30 infield/bunt hits a year when he's pitching a full season, so maybe this is something he's got to deal with. His success, as it seems it has always been, is predicated on both getting ground balls and getting good results on those pitches. His current 53.3% ground ball value is right on his career average.  Unfortunately, everything isn't gravy there, as you'll see.

Additional Analysis

First things first: Lannan doesn't start batters ahead in the count as often as his peers. With a 55% first strike percentage, he's 4% below the major league average.  It's been something of a small sample. But considering the New Jersey native doesn't have the stuff to blow hitters away, the Nats could be well-served to have first pitch patience.

Secondly, the above narrative on Lannan's success has emerged, I suspect, because it's true. Take 2009, for example. He saw a ground ball rate north of 51%, and got pretty decent results on those worm burners (.206 BABIP).  He had a sub-4 ERA (7% better than league average), and despite walking nearly as many as he struck out, he was only 11% worse than the average major league pitcher by FIP.

Compare his numbers on ground balls this year against his career figures, though, and you'll see a pretty interesting difference. First, here's his ground ball rate and BABIP on grounders for this year, compared to his career numbers.

Lannan_gb_and_babip_on_gb_comp_medium

Warning signs.  Warning signs, materialized :

Ops_on_gb_medium

Lannan's career OPS on ground balls is .431, while he's seeing a slightly higher mark of .504 this season; it's 23% worse than he normally performs. So, although he's getting as many grounders as ever, his BABIP on the batted ball type is up. In what is probably related to the latter, his OPS against has gone from amazing (see this leaderboard for context) to respectable.

But the Baseball Gods given and take. Although Lannan's not getting the best of results on grounders (like he did in Washington), he has seen his home run per nine rate plummet from a career .85 average to .40. This is why his FIP can be above average (if just slightly) in the face of less awesome ground ball results.  A career-low HR/FB% has helped him accomplish this.

It's fair to say Lannan is mostly the same guy that he was when he was with D.C. Stuff-wise, with exception of the cutter, he's similar. Usage-wise there's not much shock either. It's how he's getting the job done that accounts for, at least in my mind, the difference.

Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, Brooks Baseball, and Fangraphs for data.

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