John Lannan has been something of a study in DIPS over the past two seasons. In 2008, his first full season in the bigs, he struck out under six per nine innings, which didn’t go well with his 3.56 walk rate. Yet his .273 BABIP kept him out of trouble, leaving him with a 3.91 ERA for the season. His FIP, 4.79, and xFIP, 4.28, forecasted a turnaround in 2009. Yet while Lannan posted a far lower strikeout rate and slightly lower walk and home run rates, he actually saw his ERA decrease, to 3.88. His FIP sat at a familiar mark, 4.70, and his xFIP rose to 4.69. Again he benefitted from a BABIP well below league average, .276.
Did Lannan really luck out two years in a row? The numbers make it seem like he did. After all, none of the other Nats pitchers prevented hits on balls in play to a degree even close to Lannan. Also, as Jack noted after last season, Lannan’s defense changed from 2008 to 2009, going from a +9 UZR to a -27 mark. All signs pointed to a change in 2010. But, again, all signs pointed to a regression in 2009 as well and it didn’t happen.
Imagine, then, the reaction after Lannan’s Opening Day start against the Phillies. After a Jimmy Rollins single to lead off the game Lannan worked through the Phillies’ lineup rather efficiently. In the fourth, though, everything broke down. Ryan Howard homered following a Chase Utley walk, which the Phillies followed with three straight singles. Carlos Ruiz sacrificed the runners to second and third, and then Roy Halladay, in just his second at-bat as an NL pitcher, hit a dribbler for an infield single. A walk, sac fly, and single would spell the end of Lannan’s day.
Was his luck finally catching up with him? Lannan struck out none in the game while walking three and allowed six of 16 balls in play (counting the sac flies) to fall for hits, a .375 BABIP. While it’s just one start, it’s certainly not the kind of outing the Nats wanted to see from their de facto ace. The last thing they need is a severe regression from Lannan, in a year that they might actually surprise some people.
Alas, one game doesn’t tell us much. For starters it was against the Phillies, the National League’s best offensive team. Lannan struggled against the Phillies in 2009, allowing 13 earned runs in 22.1 IP, though he did keep his BABIP against them to a nice, low .243. He also had a similar outing on Opening Day 2009, allowing six runs in just three innings to the Marlins. He followed that up with another bad start before he got back to his low BABIP ways.
Chances are, Lannan doesn’t possess some skill that allows him to suppress hits on balls in play. He has done it, but so far as we can tell he won’t be able to maintain those levels in the future. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective pitcher. He’ll have trouble with his low strikeout rate without an excellent walk rate to compensate. But he does keep the ball on the ground, and he does throw a good number of strikes. If he can improve that walk rate while keeping his ground ball rate well over 50 percent he might be able to settle in nicely behind the higher ceiling arms on the Nationals. For now, though, Nats fans just have to hope he can put up one more season of his low-BABIP magic.
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