What to Make of John Lannan

The Washington Nationals finished 2009 with 103 losses. Suffice to say, they were not a good team. Much of the blame can be placed upon the shoulders of the pitching staff. According to StatCorner‘s version of tRA, the starting rotation alone was nearly 100 runs below average. Our own measure of runs above replacement using FIP has the Nationals at roughly 62 runs below average.

John Lannan was the only pitcher for the Nationals to accrue over 110 innings pitched this year. Once again, Lannan’s results defied advanced pitching statistics. For the second straight year, Lannan posted an ERA+ over 110 despite a K/BB well below 2.00. With his inability to strike batters out, Lannan has posted FIPs nearly a run higher than his ERA.

Lannan’s best quality as pitcher is his ability to induce ground balls. According to StatCorner, 41.6% of plate appearances against Lannan resulted in ground balls, against a league average of 31.8%. However, despite the fact that tRA accounts for batted ball profiles in its calculation, Lannan’s tRA+ was under 90 for the second straight year.

Then why are Lannan’s results so much better than the advanced statistics suggest? Let’s take a look at what’s happening with Lannan’s batted balls, compared to the league. Shown below is Lannan’s BABIP splits compared to the NL average for 2009. League averages have remained relatively constant (within .005) over the last two years.


This trend of low BABIPs on every split is similar for his entire career – slightly lower BABIP on ground balls, slightly higher on FB/LD. His defense in 2008 was slightly above average at +9 UZR, and in 2009 it was poor at -27 UZR, and yet the BABIPs remained very similar. If it’s not defense, what is the cause of Lannan’s success in this extremely variable category? This is where I believe that Hit F/X data can really come in handy – is Lannan actually allowing weaker balls in play? Is he merely lucky with the spray angles of balls hit in play against him? Is there something else I’m not taking into account here?

Two seasons is not enough of a sample to say that Lannan has some sort of special talent regarding balls in play. The question that needs to be answered here is whether or not there’s something repeatable about the apparently poor quality of balls put in play against Lannan. If it is repeatable, Lannan could be an incredibly valuable asset going forward, as he doesn’t reach arbitration until 2011. If it’s not repeatable, then the Nationals are looking at yet another back of the rotation starter with a minimal impact at the major league level. It’s not often that pitchers with K/BB ratios as low as Lannan’s succeed. As the sample size grows, 2010 will be a very interesting year for both the Nationals and Lannan.

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11 Responses to “What to Make of John Lannan”

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  1. Big Oil says:

    The other crazy thing is, looking at Pitch F/X, only his slider and changeup have above-average H/V movement in both 2008 and 2009. These pitches, however, only account for 18.9% and 21.7% of pitches thrown respectively. So it really doesn’t seem, unless these are consistently his “out” pitches, that his movement is otherworldly either.

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  2. I would suggest his FB and LD data is a sample size to small based on the high groundball rate. Then looking at his infield defense he had an amazing season from Zimmerman at third base and if he was able to avoid Dunn at first the infield defense would have been neutral or even above neutral.

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  3. Mike Green says:

    It looks like he’s a classic lefty in the Tommy John family, controls the running game very well, gets the double play and doesn’t walk many. If he strikes out 3.9/9 IP going forward, I doubt that he will be able to sustain it, but if he can strike out 4.5-5, he may be able to. He’s young, so the possibility remains that he will get it up over 5 and aim for Glavine, behind Strasburg’s Ryan.

    I don’t know the mechanics of tRA, but I doubt that the combination of controlling the running game and getting ground balls is adequately accounted for.

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    • lookatthosetwins says:

      Groundballs are adequately accounted for in tRA. Controlling the running game is not, although I doubt that has as much of an impact as you think. The real reason he’s overperforming is what was outlined in this post: his BABIP is incredibly low. We’ll see if this continues in 2010.

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      • puck says:

        “Groundballs are adequately accounted for in tRA.” Their run value is averaged across all MLB plays, like other events, right? If Lannan gets more grounders in double play situations than the average pitcher, that’s not going to be accounted for in tRA.

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  4. Natty Nation says:

    Lockdown Lannan is a huge building block for our team going forward, a 1-2 punch of Strasburgh and Lannan and a closer in Storen is huge!!

    Hopefully Baby Zimmermann comes back and Ross full of Rage can continue his improvement. I am hoping for Ian Desmond to take over at SS so we can move Cristian Guzman to 2ND to shore up the infield and provide good offense. Career years from Flores and Dukes will also help get the Nats playing relevant baseball in September/October.

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    • Nats Fan says:

      Do not forget JMax. Sample size is small, but he looks legit with both the bat and glove. Check out his stats on this site. Amazing.

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  5. Mike Green says:

    For his career, the contact rate on Lannan’s pitches outside the strike zone is almost 10% higher than league average although the swing rate is just about average. One might hypothesize that the BABIP on contact on pitches outside the strike zone is significantly lower than BABIP on contact on pitches in the strike zone.

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  6. Mike Green says:

    Dave Allen has the answer to that question:


    Now if you have a map of where Lannan’s O-contact pitches were, you could get an answer about how important that factor was. If he’s getting a lot of contact on pitches inside, that would explain it. Changeup outside, sinking fastball in on the fists to the RHH. When you’re throwing 90, that works.

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  7. Nats Fan says:

    Lannan can repeat the weak hitting of other players pretty consistently. I have watched almost every start he has ever made and it is almost comical how pathetic he can make some of the games top power hitters look on balls they put in play. Its repeatable for sure! His weakness are speedy guys who get infield hits off his stuff constantly. He struggles with the light hitters and dominates the homer run hitters from my observation.

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