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.