John Lannan has been very impressive this season, especially his last two outings. He pitched 7 innings in each game, and despite having a 7/7 K/BB split and giving up 9 hits, he hasn’t allowed an ER. The question, then, is what has caused this to happen? Well first of all, a WHIP of 1.14 over those two games, whole nothing you would expect to lead to shutouts, is still pretty good. Over those 2 games, opponents are batting .180 off of him. So the hits aren’t there, and the walks are ok, too. But there aren’t many strikeouts. A K/9 of 4.50 isn’t exactly anything to write home about, he had better numbers there at the beginning of the season when he was allowing runs.
One of the things that has helped Lannan out has been his propensity to give up ground balls. As anyone who has watched Chien-Ming Wang over the last few seasons will tell you, you don’t need to strike people out as long as you don’t walk them, and you get most of them to pound the ball into the ground. One thing that Lannan has done well all season is induce ground balls. Every website you find has different numbers for this stat, some go by ground outs versus air outs. Others go by ground balls versus fly balls, which isn’t only outs. I’m not really sure of all the differences in how they keep the stats, but I figure there is probably constancy in where people stack up, so I used 3 different ones at once, from espn.com, cbs.sportsline.com, and mlb.com.
I’ve compared Lannan’s ratios to the other starters on the team. Also, for reference, I’ve compared them to two guys playing now, Wang and Webb, who are known as groundball pitchers. For those two, I’ve used their career ratios, just because it gives a better assessment of their true abilities.
And for those of you who prefer to see it graphically
So what does this mean? Well, not too much yet, it’s really early in the season, pitchers only have about 6 starts. But we do see that Lannan is able to compare favorably with the other starters on how easily he has induced ground balls. Those ground balls have a much tougher time leaving the ballpark than those flyballs, so that is good. And with a good infield defense, it is definitely even easier to win when you get opponents to hit grounders. We’ll have to see how he does over a full season, but regardless, he is pitching well now, and this ratio is definitely a part of it.
It’s interesting to see that Odalis Perez is also doing a very good job of keeping the ball on the ground. Looking back at his career numbers, he is usually good at this, but not nearly this good. It also continues to highlight the enigma that is Tim Redding, who is a fly ball pitcher and other than one start, doesn’t strike hitters out. I hope when the ball starts jumping in the hot summer months, he can keep up his great start.
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Another interesting thing about Lannan’s last two starts is that Wil Nieves has been his catcher. Athletes in general, and pitchers especially, are a superstitious bunch. Not that I blame them, if I was doing what they did, where a millimeter or a mph can make the difference between a strikeout or a home run, I’d be pretty superstitious, too. If Nieves make Lannan comfortable, so be it, Nieves should catch, right? Well, yes and no. He is 30 and has only been in the majors for a little bit, mostly because he isn’t able to hit major league pitching. He is an incredibly gifted defensive catcher, which is why at his age he’s still getting a shot at the majors. As for hitting, in 166 career ABs, he’s hit .187/.229/.259, and while his minor league numbers are better, his power is almost nonexistent. Fortunately, this season he has hit .348/.423/.478, inexplicable as it may be, its there. Most likely this will go down significantly. Don’t be fooled by the power, he’s had so few PAs (23), it’s all singles and one HR. Even his high OBP is from only 3 walks.
Now over the course of the season, lets say he continues to have some ability to take a walk, put his OBP-AVG at .050 for the season, and his ISO is stays where it is, at .130. As a .300 hitter, he’s quite effective at .300/.350/.430. Drop him down to .275, which is likely high for him, and he’s hitting .275/.325/.405. This is acceptable for someone of his defensive ability, but it too is unrealistic. Over his last few seasons as a minor leaguer, his ISO has been at .100 or below. Drop the average a little bit down, and you looking at something in the order of .265/.315/.390 or whatever it may be… it’s replacement level or worse, nothing you’d want playing every day, or even every 5th day if you can help it.
What’s most important for the Nats in this equation is to have Lannan succeed the way he has over the last few starts. But rather than doing so by having a catcher who can’t hit at all taking up a roster spot, pitching coach Randy St. Claire needs to figure out what it is that makes Lannan so comfortable with Nieves, and try to duplicate that with other pitchers. If every time Nieves catches, Lannan throws a shutout, then he should stay in, but that’d be some sort of record. In the meantime, while Nieves is hitting, it’s fine, let him play. His walk off home run was unexpected but much appreciated on Friday night. It was his first major league homer and great timing at that. But once this hot streak goes away, the best thing for this team is to have Lannan pitching effectively while Nieves isn’t behind the plate.