Back on December 19, I praised the Phillies signing of John Lannan from the standpoint that he minimized risk in the rotation at a nominal cost. With Roy Halladay representing a major question mark heading into the season, opting for more of a sure-thing in Lannan made sense over doling out $8+ million per year to Brandon McCarthy or Shaun Marcum.
The latter two pitchers had the potential to hit 3 WAR but they were significant injury risks and costlier investments. Lannan’s ceiling wasn’t as high but his floor wasn’t as low either. A team in the Phillies situation was more interested in the floor for this role.
Through two starts this season, the former Phillies foe has thrown 13 great innings with one walk, seven strikeouts and a 71% groundball rate. It’s obviously still very early in the season but Lannan’s first two outings have proven very promising.
However, it isn’t just his two starts in 2013 that are cause for analytical intrigue, as his six starts with the Nationals last season were pretty darned solid as well. Combining his most recent major action we get the following line: 8 GS, 45.2 IP, 41 H, 6 BB, 24 K, 61% GB rate.
And if we go back a bit further and take a look at his last 30 major league starts dating back to 2011 we get the following line: 30 GS, 169 IP, 169 H, 52 BB, 57% GB, 3.46 ERA. That’s pretty solid for a #3 or #4, let alone the fifth rotational cog.
At $2.5 million guaranteed and a maximum of $5 million via incentives, Lannan really only needs to hit his traditional career averages to outproduce his contract. If his most recent eight starts are any indication of things to come, this might just stand to become one of the best value deals of the offseason. Lannan has been doing more than just minimizing risk — he has been pitching very well.
Lannan has been consistently decent, though unspectacular, throughout his major league career and his value is honestly in the eye of the beholder. He is the perfect embodiment of how proper evaluations require multiple avenues of analysis.
Including his stints in the minors — which has more to do with the Nationals having a loaded rotation than anything in his performance — Lannan threw 181-206 innings from 2008-12 while making a minimum of 30 starts. His strikeout and walk numbers were never that great but he kept the ball on the ground and prevented runs at an above average rate. His career ERA- is 98, which means he has prevented runs two percent better than the average pitcher throughout his time in the majors.
Based on traditional WAR, and a conservative extrapolation of his production in the majors during years he spent time in the minors, Lannan is a safe bet for 185 innings at 1.2-1.3 WAR. However, if he legitimately induces weaker contact on balls in play that allows him to outperform his FIP and SIERA, his average WAR based purely on run prevention is closer to 1.8-2.1, the mark typified by league average hurlers.
Lannan is at the crossroads of statistical evaluation as a guy who is difficult to understand. He doesn’t miss many bats and he isn’t generally a control maven, but he succeeds. His success isn’t directly tied to playing behind excellent defenses either.
From 2009-12, the Nationals ranked 10th out of 16 National league teams in the UZR fielding rating, and actually had the 2nd-worst rating based on the amount and magnitude of the errors they made. Lannan played in front of a below average defense and posted BABIPs near .300.
He wasn’t preventing runs at a league average rate due to luck or excellent defense. It was something inherent in his skillset and perhaps now is the time to take notice that some players succeed in different ways, even if those ways aren’t clearly understood.
Without detailed data measuring the speed of the ball off the bat when he pitches — relative to league average since context always matters — we’re left conjecturing as to how he succeeds despite a skill-set and repertoire that seems eminently hittable.
We’re still very early into the season and Lannan could turn into a pumpkin overnight. However, there are very real reasons to think that he could give the Phillies more than they thought. Lannan has proven himself to be a consistent 180+ IP pitcher capable of keeping the ball on the ground. Whereas before he clearly seemed like someone bound to regress in the run-prevention department, we just might be approaching the point where it’s time to re-evaluate that line of thinking and give him his due.