Remember the old MASN commercials that would glorify the times when the then Washington Nationals defacto ace, John Lannan, would pitch himself into and out of jams? A Nats fan would appear on the screen describing a situation where Lannan got a fortuitous double-play, and for some reason, that was supposed to make us want to watch Nationals baseball.
Questionable marketing strategies aside, John Lannan is currently in the midst of his best season as a professional, and a large part of it actually has to do with his increased ground ball percentage. In fact, very quietly, Lannan has gone from being a good ground ball pitcher, to having the fifth best ground ball percentage in the National League this season.
Hidden behind his 8-11 record and a career best 3.54 ERA, Lannan has posted a 55.2 ground ball percentage which puts him behind only Jake Westbrook (60.4%), Derek Lowe (59.2%), Charlie Morton (59.1%), and Tim Hudson (56.9%) for the National League lead. Among those starters his batting average on balls in play, .286, ranks only behind Tim Hudson’s .262., meaning that not only is he forcing among the most ground balls in the league, hitters are hitting those ground balls weaker than against most pitchers.
This year could finally serve as vindication for Lannan, a pitcher who has throughout his career been an afterthought to scouts who believe he constantly outproduces his actual abilities. In nearly each year of his career the crafty lefty has posted an FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) below his season’s ERA total, an indication to some that even though he has played for the Nationals the past five seasons, he has been the benefactor of good defense. Analysts also look at his low strikeout rate (4.71 per nine innings in his career), and his high walk rate and write him off, saying that eventually his luck will run out and his production will match his true abilities.
Five years into his career now, and Lannan is still ticking. His strikeout rate still remains too low, and his walk rate remains too high, but his production still manages to be better than any scout would have guessed. He is certainly no ace, not even for a team like Washington, but one thing that he is is a viable Major League starting pitcher who could earn a spot on even a playoff team’s rotation.
How many years does Lannan have to pitch well before finally it's no longer luck? Some players can just play. He's improved every year except for 2010 when he had a bad first half. Meanwhile, he'd been forced into the Ace role for much of his career because of the consistently poor rotation the Nats have had. This is why I was surprised that so many people were calling for him to get traded earlier this year (mostly on the MASN blog). It's also why I don't read that blog anymore.