Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
John Lannan's ERA skyrocketed to 5.45 after tonight's shoddy start.
This season is driving Lannan crazy. He'll look terrible one night on the mound, then look great several starts in a row. He'll deal with a sore elbow for a week, then rebound to throw his best outing in months, only to string together the worst back-to-back starts of his career.
"Of course it's frustrating," he said tonight after getting shelled by the Tigers for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. "But I'm not going to stop. I'm not just going to roll over. It's just a part of my career where I'm getting knocked down and things aren't going my way. I'm not making pitches. I've got to battle through it. That's all I can do."
So what's the problem? Plain and simple, Lannan can't get his sinker to sink. It's his bread-and-butter pitch, the one that allows him to get away with stuff that doesn't reach 90 mph but has so much downward movement that hitters have no choice but to rap the ball into the ground and mutter all the way down the first-base line.
Without that pitch, Lannan is nothing, as we found out tonight at Comerica Park.
"I tried to call some sinkers, and basically they didn't do anything," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "They come in like a four-seam."
The first inclination is to wonder whether Lannan's elbow is acting up again. When the arm wasn't right earlier this year, it led to plenty of pitches up in the zone.
The left-hander insists that's not the case right now.
"Physically, I feel fine," he said. "My arm feels fine."
So maybe a simple mechanical tweak can fix this problem. Perhaps his arm slot is off a hair, or he's not getting the proper "tilt" on his pitches.
Could that be it?
"No, I don't think it's that," Lannan said. "It's not something I can pinpoint as far as mechanics go."
Do you understand now why Lannan is so frustrated? It's one thing to struggle but know exactly why it's happening. It's quite another to have no clue what the problem is.
Whatever the reason, Lannan simply hasn't been the pitcher this season he was the previous two. In 64 combined starts from 2008-09, he posted a 3.89 ERA and allowed 1.34 runners to reach base per inning. In 13 starts this year, his ERA is a hefty 5.45, and his WHIP is a gargantuan 1.83.
"He's been a very steady pitcher here for a couple years," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I know he's searching. Steve McCatty's searching. All we can do is put him out there and hope that the style of pitcher that he is starts showing up again. He's a very good major-league pitcher, but it's been rough for him this year. He's being tested."
There will surely be those who believe Lannan never was a quality big-league pitcher to begin with, that he was lucky to get through the last two seasons without suffering more damage. But across the organization, everyone believes this guy can be successful at this level. They point to his past success, not to mention some very effective starts he's had this season (over a four-start span from May 18-June 2, he had a 2.19 ERA, never allowing more than two earned runs in any outing).
But facts are facts, and Lannan right now is not a very effective big leaguer. The Nationals will keep giving him chances, because there isn't a real viable alternative waiting in the wings at the moment. But eventually, this franchise is going to have several healthy veteran starters, starters with longer track records than Lannan.
At some point, he's going to have to prove he deserves to retain his spot.
"He's already proved that he's a great pitcher," Rodriguez said. "He had a great year last year and he started the season very well this year. But right now, he's struggling a little. That's part of the game. That's baseball. That's why baseball is such a nice sport. Sometimes, you're up and down. And when you're down, you've got to work hard. That's what he's doing right now. He's not giving up. He's a very positive guy. He's going to put this one behind and concentrate on the next outing."