Sunday, September 5, 2010

Adjustments work for Lannan, Pudge

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ivan Rodriguez is congratulated after his fifth-inning homer.
PITTSBURGH — It would have been easy for John Lannan, upon being optioned to Class AA in late-June, to set a goal of simply returning to the majors and recapturing his previous form.

For Lannan, though, a return to previous form was never the intention. He was determined to come back and pitch better than at any previous time in his career.

"That was the goal coming out of spring training," he said. "I was just confused on how to do it."

It's safe to say Lannan has figured it out, because his results since returning from Harrisburg one month ago have indeed been better than anything he put together his previous 2 1/2 years in the big leagues.

Tonight's seven-inning, one-run, seven-strikeout showing in a 9-2 victory over the Pirates was the latest in a string of top-notch starts by the left-hander. In seven starts since his return, he's now 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA, not to mention 29 strikeouts and only six walks in 43 innings.

Lades and gentlemen, meet the new John Lannan.

"He came back, got his confidence back, and he's on a roll now," said bench coach John McLaren, who once again filled in as manager while Jim Riggleman finished serving his suspension.

Confidence has always been the key for Lannan, who doesn't possess the greatest "stuff" in the majors but has had faith in his ability to get hitters out. When it didn't happen earlier this season, that confidence was shattered, and Lannan's technique to try to overcome it was to try to become something he wasn't.

"I thought that trying harder — physically trying harder, physically trying to pitch better — was the way to do it," he said. "But that's not how this game goes. The best pitchers are the ones that think about each pitch and really know what they're doing each pitch. That was what I really needed to get to."

Lannan sought advice from everyone he could think of — pitching coach Steve McCatty, veteran rotation mates Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis, even members of the Nationals lineup — and emerged with a better understanding of how to improve his game at this level.

The key, he deduced, was not to physically try to overpower hitters but to mentally out-think them. Contemplate each pitch before throwing it. Understand what pitch has the best chance to be successful in each situation. Don't ever let up.

The improvement is obvious.

"The previous two years, I basically had the same numbers," said Lannan, who went 9-15 with a 3.91 ERA in 2008, then 9-13 with a 3.88 ERA last season. "I was really struggling to get wins and going deep in ballgames. Now I'm taking the next step mentally and really attacking guys and throwing each pitch with a purpose."

And in a surprising twist, that new approach has turned Lannan into something of a strikeout pitcher. OK, he may never come close to resembling Randy Johnson on the mound, but Lannan is showing he can strike guys out on a more regular basis than the past.

Prior to his demotion, Lannan was striking out a paltry 2.88 batters per nine innings, among the worst rates in baseball. Since his return, he's striking out 6.07 batters per nine innings, more than doubling his previous rate. One reason for that: He's been more aggressive in throwing four-seam fastballs inside to right-handed batters. Instead of being able to sit on sinkers away, batters now have to be prepared for a fastball in on their hands.

"He's moving the ball around," catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "He's throwing in and out, using all his pitches. When you have a pitcher that uses all his pitches and throws them for strikes, it's going to be tough for a hitter."

Lannan isn't the only one making adjustments on the Nats' roster. Rodriguez himself made a key alteration to his approach at the plate tonight, and saw immediate dividends. After working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, Pudge realized he had gotten away from his longtime approach of taking the ball the other way to right field.

After rolling over an outside pitch and grounded out to short in the second inning tonight, Rodriguez reminded himself to look to right field first. Sure enough, he poked a two-hit hit off the wall in the fourth, then drilled a two-run homer in the fifth, then singled again to right in the seventh for perhaps his best offensive performance of the season.

"That's what I've got to do," he said. "I've got to stay inside of the ball. My bat is very quick, so I can wait for the ball and stay inside the ball and hit it. Today it was good. I stayed inside the ball after the first time up [when] I just rolled over to shortstop. I just told myself I had to stay back. I did the next at-bat, and I did it the whole night."

At 38, Rodriguez's best days are obviously behind him. He continues to work hard and maintain a level good enough to play on a regular basis, and he'll be back next season as the Nationals' No. 1 catcher, slowly handing over the role to Wilson Ramos.

At 25, Lannan's best days may still be coming. A guy who looked like a pretty consistent big-league starter the last two years, then looked lost the first half of this year, suddenly looks like a guy who can be an important part of the Nats' rotation in 2011 and beyond.

"Absolutely," Rodriguez said. "He's going to be here for a long time. He's going to be in our rotation for a long time."

Pretty amazing for a guy who was optioned to Class AA 2 1/2 months ago. Simply returning to the majors was no small feat, but for Lannan, that was never going to be enough. He believed all along he could come back a better pitcher than he ever was before. And over an impressive stretch of seven starts, he's making believers out of a lot of others.

"I think I'm taking the next step," he said.


Josh said...

I hate to be a Debbie Downer here--and obviously I am happy to see the improvement in Lannan's numbers since his return--but his walk rate, while excellent, is probably unsustainable at below 2.00 BB/9, and his 6.06 K/9, while a huge personal improvement, is still below the NL starter average (around 7 K/9). Given that the average NL starter has an ERA of around 4.00, I think it is safe to say that I am still a little concerned about Lannan's future on the staff. Not that 4.00 ERA pitchers aren't useful, but they belong nearer the back end of the rotation than the front, and I'm afraid that with Kburg out Lannan is going to be asked to do too much once again next year.

hscer said...

3.45 FIP since coming back. But not a peep from the same sabergeeks that were so glad that he "proved" their points as early as April, and even more when he was demoted, when they wrote him off for good. Plenty of Nats fans have been fair-weather about Lannan; they were ready to write him off at any point as well. I was as well, to a point, but there were some people who were hoping he'd never be in the Majors again. Hopefully his best IS in front of him.

Josh said...

Like I said, the 3.45 FIP is good, but I don't think it's sustainable due to the walk and HR rates being abnormally low. Much as we all love Lannan, he is no Pedro Martinez or Cliff Lee, which is what his rates since his return in those categories might suggest. I think his true talent level (and FIP) are probably closer to 4.00--which is respectable and definitely an improvement on how he started off this year but hardly ace material. On a contending team, it's probably not third starter material either.

MJR said...

I'm so impressed with John's diligence and improvement on the mental approach to the game. Sounds like he's becoming a real pitcher. I've been reading George Will's book "Men at Work" (which I'd recommend to everyone who reads this blog - if you haven't already read it). I don't have the baseball savvy that many others on this blog have and am just starting to wrap my mind around what it takes to be a major league pitcher so I may be putting my foot in my mouth but...John is starting to sound like the pitcher Will featured in the book - Orel Hershiser. All in all, I'm loving the new and improved John Lannan - including the new eyebrow look .

Big Cat said...

Great game Johnny boy. Yes, I was one of those guys that had pretty much written you off. You are a battler. Keep it up.

NatsJack in Florida said...

I admit that I had totally written John off after waching him get shelled on a Sunday afternoon in Miami early May but as an old catcher myself, I see how he has masterd his sinker and breakng ball.

He's actually inducing some swings and misses that assist in keeping his pitch count manageable. I'm seeing more and more Tom Glavine like command and that is really encouraging.

Keep up the great work John!

Doc said...

Nice article, nice analysis Mark, of two players who respect the game. There are pitchers in the history of MLB who have lasted a long time in the game doing what John Lannan has started doing.

I always find it amazing that even successful hitters like Pudge will feel compelled to forget success and try and turn the ball over, wrap it, or attempt to pull it.

Its like an instinct you can't overcome, even when a batter repeatedly fails at it. I guess Rick Eckstein knows all about that batter behavior.

Anonymous said...

There are well over 150 starters in the big leagues. John Lannan will never be the third best among them, trailing only Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez (even though he hasn't thrown a pitch this season). So what? Here's a guy who can be a solid #3 behind Zimnn and that other guy. He looks like he can pitch for us for many, many years the way he's been going lately.

Also, Mark didn't point out that since he has come back, pretty much all of his wins have stopped losing streaks. Let's face it, John has been fabulous since his return. Instead, all you hear is how he is lucky and his performance is unsustainable. His performance is unsustainable; everybody's performance in baseball (including Pedro's) is unsustainable. Everyone will retire, get traded, get hurt, etc. over time.

Me? I'm going to enjoy watching John ply his craft as long as I can. Keep those walks down, John, and everything will continue to fall into place.

Anonymous said...

With Lannans return and Marquis showing promise in his latest starts hope springs for next seasons staff with Zimmermanns recovery. Stras will be missed, but there are other hopefuls to look to for next season. No, they're not going to be Koufax, Drysdale, et all, but they can be respectable and servicable for a season me thinks. JTinSC

Josh said...

Don't get me wrong... I think Lannan has pitched brilliantly since he got back. And I'm not talking about this season's iteration of Pedro anyway, only comparing the absurdly low BB/9 rates (sub 2.00). Most starters cannot maintain that over an entire season, or even close to it, which is what I meant when I was talking about "unsustainable." Obviously no pitcher's numbers are "sustainable" in the sense that by the end of their careers they will be identical (unless they pull a Koufax and retire early). But some numbers regress pretty quickly to their "true" numbers for a season, and super low walk rates are among them. We're talking about a very small sample size of starts since Lannan's return, and he has only walked six batters in that timeframe, but if he goes six innings a start and walks 2, 2, 2, 2, and 3 in his next five starts (11 walks in 30 innings is hardly implausible), he'll be back above 2.00.

Wally said...

I think too much emphasis gets placed on labeling pitchers #1, #2 etc. Other than Opening Day and the playoffs, it doesn't really matter since every team's schedule gets jumbled due to off days, injuries, etc. You need 5 quality starters (with a couple of backups for injuries). As an aside, I counted 54 starting pitchers with a FIP of 4.00 or less this year. That is less than 2 per team. Granted, you wouldn't expect that to be spread evenly over the good and bad teams, and to be a good team, you would want more than your average share of good pitching, but if you had a chance to get one of the top 60 pitchers in the game, would you take him? I think that we would. So even if Lannan regresses to those numbers, it is still a pretty good pitcher.

Certainly the way he has pitched lately says that he is a keeper, but it is right to consider whether it is a fluke or evidence of a predictable performance. In his favor, I think that three seasons of work probably is a big enough pool to feel confident in projections, but an important stat here (for me) is the improved K rate. Even if the walks and HR% regress, 6K/9 will go a long way to keeping him at this level. I would like to understand better what is causing it, and is it likely to be permanent or just flukey, like his 11K game against the Mets a while ago. Usually you hear of an uptick in velo or a new pitch, like a cutter, that fools people. But regardless, I am happy to see him to do well, think that he can be a solid member of the 2011 rotation and hoping he maintains this level.

Now Livo, on the other hand, let's just say that I think that we need a back up plan for his 2011 rotation spot.

Josh said...

That is a good point, Wally. Like I said, I think 4.00 ERA pitchers are very useful (and looking at his stats from his two "lucky" years, that was pretty much who he was at the time anyway). I am just worried that unless Maya really surprises, Lannan may find himself in the de facto role of Zimermann's number two next year. Now, Zimmermann is an excellent pitcher, and without Strasburg I think he could probably take the place of a staff ace. And I do realize that starter "numbers" don't really mean that much in the grander scheme of things. But I am wary of asking too much of Lannan, like we did at the beginning of this year (making him our opening-day starter and "ace") because we are bound to be disappointed if that's the case.

Anonymous said...

Why don't the Nats start making up for the 3+ years they've been foisting a AAA pitching rotation on us and sign a proven major league starting pitcher in the off-season? Kastan figured from Day 1 that two or three of the stiffs he rolled out there would turn into Smoltz and Glavine. He got so lucky in Atlanta, and that type of combination probably won't be replicated for several decades. I know it's cheaper to let your talent mature, but the only way to win in MLB is with proven major league pitching talent.

Sec3MySofa said...

I think Josh and Wally may be talking to slightly different points. Suppose Lannan does not, over the course of a full season, pitch as well as he has since he came back. I don't think that is at all a given, since he wasn't "supposed" to be pitching as successfully as he manifestly has, so far in his career, but let's say that's what happens in 2011.
The question is not, is he good enough to be a #2 starter. That's beside the point. The question is, do you want him on the staff more than anybody else you have available? Everyone seems to agree on that.
But Josh's point, as I understand it, is a good one: you can't win with the staff full of 4.00 guys. They need better starters, if only because you cannot count on any given pitcher to stay good, or stay healthy. Having John Lannan on the staff is clearly good. Having only John Lannans won't make the playoffs.

Say they did have five Lannans; if they all pitched like this one has since he came back, you're doing great, but they won't. Somebody will get hurt. Somebody will go back to trying to strike everyone out. Somebody will have horrible luck.

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