The Phillies opened up a spot in their rotation when they traded Vance Worley for Ben Revere. They were looking to fill that spot with a low-risk free agent instead of relying on farmhands Tyler Cloyd and Jonathan Pettibone.
Definitions of risk vary but it seemed that the Phillies were looking for cheap and durable starters, valuing those attributes over pure talent and upside.
While several pitchers were available on reasonable short-term deals — Brandon McCarthy (pre-signing), Shaun Marcum, Kevin Millwood and Carlos Villanueva, to name a few — the Phillies signed Nationals castoff John Lannan to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. The deal could be worth upwards of $5 million through incentives. However, the deal is designed in a way that Lannan would most likely be worth $5+ million if those incentives were triggered.
The move was met with mixed reviews. Some gravitated towards the idea of having a durable pitcher with a stellar groundball rate at a minimal commitment. Others trashed it because they felt Lannan’s numbers were bad, occasionally conflating his numbers against the Phillies with his overall stats. Some were against it because they wanted the Phillies to spend more money and bring in a Marcum or McCarthy. And, of course, many people still couldn’t get past his propensity for beaning Phillies players.
I fell into the first group — those in favor of the deal.
What the Phillies did with Lannan was minimize risk at the back-end of the starting rotation. He isn’t flashy but he has been eerily consistent over the last several seasons. He is very much a known commodity and, from an expected value standpoint, there is far greater certainty in what he will provide than there is with Marcum or McCarthy.
Both of those pitchers have the potential to outperform Lannan but they are also big injury risks. They are question marks for a team that needs no more.
When judging the Phillies move along those lines, too many fans are comparing Lannan to the best case scenario of Marcum. Hearkening back to expected value, there is far more uncertainty as to what Marcum would provide, and that wasn’t worth a potential $4-$6 million premium for a team looking to minimize risk.
Expected value is a function of probability theory that comprises the weighted average of all possible outcomes. If there is an 80% chance that Lannan pitches 180 innings and tallies 1.4 WAR, and a 20% chance he throws 135 innings at 0.8 WAR, then his expected value is 1.3 WAR. That seems more than reasonable given his recent production:
2008: 182 IP, 1.2 WAR
2009: 206 IP, 1.4 WAR
2010: 183 IP, 1.4 WAR (he produced this over 143 MLB IP and threw 40 more in MiLB)
2011: 185 IP, 1.3 WAR
Last season, he threw 181 IP between Triple-A and the major leagues and produced at about a 2-WAR rate in his time with the Nationals. Lannan has virtually been a sure thing to throw 180+ IP at around 1.3 WAR. The Phillies valued some semblance of ‘sure thing’ over other attributes and it’s hard to really hold them at fault for that decision. After all, Kendrick is still in the rotation, and while he improved last season he is still somewhat of an unknown.
Contrast those numbers with Marcum’s over the last several seasons. He has already had ulnar collateral ligament surgery in his career and missed a good deal of time last year. In 2012, Marcum threw 124 innings over 21 starts, producing at an above-average-albeit-not-great rate. He topped 195 innings in each of the previous two seasons while averaging 3.2 WAR. He is a better pitcher than Lannan but significant injury concerns remain.
The Phillies, whether or not they wrote it down or put it into a computer model, likely determined his expected value and weighed it against the relative costs. Perhaps their expected value breakdown for Marcum looked like this:
33 GS / 3.0 WAR = 10%
30 GS / 2.5 WAR = 15%
27 GS / 2.3 WAR = 30%
22 GS / 1.8 WAR = 25%
15 GS / 1.6 WAR = 20%
Given that breakdown of possibilities, his expected value is 2.1 WAR. I’m not saying that is a supremely accurate distribution of potential outcomes, but rather one that would likely push the Phillies in a different direction. It is still higher than Lannan’s expected value, but the Phillies may not have viewed the difference as being worth an additional $4-$5 million per year and an additional guaranteed season.
The Phillies may also have been worried by the lower part of that distribution. If they calculated a 45% chance that Marcum makes 22 or fewer starts, they might have to rely on the replacement-level Cloyd for 10+ starts, or go out and acquire another pitcher if the injury proves more serious. If they had to rely on Cloyd or another prospect then it’s entirely possible the bullpen gets overextended in those games. It’s also entirely possible the ‘pen was already overextended from Kendrick’s start.
It’s also entirely possible that Lannan as a Phillies pitcher is better than Lannan the National.
I typically caution against putting stock into player vs. team statistics, since teams evolve and change personnel, but while the current Phillies offense isn’t what it once was they used to absolutely pummel Lannan. He has made 134 career starts, 19 of which (14%) have come against the Phillies. He has a 5.53 ERA and 50/44 K/BB ratio in those 19 starts. He hasn’t struggled that badly against any other team he faced more than a couple of times.
It’s not hard to imagine that his WAR totals may have been in the 1.6-1.8 range from 2008-11 if he faced a league average or slightly better offense instead of the Phillies. That ‘difference’ matters less in terms of projecting his 2013 production than it does in comparing his potential expected value to Marcum’s.
If the Phillies view Marcum as a significant injury risk and think that Lannan could produce 1.7+ WAR now that he isn’t facing the Phillies, their rationale makes more sense. There are numerous assumptions here but all have somewhat reasonable footing.
Lannan might also just be better at preventing runs than we think. The Nationals defense was mediocre throughout his tenure in D.C. and yet he has a career .287 BABIP against and a half-run difference between his ERA and estimators. That career has only seen him throw 783.2 innings, which isn’t necessarily a significant enough sample size to concretely determine that he is one of those outperforming-FIP guys, but it’s possible.
Luckily, Fangraphs rolled out a new set of stats that show what a pitcher’s WAR would have been based on different factors. One of those factors is RA/9. Looking at Lannan under that microscope, his 2008-11 RA/9 WAR totals are: 2.7, 3.0, 0.6 (partial season) and 1.9. His actual WAR and RA/9 WAR were similar last season.
If the Phillies believe Lannan’s style enables him to induce weaker contact and prevent runs better than his peripheral numbers would indicate, they likely view him as a 2+ WAR pitcher. Comparing those assumptions to the ones made about Marcum, their rationale makes even more sense. This isn’t to say their assumptions are infallible, but rather there are legitimate reasons to justify signing Lannan to this deal over signing Marcum or McCarthy.
Lannan isn’t the difference between making or missing the playoffs but this was a solid move. He doesn’t cost much, isn’t guaranteed anything beyond this season, and has the opportunity to really benefit the team by providing stability to the rotation’s back-end. He lacks the upside of someone like Marcum but he brings with him far less of a downside, which was very valuable to the Phillies give their current roster and position.