Lannan’s Doing More Than Minimizing Risk

Posted by Eric Seidman, Wed, April 17, 2013 08:00 AM | Comments: 8
Analysis, Commentary, Offseason, Statistical Analysis

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.

Avatar of Eric Seidman

About Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman has written 64 articles on Phillies Nation.

Eric offers his unique analytical perspective to Phillies Nation and is a regular contributor on FanGraphs.com.

  • Posts: 0 JMills

    I also liked the Lannon signing and if he turns into a pumpkin, Adam Morgan is ready to take over.

  • Posts: 0 George

    I always thought signing Lannan was avery good move, and not just because he came cheap. He’s been pretty consistent and has pitched more innings per annum than most #5 starters.

    I think many fans trashed the signing because one pitch got away from him and broke Chase Utley’s hand. That kind of thing happens even to the best pitchers, though, so he was forgiven in my book.

    I like your attitude here, Eric. You seem to realize that sometimes guys succeed beyond expectations, do so for a longer than expected time, and that sometimes there just isn’t a real explanation for it. I also like the idea about “measuring the speed of the ball off the bat.” It seems to me that would be a more accurate statistic than simple BABIP. There’s probably a reason why some pitchers appear luckier than others on batted balls, and that might be part of it.

  • Posts: 0 Ken Bland

    I don’t know about great intruige over Lannan’s first 2 starts. KC can hit, but they were in a team offensive struggle in their opening series in Chicago, so maybe he caught them at a good time. Miami? Well…not much explanation needed, let alone sans Stanton.

    The guy’s competent. He’ll pitch decently, more good games than bad. Now if that was the start of an up trend that takes him to new levels of competence, then a retrospective intruige would be in play. I don’t see him turning into a pumpkin, or pitching consistently great.

  • Posts: 5434 Lefty

    Avatar of Lefty

    I read the article, digested it for a minute, and was about to write a comment. Then I read the George’s comment, and it already said everything I was going to say. No need to repeat that, except to say that I too like when “numbers” guys take notice that sometimes there are reasons for things that we can’t yet measure.

    Smart piece Eric, thanks.

  • Posts: 0 Betasigmadeltashag

    The guy is a#5 starter I don’t care if pitches against the Durham Bulls if he goes 7-8 innings and gives up 3 runs I’ll take it. Solid guy who starts 30 games a year and sub 4 ERA He can be my fifth starter ever year

  • Posts: 2897 Chuck A.

    Avatar of Chuck A.

    2008 Opening Day rotation:

    Brett Myers
    Cole Hamels
    Jamie Moyer
    Kyle Kendrick (2008 version)
    Adam Eaton

    2013 Opening Day rotation:

    Hamels ( a more seasoned, mature version)
    Cliff Lee
    Roy Halladay (yeah, ok, 2012-13 version…but he’s STILL Doc)
    Kyle Kendrick (a much improved 2012-2013 version)
    John Lannan

    I’ll take the 2013 staff EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  • Posts: 0 Jaron B

    Lannan actually will benefit from his stint in Philly b/c (1) Dubee, (2) the aces’ work ethic, (3) better defense than the Nats (on average).

    Bold prediction: 3.40 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 200 IP, 25% BB rate => above his 2009-2012 numbers (majors and minors); this line will probably be better than Halladay, Lee or Kendrick.

  • Posts: 0 Bob in Bucks

    Jaron – 1.05 WHIP highly unlikely for anyone on the Phillies this year. Best WHIP last year for startes was Lee at 1.11. If Lanann beats 1.3 I will be more than pleased.

    In 2011 he had a 1.46 WHIP with at 3.70 ERA.

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