After five-plus seasons of watching John Lannan pitch against their team a handful of times each year, Phillies fans were right to be wary when Ruben Amaro inked the soft-tossing lefty last December to a one-year deal worth at least $2.5 million. At his best, Lannan is a mediocre pitcher and the Phillies faithful had essentially seen it firsthand; Lannan had made 19 career starts against the Phils, still his most against any team.
The 29-year-old was signed to provide stability as the fifth starter in a rotation that looked pretty good at the top. After all, the southpaw had racked up at least 180 innings in five straight seasons — majors and minors — to the tune of a 4.01 ERA for the Nationals. Not too bad on the surface, right? But like so many things these past two seasons, the Lannan addition went south quick for the Phillies.
Despite the durability he showed throughout his career, Lannan was only able to make 14 starts in 2013 due to injury, which amounted to 74.1 innings. To put that in perspective, Lannan’s deal included another $2.5 million dollars in incentives that were dependent on his inning total… and his first bonuses would have come at 150 innings and/or 31 starts.
Lannan looked good his first two starts of the season (13 innings, 4 ER), but after he was rocked in his third outing he complained of pain in his left knee and ended up on the disabled list for two months with a quad issue. He returned in June and was effective for about nine starts (53.1 innings, 21 ER) before his leg issue flared up again and he was shut down in August. He has since had surgery on his left knee.
When he was actually on the mound this season, Lannan resembled the pitcher he has been throughout his career. He is a four-pitch finesse pitcher who doesn’t miss bats and induces a ton of ground balls (52.9 percent for his career), but also needs almost everything to go right to be even slightly above average. If his command is off, he’s going to get rocked. If he is at all unlucky, he is going to get rocked. And as we saw, if he is having health issues, he is going to get rocked; Lannan finished 2013 with a career-worst ERA of 5.33.
At 29, Lannan is what he is. His bread-and-butter ground ball rate (52.4 percent) was close to his career average and, believe it or not, his line drive rate actually decreased this year despite his spike in ERA. Batters hit .296 against him with a BABIP of .313 – notably above his career number – which implies that Lannan was a bit unlucky, possibly explaining the ERA bump. His walk rate (8.1 percent) and his abysmal strikeout rate (11.5 percent) were consistent with his career numbers and his poor WHIP of 1.52 was only slight above his career mark of 1.43, again probably due to batters hitting .296 against him. He was the owner of a 4.37 FIP (bad) and 4.71 xFIP (really bad).
These numbers only help to explain what we already know. While serviceable, Lannan is not really a pitcher you want eating innings for your team if it plans on contending… especially if your starting rotation is supposed to be your strength, which is precisely why the Nationals released him after 2012. The Phillies have Lannan under team control for 2014, but as Todd Zolecki already pointed out, they’re likely to non-tender the southpaw this winter. If they choose to stick with Lannan, he will go through the arbitration process and likely make more than the $2.5 million he made this year.
Grade: D-. In theory, the thinking behind the Lannan signing made sense. But as the Phillies front office refuses to admit, it’s not 2011 anymore. This team needed impact additions to be competitive in 2013 and there is no scenario where Lannan and his middling talent could have provided that type of boost. Looking at his game log, an optimist could say that Lannan’s ERA ballooned because of poor outings that resulted from injury issues. Maybe that is true, and that would certainly be one argument for bringing him back (as well as the only reason he didn’t get an F). But to me, when the ceiling is mediocrity, I would rather take my chances on Jonathan Pettibone, Ethan Martin or whoever else is trending in AAA for a tenth of the price. This team has too many holes to fill to waste money on band-aids.