Lannan's Struggles: Mechanics, Injury or Dumb Luck?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, June 21, 2010 | , , , | 0 comments »

I find it terribly interesting that a day after the field manager said that he believed in John Lannan -- and that he would take his next scheduled start -- the pitcher was optioned to Double-A.

Lannan has struggled mightily in his last three starts to be sure, where he's given up 31 hits in just 13 innings.  His overall numbers (2-5, 5.76) attest to his inefficiency this season.  However, he did have a four-game stretch in the not too distant past where he allowed two or fewer earned runs in that period, so he's had periods of being "the old John".

But Lannan has always been a different breed of pitcher.  He has never struck anyone out, and his K rate has gone down each of his big league seasons.  In 2009, he had the lowest K rate of any pitcher to qualify for the ERA title.

In fact,, a quality analytical website, has dubbed Lannan the "Luckiest Man in Baseball" for his ability to manage a low ERA striking out as few batters as he has in his career.

You can take a look at Fangraphs commentary on Lannan's demotion here. It's illustrative to give you an independent analysis of the situation.

So what's different this year?

Everyone describing Lannan's troubles, from his pitching coach to the new era stat gurus say Lannan's sinker isn't sinking like it used to.  That mechanically, something is wrong that is prohibiting Lannan from generating ground balls.

Lannan missed a start earlier this season with soreness in his elbow.  But everyone in the organization today, including pitching coach Steve McCatty, is strongly saying that Lannan is not injured -- the soreness he experienced earlier this season is not bothering him.

Is it then mental?  Is Lannan altering his delivery to avoid reaggrevating the soreness he experienced earlier this season?  And if he is, is it deliberate?  Or is his body compensating naturally?

From the dugout before tonight's game, McCatty said, "I really don't think he's throwing much differently mechanically." 

McCatty spoke more about Lannan's confidence factor.   "When you're pitching in the big leagues it's awfully tough to go out there and work on something during the game."

"[It’s] just more to get back to that comfort level where you’re not pressing on every pitch to keep them from hitting the ball, or getting a base hit, or worrying about runs and stuff like that."

But here's the thing that the organization has left unspoken that should concern them: as an extreme pitch-to-contact pitcher -- and they don't get much more P-2-C than Lannan -- all those ground balls that have been hit at fielders that last couple of years could simply just be missing them this year.

Take Sunday's start, in which he gave up five earned runs on 11 hits.  Lots of hits, yes.  But he threw strikes (51 of 69 pitches were strikes) and he didn't walk a batter.  Additionally, Lannan got eight ground ball outs, as opposed to two fly ball outs.  Of the 11 hits, there was just one extra-base hit -- Alex Rios' RBI double in the fifth inning.

Honestly, the only thing different about yesterday's start from any of Lannan's starts the last couple of years is the result.  The ground balls were there.  They were just getting through.

If it's just a slight mechanical tweak that Lannan needs to make in order to restore the action on his sinker enough so that hitters don't square up as much on the pitch, then he'll back in the bigs relatively quickly.  And if he IS injured, we'll find out even quicker.

But if it's simply the case in his last three starts that ground balls are finding the holes that weren't the last two years, then Lannan -- and the Nats -- have a whole different problem.

You have to hope that a guy that the team was depending on -- the 25-year old consecutive year Opening Day starter -- figures something out in the minors and returns to being the same pitcher he was the last two seasons.  But if you can't miss bats in the big leagues, your margin of error is mighty thin.

Lannan found out how thin earlier this afternoon.