If you don’t live in Washington D.C. and you actually know something about John Lannan, raise your hand. Don’t worry hands-in-your-lappers, you’re not alone. This nondescript lefty has snuck up on the world, and outside of the Nationals season ticket holders and his immediate family, he’s still an unknown. But, as long as Lannan continues to be overlooked, the world will continue to miss out on one of the more underrated youngsters around.
Lannan was an 11th round pick by the Nationals in the 2005 draft out of noted baseball powerhouse Siena College. At 6’5, he’s in the John Halama school of tall guys who look like they should throw harder than they do. His below average velocity and no real out pitch caused him to be seen as a longshot to make the majors, which is why Washington was able to select him 324th overall three years ago.
He didn’t exactly light the minor leagues on fire, either. His debut in Vermont was mediocre at best, as he po6sted 5.34 ERA with 31 walks and 41 strikeouts in 63 innings of work. Generally, guys who can’t get swings and misses in short season leagues don’t make it to the majors. However, he moved up to Savannah, the Nationals full season affiliate in the South Atlantic League, in 2001, and made some strides. He struck out 114 batters in 138 innings, but his command problems (54 walks and six hit batters) helped him give up 83 runs.
Heading into last season, he was still more organizational player than real prospect, but started to get better sink on his fastball and improved his command, allowing him to climb from high-A ball all the way to the majors in a single season. He earned the distinction of being the first player ejected from his ML debut last summer after hitting Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, breaking Utley’s wrist in the process.
But now, after his 6 IP/1 R performance against Houston last night, he sports a 3.40 ERA and 3.98 FIP, entrenching himself as a regular member of the Washington rotation and making himself memorable for reasons beyond injuring all-stars. How has this kid come from out of nowhere to become a viable major league starter?
Once again, the hidden goodness of ground balls. Lannan’s pounding the bottom of the zone with his mixture of pitches that includes a solid two-seam fastball that makes up in movement what it lacks in velocity. His slider, curve, change, and cut fastball help keep hitters off balance, and he mixes all five pitches well and keeps them down in the zone. His command still isn’t great, but when he misses, he misses down in the zone, which helps keep the ball in the yard.
His stuff is good enough to rack up an average strikeout rate, and as we’ve talked about before, the combination of some strikeouts and a lot of ground balls are a powerful force for any pitcher. He may have come out of nowhere, but he’s showing staying power. As long as he keeps that sinking fastball down in the zone, the Nationals will be quite happy to pencil Lannan into their rotation for the next several years.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.