Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
This has been perhaps the roughest stretch of John Lannan's career.
John Lannan may not have ace stuff, but he entered the season as the Nationals' best starter, and his track record over the last 2 1/2 years suggested he'd established himself as a solid big-league pitcher.
The left-hander's numbers through six outings -- 1-2, 6.34 ERA, a staggering 1.93 WHIP -- suggest he's anything but solid. And yesterday's ragged outing in Miami, in which he was roughed up for six runs on nine hits in five innings, suggests this may be more than a blip on the radar screen.
So what's going on here? Is Lannan merely going through a rough patch, or is he finally regressing into the sub-par major leaguer many stathounds have been saying he would become?
For those unaware with the sabermetrics argument against Lannan, it basically boils down to this: He's the least-effective pitcher in baseball at making hitters swing and miss. Batters make more contact against him than any other pitcher in the game. For the last 2 1/2 years, Lannan has merely been lucky that all those balls put into play have been hit right at fielders, especially groundballs. Eventually, the law of averages was going to start turning those outs into base hits.
Indeed, it is really tough to be a successful pitcher when only 24 of the 561 pitches you've thrown this season have been swinging strikes. So that may in part explain Lannan's struggles.
Here, though, is another explanation: Lannan has had no command of his pitches whatsoever.
I just re-watched the first three innings of yesterday's game, paying particular attention to catcher Wil Nieves' positioning as Lannan begins his windup. I'd say Lannan missed the target at least 80 percent of the time, and almost always left the ball higher in the zone than Nieves wanted it.
Nieves set up for almost every single pitch on the lower, outside corner of the plate. Several times, he motioned with his glove to "keep it down," almost patting the ground in the process. And almost every time, the catcher had to bring his glove up to retrieve Lannan's pitch.
For the first two innings, Lannan was able to get away with it. He either got guys to hit groundballs or took advantage of the spacious outfield at Sun Life Stadium to get flyouts. But it all came crashing down in the third inning, when the Marlins scored four runs and seized control of the game.
Hanley Ramirez's home run? Nieves called for a change-up and set up in his familiar, low-and-outside location. Lannan threw it right down the heart of the plate. Ronny Paulino's double to left? Nieves was set up on the inside corner; Lannan left it out over the plate.
This has been a frustrating five weeks for Lannan, a perfectionist if there ever was one. Even on the few occasions when he's gotten reasonable results, he's been upset at himself for not doing better, not pitching deeper into games, not avoiding the one big hit that's gotten him into trouble.
Look, Lannan knows what he is. He's never going to be a strikeout pitcher. If he's going to make it long-term as a big-league pitcher, he's got to be able to locate his pitches -- especially his fastball -- better than just about anybody else in the game.
For 2 1/2 seasons, he was able to do just that. For the last month, he hasn't.
If he's able to rediscover that innate ability to throw a baseball 88 mph and hit a dime, he'll return to his previous form and be a successful pitcher for the Nationals. If he's not ... well, Lannan and the Nats are in trouble.