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How Good Will John Lannan Be?

The most interesting question about the Nats, in what has otherwise been a nightmare season, is to speculate about how good their young starting pitchers will become when they mature. Please, no silly comparisons to the Braves' trio that's going to the Hall of Fame. What is a more realistic comparison for John Lannan, the only young Nats pitcher who, so far, has a large enough statistical sample to project a career?

When you watch him this afternoon against the Braves, you might consider that Lannan, both statistically and in pitching style ("crafy lefthander" without a 90+ fastball), has a strong resemblance to seven dependable but generally unspectacular hurlers of fairly recent times. All relied on fastball command, a fine change up, poise and savvy.

All of them won 10-plus games at least seven times and some of them did it eight or nine times. All had career ERAs very close to Lannan's current 3.79 (after 53 big-league starts). Four of them had a 20-win season. Six of them were All-Stars at least once. All seven were in the rotation of a team that reached the World Series. And all of them won between 121 and 166 games. No Hall of Famers. Not much glamor. But very good pitchers.

Lannan diverges from the group in only two ways. Our seven lefties all had good to very good career winning percentages. Lannan's career record is 16-22. The obvious explanation is that the Nats have been awful the last two years (.340 percentage), Lannan has been .071 better in '08-'09 (14-20, .411). So, on a .500 team, he might have a W-L record around .571, which is very close to our group of seven.

On the other hand, so far Lannan's career "ERA+" -- that is defined by Baseball Reference as 100 x ERA/League ERA, then adjusted for home ballpark -- is distinctly better than any of the seven guys in our group. This raises an interesting possibility. If Lannan can have a career ERA+ of 115 (where 100 is the league average) while pitching for a bad team with a bad defense, isn't it possible that his career will be better than any of my seven 'mystery' names. Yes, it's possible. And if he is, then he might be quite a pitcher. But it's too early to go that far.

Here are the seven. They all appeal to me from memory as well as statistically. I'd guess Lannan, if reasonably healthy, is the current version of these guys with a small but very pleasant possibility that he might be better.

  • CharlieLeibrandt: career 140-119, 3.71 ERA and an ERA+ of 108. Best years: 17-9, 16-11, 15-7.
  • Larry Gura: 126-97, 3.76, ERA+ 106. Best: 18-10, 18-12, 16-4.
  • Bud Black: 121-116, 3.84, ERA+ 103. Best: 17-12, 13-11, 10-7.
  • Scott McGregor: 138-108, 3.99, ERA+ 98. Best: 20-8, 18-7, 13-5.
  • Tom Browning: 123-90, 3.94, ERA + 97. Best: 20-9, 18-5, 15-9.
  • Ross Grimsley: 124-99, 3.81, ERA+ 92. Best: 20-11, 18-13, 14-8.
  • Paul Splitorff: 166-143, 3.81, ERA+ 101. Best: 20-11, 19-13, 16-6.

Lannan has a slightly higher strikeout rate -- 5.0-per-nine-innings than any of these seven -- though Browning, Black and Leibrandt are 4.7 to 4.4. Lannan also walks more than any of them -- 3.6 per-nine-innings. The whole group is 2.7-to-2.3. Lannan may walk (and strikeout) less men as he gets older. Lannan also is tied with Leibrandt for allowing the most homers -- 1.1-per-nine-innings. Finally, there are few pitchers who induce as many double play grounders as Lannan. And he prevents stolen bases well.

If you want to be optimistic, here are three pitchers with a career ERA+ near 115. But all probably had better "stuff" than Lannan. Still, bottom line, ERA (adjusted for era and ballpark) really matters.

  • Frank Viola: 176-150, 3.73, ERA+ 112.
  • Al Leiter: 162-132, 3.80, ERA+ 112.
  • Jimmy Key: 186-117, 3.51, ERA+ 122.

Enjoy the 4th!

By Thomas Boswell  |  July 4, 2009; 11:23 AM ET
 | Tags: John Lannan, Lefthanders  
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Good job, Boz. You could chew on that for one awhile.

I also like the fact that Johnny Boy has learned how to pitch. Even when he doesn't have his best stuff, he keeps the ball down, manages to get grounders. When he's on, everything he throws has a downward tilt. Being 6'3" doesn't hurt either.

I'm still glad we have a team. I don't care what anybody says.

The Kinks

Posted by: Brue | July 4, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post, Boz. I was just telling my husband about the fun of watching the young pitchers develop (after he asked why I still subjected myself to Nats games). Hope that you have an enjoyable 4th as well!

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | July 4, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

And another new post. Of course.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | July 4, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Boz: Interesting post - thanks. A somewhat curious connection in your initial seven is the teams they pitched well for, if memory serves:
Leibrandt = KC, ATL.
Gura = KC, CUB.
Black = KC, SD.
McGregor = BAL.
Browning = CIN.
Grimsley = BAL, CLE.
Splittorff = KC.

Nearly all are AL pitchers, with Browning being the outlier (NL only, no KC-BAL connection).

If Lannan could equal Splittorff's career, I'd be happy.

Posted by: BinM | July 4, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

I thought of one lefty during the game, Mike Flanagan, 1979 Cy Young winner, and was surprised to see his ERA+ was only 100. Your post took me to the records to look up a favored lefty from my childhood, Johnny Podres, ERA+ of 105.

If Lannan has a better career than those guys, I'll take it.


Posted by: utec | July 4, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

You forget 1 major factor......he won't be jackxxx if know nothing Captain Hook ACTLESS keeps counting to 100 and sending the guy to the showers regardless of the game performance ...

and then turns the game over to the PIGpen for another Blown hold...or Blown Save....

Posted by: unc1dmo | July 5, 2009 12:38 AM | Report abuse

Lannan would be worthy of being the Nats lone allstar rep this season.

Posted by: cokedispatch | July 5, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Nice note, Boz.

I remember many of the pitchers, especially the KC late 70s to mid 80s connection. There is not much statistical records on their GB/FB mix. One of Lannan's big assets is his ability to get groundballs. A touch less so this year, but he's being helped by a more normal HR/FB ratio (11% per fangraphs). I'm curious if you would call most of these guys (or any of these guys) grounball pitchers? I just don't recall. I'd imagine with Willie Wilson out there and a big ballpark, maybe some of these guys were more fly ball pitchers.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | July 5, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

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