John Lannan isn’t having a great season, and most of that can be specifically pointed to how many ground balls he induces in each game. Before we get into those numbers, let’s get into the history of the young pitcher.
When he was a rookie, he came up and surprised the fans by actually looking good, even though most people hadn’t heard of him. His first two years in the minors were unimpressive, but in 2002, he amassed a 2.31 ERA in high-A, AA and AAA, earning 6 starts in the majors by the end of the season. He had a 4.15 ERA, went 2-2, but only struck out 10 in 34 2/3 innings. Most assumed that luck was on his side, and things would even out in the end.
Instead, he pitched another 2 seasons as a better than league average pitcher. A 3.91 ERA in 2008, at the age of 23, and a 3.88 ERA in 2009 gave hope that he was a little different. His sinker allowed him to pitch effectively without striking people out. Over those two seasons, he had and ERA+ of 109, pitched 388 1/3 innings and walked 140 while only striking out 206. That ERA came from his ability to induce ground balls, and allowed him to let guys on without turning the innings into messes. He induced 47 double plays, ranking 9th in all the majors, tied for 4th in the NL. His GB/FB ratio was 1.17 over that time, and his Ground Out/Air Out ratio was 1.73, better in 2008 and 2009.
He won in the past by getting opponents to hit the ball on the ground. When that happened, not only were double plays induced, but it was hard to have big innings. Allowing mostly ground balls, even when they’re hits, means the other teams has to string together quite a few in order to have a big inning. And with slightly more double plays than home runs given up, he landed on the effective side of things.
It’s Almost Totally Game to Game
This year, obviously, he’s not getting the ball hit on the ground. His GB/FB ratio is actually 0.99, and his GO/AO ratio is 1.47. Those are about 15% decreases for each category. And it seems to be the difference between being a better-than-league-average pitcher and one that is worse. The evidence present itself in his games. I was looking at his quality starts, but he doesn’t have a ton, so instead, let’s divvy his starts this year between the runs where he has give up 3 ER or less, and the ones where he’s given up more than 3 ER.
In his 13 starts this year, he has 7 where he has given up 3 ER or less. In those games, he’s had a GB/FB ratio over .75 every single time, over .9 all but two of the times. In the games where he’s given up more than three ER, it’s just the opposite. He’s given up more fly balls and line drives than grounders every single time, except for once, last night. The rest of the time, the ratio has been below .6 at the very highest.
It’s so simple, that it almost breaks down perfectly for every game. The more grounders he gives up in relation to liners and fly balls, the more he succeeds. And it’s not just a season-to-season thing. In those games where he’s giving up more grounders, he’s done well. In those 7 starts, his ERA is an impressive 2.95. It’s the 6 other games, where he’s got a 9.21 ERA that is causing the trouble.
Of course, he probably knows this as well. The trouble now, is how John Lannan can go out there and get the grounders instead of the liners and fly balls. In the games that he’s got it working, he’s got a great chance to win.