I'll be the first to admit I haven't watched John Lannan's starts very closely recently. Tonight I'm going to try to watch some of starts that I only heard on Charlie and Dave, and if I don't fall asleep I'll share more thoughts.
But my first gut reaction to like Mike Rizzo's decision to demote Lannan to AA was not good. The first thing I thought of was Steven Shell ("I didn't like his whole aura on the mound."). Then I thought of Daniel Cabrera ("I was tired of watching him."). And then I thought of Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge.
In each of those cases, it was reasonable that Rizzo pulled the plug when he did. But in each case, the way he did it left you with the feeling that, Trump-like, he enjoys saying "you're fired" a little too much. And if the players in the clubhouse thinks the guy in charge doesn't really care about them, that's not good. No one ever shed a tear for Milledge or Cabrera, but Lannan is different.
Of course, Rizzo doesn't shy away from his willingness to use a quick hook when a guy doesn't perform. He brags about his commitment to "performance-based accountability." I like Rizzo, and generally I think it's good that he acts decisively and attacks problems.
But there's a pretty clear line between tough-love accountability and "what have you done for me lately" ingratitude. I'm worried Rizzo might have crossed it.
Jim Riggleman was right when he said Lannan had earned a lot of leash. For two years, with a terrible defense behind him, little run support, and a daily helping of media mockery (or indifference), he took the ball and most of the time he gave his team a chance to win. And last year, he went 206 innings with a 3.88 ERA. Only 21 other pitchers in all of MLB did that, and they were mostly perennial all-stars.
Of course, he's never been a lights-out pitcher. He's gotten by on poise, consistency, and (yes) a touch of luck. And I was always one of the first to argue that he'd probably never do what he did in 2009 again. The team really never should have expected much more than replacement level from a pitcher who strikes out fewer than 4 per 9, regardless of how well he keeps the ball in the yard.
This year, his mysterious ability to keep his BABIP lower than anyone else in baseball finally, predictably, abandoned him. By far the biggest difference between last year and this year was that his BABIP allowed went from a lucky .276 to an unlucky .341. That's enough to easily increase a pitcher's ERA by a run or more.
But he hasn't just been unlucky. He's been worse. His low strikeout rate fell to 2.88, which is what you might expect from a position player on the mound. No one in all of baseball with 20 or more IP in 2009 stuck out batters so infrequently. Meanwhile his walk rate rose to 4.20, giving him a strikeout to walk rate of... oh nevermind. It's been ugly.
Still, I cringed when this quote from Rizzo popped up on Ben Goessling's blog: "Psychologically, I think that he was very worried about that he wasn't letting his teammates down. He wasn't giving his teammates a chance to win games and stuff like that. Whenever you get that kind of mindset, I think it was a good time for him to take a step back, get himself together and go down there and get with a guy he's comfortable with and iron some things out and get back up here."
You can say a lot of things about John Lannan, but a mental toughness critique is a little hard to swallow. Remember, this is the guy who in his third major league start, he faced Barry Bonds with the whole world watching while Bonds was sitting on 755 home runs. He never backed down and held Bonds to a foul-out, walk, GDP, and a dramatic seventh inning K with two outs and a runner on.
And what's the deal with Lannan being more comfortable with the AA coaches than Steve McCatty and Jim Riggleman? If Lannan's so much more comfortable with Randy Tomlin, maybe Tomlin should be in DC, instead of sending Lannan to Harrisburg.
I also thought this was a little chicken shit: "More importantly, we need a guy up who gives us the best chance to win every fifth day. It wasn't John at this point in time. That was the decision we made."
Besides the passive voice, I just don't buy that we have a better chance to win with J.D. Martin, Craig Stammen, Luis Atilano or whoever else Rizzo's going to find in his grab bag of ground-balling soft-tossers.
Anyway, forgive the rambling incoherence of this post. I guess in the end I can't really argue that much with the substance of this decision. Lannan had a lot of rope, but he used a lot of rope.
But I'll tell you what. There's no other pitcher on the team I care about enough to stay up late and re-watch them getting pummeled just to try to understand what's going on. For Lannan, I will.
* * *
Just got done watching Lannan's 4+ innings against the White Sox yesterday. The problem is easy to see, and you don't need fancy Pitch F/X tracking. He left the ball up in the zone way too much, and honestly he was probably lucky not to have given up more extra base hits than he did. Viciedo smashed what should have been a double in the second inning, if not for a really fantastic play by Nyjer Morgan. And Alex Rios should have had a two-run bomb in the third on a line-out to Josh Willingham.
Still, he got 9 groundball outs, showing that when he hit his spots, he was the same guy as ever. I didn't see much evidence of this talk that his sinker isn't sinking. He may have lost a bit of movement--he thinks he has--but you don't get 9 groundball outs without sink. Besides, he could have all the sink in the world, and an 88 mph pitch in the upper half of the strike zone is going to get hit.
I might have let him keep battling yesterday if I was Riggleman--especially if he was pitching for his job. Yeah, 11 hits is ugly in the box score, but the last pitch he threw was a good one, resulting in a seeing eye grounder from Paul Konerko. He's got as good a shot as anyone at getting a ground ball double play, and Miguel Batista sure isn't any better than Lannan.
And the thing with Lannan is that he's always had the ability to bear down and correct in the middle of a game. He's always been a guy who might lose his command for a batter or two, then find his release point again and cruise. He doesn't get rattled, and his smooth, easy delivery is his best asset.
Anyway, I'm still not convinced that this move helps us win in the short term or that Lannan will be any better off "finding himself" in AA than he is here. And it really does make you wonder, with several pitchers getting healthy, how many more shots Lannan will get.