Monday, June 21, 2010

Accountability or Disloyalty?

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.


JayB said...

You should see all you need to know when you see those 86 MPH fastballs up in hitters zones....over and over and over again.....Rizzo did what needed to be done. He needs to take the same approach for Harris this week....DFA

Jenn Jenson said...

Interesting analysis. I'm a MIke Rizzo fan, but I really hated the Steven Shell comments when that happened. The comments weren't about Shell's performance, and they were personal in a way that's not helpful. Shell seemed like a nice kid and a high-character guy, best I could tell.

On John Lannan, I'm not upset about a brief change of scenery to work with another coach he's comfortable with, and I hope it will be time well spent. But I do think it's a problem if he's penalized in any way for being honest about feeling bad that his performance hasn't been what it should be. He is human, after all.

At this point I've been wondering if there's a different standard for position players: some continue to get chances, despite poor performance, while others have a difficult time getting opportunities, regardless of what they do.

Section 222 said...

Steven, take a deep breath. Lannan hasn't been released. He's been sent to the minors to work on some things. (Some think that Dukes should have been given the same opportunity.) But you just can't compare Lannan to Cabrera or Shell. If he can get his sinker to sink again, he'll be back in the rotation, maybe in just a few weeks. Right now, Riggleman is exactly right -- Lannan is not giving the Nats a chance to win, and the majors is not the place to work your problems out. I was glad to see some decisive action to try to get the team going. Give Chico or Stammen a shot for a few starts and let Lannan get his groove back.

Steven said...

I'm breathing just fine, thanks.

An Briosca Mor said...

Look at it this way. The boy ain't been right all season. Not just a game or two, the whole season. He's had moments when he's been his old self, but they have been few and far between. Even Lannan himself said that on Sunday he didn't have his pitches working at all, despite the ground ball outs he was getting.

So the boy ain't right, but he's not hurt either - or so everyone says. But he has to go somewhere to work it out and get right, because he can't keep going out there every five days doing what he's been doing. He's not hurt, so he can't go on the DL. He could go to the bullpen, but that's not going to help him work things out. But he does have options remaining, so he can go to the low-pressure arena of Harrisburg and start every five days there until he gets it right. Think of it as going on a rehab assignment without being on the DL first, because that's exactly what it is. When he gets it right, he'll be back up. And he will get it right, probably sooner than later.

Kevin Rusch said...

I don't think anyone who's been up for more than a few months gets sent down to "send a message." It's either "maybe some time out of the spotlight will let you get things straightened out" or "well, your career with us is over."

The unpleasant truth is that Lannan has stunk this year. I love the guy, and I'm delighted he bucked the odds as long as he has. But he's not bucking them now. Either he can fix that in AA, or he's where a guy with and 82mph fastball belongs.


DCJohn said...

Rob Dibble put it perfectly: "The major league is a hard place to work and play." Lannan is a quality person. I'm pulling for him.

test said...

I was really surprised that Lannan didn't go on the IR for 15 days, I definitely thought that was going to be the move they'd make.

Lannan's talked a lot about his struggles, and how he's studied hours of video to see what is wrong. Most recently he said he thinks it actually is an arm angle/slot issue, whereas before he said there was no mechanical issue. But the arm slot one would seem to align with his sinker not sinking, and throwing BP fastballs up there.

Unknown said...

Disloyalty? What the hell are we talking about here? Lannan gets paid a ton of money to deliver a product and right now he isn't capable of providing MLB quality pitches, are we obligted to eat the back end of his regression curve because he's given us a couple good years? Hell no.

I hope Rizzo has the guts to do the same thing with Livo, Olsen, etc when the opportunity comes - this is about winning baseball games not making well paid professionals feel good about themselves as they stink up the joint.

Wombat-socho said...

What I want to know is when the front office is going to show the same hard-nosed attitude with some of the dead wood in the field behind Lannan. Linked at Beltway Baseball.

Anonymous said...

Lannan is a guy that inspires a lot of passion on both sides of the issue. I wanted him to stay, skip a turn, and try to get it worked out his next start. Or I wanted them to attribute it to a physical call. But it has got to be very demoralizing to this team to have to watch him fail with the 2nd worst ERA in the league behind Wandy Rodriguez. I was somewhat surprised by how this was handled with a Riggles show of support followed by a Rizzo beatdown, but I have given up trying to parse through GM/Manager speak.

The whole pitching coach AA part of this equation is perplexing to me. What is McCatty bringing to the table? He's got Livo who coaches himself. Strasburg who coaches himself. Stammen who seems to have regressed below his stuff but is finding his stuff at AAA. Is McCatty some Atilano guru? If McCatty can't fix Lannan and the AA guy can, why don't we have that AA guy here so that he can fix more of our soft tossers? That aspect of it seemed kind of weird, that McCatty can't fix some of the issues that are AAA and AA staff might be able to.

If we're getting tough now, though, will someone please explain to me why Willie Harris is on the roster? He seems to be merely some kind of temptation for Riggles to trot out there in high leverage left handed PH options despite the fact that he has a left handed option in Kennedy who constructs better at bats and a right handed bat in Morse who is probably better than him against righties.

Sorry, back to the current discussion. Lannan's a good dude and you hope he can shove it in Rizzo's face when he fixes it and it's time to renegotiate. Otherwise, it's a business and your style of pitching raises flags when there's another lefty who they'd probably rather see in that spot named Ross Detwiler.