Yesterday the Washington Nationals signed right handed pitcher Edwin Jackson to a one year deal for $10 M. The move gives Washington a strong rotation, with Jackson joining Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. Among the news of Jackson’s signing was a rumor that the Nationals were aggressively looking to deal left handed starter John Lannan, who just lost an arbitration case to the Nationals and will be paid $5 M this year.
Lannan is coming off a year with a 3.70 ERA in 184.2 innings. He’s probably due for some regression with an xFIP of 4.24. Lannan would probably be appealing to Pirates fans for three reasons:
1. He’s got decent career numbers, with a 4.00 ERA, and a good track record of being an innings eater.
2. He’s left handed.
3. He has a career 52.8% ground ball ratio.
Let’s compare Lannan over the last three years to two other left handed pitchers with good ground ball ratios:
Lannan: 4.03 ERA, 4.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 534.1 IP
Player A: 4.43 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 542.1 IP
Player B: 4.79 ERA, 4.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9, 448.2 IP
Lannan has the best ERA of the three over the last three years, however he’s got the worst strikeout and walk ratios. Player A is Paul Maholm. Player B is Zach Duke.
Somehow Lannan has managed to put up strong numbers throughout his career, despite being very similar to these two former Pirates left handers. He doesn’t really have better stuff than Duke or Maholm, with an average fastball of 89.6 MPH in 2011. He’s not favored by his home park, with a career 3.80 ERA at home, compared to a 4.20 ERA on the road. Compare that to Maholm, who really benefitted from PNC Park, putting up a 3.80 ERA at home and a 5.03 ERA on the road.
Looking at the advanced stats, Lannan should be the worst pitcher of the three. Lannan’s xFIP over the last three years is worse than Maholm, and slightly worse than Duke. A big part of that is due to Lannan’s 2009 season, as his 2010 and 2011 campaigns weren’t horrible. But in his career he has a 4.45 xFIP, compared to a 4.22 for Maholm and a 4.34 for Duke.
Maholm has only out-performed his xFIP twice in his career. That came in the 2008 and 2011 seasons. Three times if you count his limited playing time in 2005. Duke out-performed his xFIP in his half-season in 2005, and again in 2009. Lannan has four full seasons in the majors, and has out-performed his xFIP three out of four times, and once more in 2007 when he pitched 34.2 innings.
The advanced metrics suggest Lannan should be the worst of the three, but Lannan is the only one who is out-performing the advanced metrics on a consistent basis. Lannan looks similar to Duke and Maholm, but the results have been much different. You can’t chalk it up to Duke and Maholm playing for a bad team, because Lannan played for a bad team. You can’t chalk it up to ballpark effects like Maholm, because Lannan has been good on the road.
Going back to the original topic, the Nationals are apparently trying to unload Lannan. PNC Park is built for left handers, and left handers with strong ground ball ratios are a perfect fit. Over the past three years only three left handed starters have put up a better ground ball ratio than Lannan: Ricky Romero, Jaime Garcia, and Brett Anderson. Those three also benefit from strong strikeout numbers, which is why Lannan can’t be fully compared to them. However, if you’re looking for a left hander with a high ground ball ratio, Lannan is a prime option.
So what is Lannan’s trade value?
Explanation: Lannan has an average of a 1.3 WAR over the last three years, including a 1.3 WAR in 2011. His salary for 2012 will be $5 M, and I estimated $6 M for his final year of arbitration in 2012. He might be more valuable in PNC Park, which could drive his WAR up. If his value stays the same, he probably wouldn’t be worth an offer of arbitration in 2013, unless he really benefits from PNC Park.
What He’s Worth: A $2.4 M trade value is the equivalent of a young Grade C pitching prospect. Or the Pirates could try to deal a reliever. I talked the other day about the crowded bullpen situation. They could swap someone like Daniel McCutchen for Lannan. Washington gets their salary relief, and the Pirates don’t really miss McCutchen. The Nationals, however, are looking for a center fielder. I wouldn’t give up Alex Presley unless prospects were coming with Lannan, but Gorkys Hernandez would be a good candidate. He hasn’t proven himself with the bat, but he’s arguably the best defensive outfielder in the Pirates’ system, which could have value in Washington’s spacious outfield.
Analysis: Lannan is a bit of an enigma. If you just look at the results, he hasn’t been much worse than Edwin Jackson the past few years. Jackson has a 3.96 ERA in that span, while Lannan has a 4.03 ERA, including a better ERA than Jackson in 2011. I prefer looking at how a pitcher got to that ERA, rather than just focusing on the ERA. Looking at the secondary numbers, I’d take Jackson any day. Lannan looks like a risk with his secondary numbers. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, he doesn’t have a great walk rate, and his xFIP suggests he should be closer to a 4.45 ERA. But that’s where Lannan becomes a mystery.
For whatever reason he constantly out-performs the expectations. Three out of the last four years he has put up an ERA of 3.91 or better, making 31 or more starts per year. The exception was in 2010, and he dealt with elbow inflammation that year, which might have played a part in his 4.65 ERA over 25 starts. The advanced numbers suggest that Lannan is worse than Duke and Maholm, but the actual results show that he’s been considerably better. If Lannan repeats his 2011 season in Pittsburgh, which should be easier considering PNC’s favorable layout for left handers, then he’d be a huge addition to the pitching staff. Considering that Washington doesn’t seem to be looking for much more than salary relief, and considering that the Pirates can afford to take on salary, it seems like a great match.