Nationals' Lannan has established himself despite lack of fastball

By Chico Harlan
Friday, February 19, 2010

Even now, no single person can explain. Even now that John Lannan has made 70 big league starts, which is 70 more than most expected, nobody who has observed the pitcher's path can pinpoint one moment -- a game, a radar gun reading -- when they knew he'd get this far. Just as a general rule, when a pitcher throws a 78 mph fastball in high school, draws college interest only from schools like Siena and New Haven, and finishes his first year of Class A ball with a 5.26 ERA, he becomes easier to dismiss than embrace. And so the question results: How did Lannan reach a spot he was never quite destined to reach?

"As a young player," said Paul Gibson, Lannan's longtime personal pitching coach, "he didn't strike you as a guy that would be playing in the big leagues."

"Coming in [to college] I thought he'd be decent, a good college pitcher," Siena head baseball Coach Tony Rossi said. "Did I think he'd be where he is now? Obviously not."

At this point, Lannan holds a central role both with the 2010 Washington Nationals and in their future. He's 25 years old, a three-year veteran, legitimized. "The real deal," Manager Jim Riggleman said.

When Nationals pitchers and catchers report Friday morning to the team's Viera, Fla., workout facility -- the official start of spring training -- Lannan will be among the most established players in the clubhouse. He was the Opening Day pitcher last year, when he led Washington with nine wins. He is this season's co-ace, along with free agent acquisition Jason Marquis. He's pitched a combined 388 1/3 innings in the last two years -- or 200 2/3 innings more than any other Washington pitcher. He has a 3.91 career ERA. He has erased, and re-erased, all those trenchant assumptions that he throws too soft to succeed.

Examining Lannan's career reinforces the ways in which certain pitching traits can be at once overlooked and integral. Indeed, talk to those who've known Lannan for years, and they give less a scouting report than a character sketch. Starting at age 15, Lannan and his father, Ed, drove an hour through Long Island traffic for weekly private pitching lessons at the All Pro Sports Academy. The instructor, Gibson, a former major league reliever, noticed Lannan's innate muscle memory. His delivery was always just so, rarely off by an inch. Consistency was his best habit.

Lannan asked more questions than Gibson's other students. "Inquisitive," Gibson said. "He was always looking for perfection."

Still, his fastball almost never topped 80 mph in high school, which meant that those who saw him only once noticed deficiencies more so than consistencies. His future college coach, Rossi, traveled to the showcase camp where he discovered Lannan only because of his interest in another player, future big leaguer Craig Hansen.

"John was 6-foot-3 at the time, real skinny, and he was loose," Rossi said. "So you thought down the road maybe he would throw harder. He had a decent breaking pitch; it wasn't exceptional, but it was good enough. The thing I keyed on, his body and his arm. It was loose."

Conditioned for winning

At Siena, Lannan put in the work. He added 15 pounds, raised his fastball velocity into the mid- to upper-80s, and eventually became the Saints' best pitcher. Then-Washington scouting director Dana Brown saw Lannan pitch only once, in May 2005, less than a month before the draft. Brown, who lived in New Jersey, only made the trip to upstate New York after canceling a lunch date with his wife, whom he hadn't seen in three weeks. He promised his wife a dinner date instead. Washington picked Lannan in the 11th round, 324th overall.

"I liked his touch. I liked his feel," said Brown, now with the Blue Jays. "I saw enough in him to say, this guy has what it takes. He threw strikes, and he's a left-handed pitcher."

Even then, Lannan recognized his assets. He didn't get flustered in big games, rarely changing his pacing, rarely losing his confidence. He worked quickly, kept the ball low and maintained good control. He had just enough of a taste for conditioning; he'd run a few miles after every start. Even so, his first season in the minors, with short-season Class A Vermont, was a mess. His next season (6-8, 4.70 ERA with Class A Savannah) was merely mediocre. Lannan worried, thinking ahead to several more seasons in the minors. "I knew it was gonna be a long dream," he said.

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