By Chico Harlan
Friday, February 19, 2010; D01
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.
He realized just then that at least a few people in the Washington organization had at least a little faith in him. In the spring of 2007, Lannan received a telephone call from Brown.
"I still remember the call," Lannan said recently, "because it changed the way I looked at everything. He told me that he wanted me in the big leagues by July, and it took me by shock. When he said that, I didn't realize until then how close I really was. The way he said it made me realize it was all closer than I thought. I still remember the feeling I got when I got off the phone -- like, whoa. Because it was all right there."
"To his credit," said Brown, who remembered the phone call, "he bought into it. And things moved along really quickly for him from there."More to his repertoire
Shortly after cracking the big leagues on July 26, 2007 -- he'd started the year in Class A and shot up to Class AAA -- Lannan assembled the first pieces of a unique career. Lannan had thrown just 185 career big league pitches prior to Aug. 6, 2007, the night where San Francisco's Barry Bonds was one homer shy of the all-time record. One 400-foot blast, and Lannan would earn the ignominious role in a highlight for eternity. But he pitched to Bonds the same way he pitched to, say, Randy Winn, and Bonds finished the game 0 for 3.
Since then, Lannan has evolved, adding a slider to his repertoire and improving his control. In each of his three big league seasons, he's thrown his fastball with decreasing frequency. In each of his three big league seasons, he's improved his first-pitch strike percentage.
So why is Lannan's career anomalous? Last season, 36 pitchers threw at least 200 innings. None struck out fewer than Lannan (89). Nobody had a higher success rate for inducing double plays. Only one pitcher, Tampa Bay's Matt Garza, had poorer run support. According to fangraphs.com, only two of those pitchers -- Doug Davis and Mark Buehrle -- had less average velocity on their fastballs.
"I've always been a contact pitcher," Lannan said. "My dad infused in me that lighting up the radar gun was never a priority."
This season, Lannan wants to finish for the first time with a winning record. With an improved defense and bullpen, he has a chance. Eventually, Washington views him as a No. 3 pitcher -- not a No. 1 or a No. 2. But if Stephen Strasburg develops, Lannan can eventually inherit a comfortable role, a role that even several years ago seemed improbable.
"He's a unique guy," said Gibson, who also is a scout for the Seattle Mariners. "When I'm out in the scouting world nowadays, I tell kids, 'Here's a guy who was 82-83 in high school, and now in the big leagues and, on his good days, he's 88-90 mph. But what separates him is something between the ears. To put it bluntly, I think he has an incredible fear of failing, and he has turned that into a huge positive with how he's worked."