One of my favorite baseball happenings of 2012 occurred yesterday, when John Lannan returned from minor-league exile to stop the Nats’ two-game skid and extend their NL East lead to 2.5 games. It was a big game, as far as July goes, both for the team and the man, who was demoted this spring in favor of Ross Detwiler and Chien-Ming Wang after being the rotation’s bedrock through four very long seasons.
Though this was just a spot start, it foretells what’s likely to happen in September, when Stephen Strasburg hits his fast-approaching innings limit and a new starter is needed. If/when that occurs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Lannan replaces Strasburg in the rotation; it means Gio Gonzalez replaces Stras, Jordan Zimmermann replaces Gio, Edwin Jackson replaces ZNN, Detwiler replaces Jackson and, finally, Lannan replaces Detwiler. But really, what we’re talking about is Strasburg leaving and Lannan entering a pennant race.
Looking for what that means requires you to look at Lannan’s body of work, which consists of 758 innings pitched for the Nats, steady innings with a 3.99 ERA. That’s 1.14 runs higher than Strasburg’s career average of 2.85. Of course, neither guy goes nine, though. (Lannan has two career complete games, Strasburg none.)
Lannan’s average start lasts 5.9 innings, Strasburg’s 5.6. So, in the average start Lannan gives up 2.62 earned runs, Strasburg 1.77. That’s a difference of less than a run per start between the exceedingly average (Lannan) and the exceedingly brilliant (Strasburg).
In the regular season, that isn’t a big deal. It averages out to less than a run every five games, and only for a handful of weeks. It’s hard to say, because I’m no mathematician, but that probably ends up costing the Nats a game or two.
Where it becomes a big deal is the postseason, where it’s not Lannan replacing Strasburg in the rotation but Edwin Jackson (and maybe Detwiler or Lannan if/when they extend to a four-man rotation). The stakes are far higher then, but the gap between Strasburg and Jackson is even slimmer (Jackson averages 6.3 innings/start with a 3.73 ERA).
For as good as Strasburg is, and he is very, very good, these are pretty excellent fall-back options. It’s rare to have a Lannan-quality guy waiting in the wings as the sixth starter, let alone a Jackson-quality guy as the No. 4, ready to move up. What to do with Stras is a gut-wrenching decision and an excellent national debate, but the performance of two lesser-knowns is what will decide it over time. Hopefully in their favor.
(Gatorade shower image taken with love from Nats Enquirer.)