What the Baseball Gods giveth (Stephen Strasburg's right arm), the Baseball Gods taketh away (John Lannan's extraordinary run of good luck). And so the Nationals' Opening Day starter is going down. Way down.
The Washington Nationals have sent left-hander John Lannan to Double-A Harrisburg, a demotion for their pitcher who started on Opening Day.
Lannan was 2-5 with a 5.76 ERA in 14 starts. He didn't get out of the fifth inning in any of his last three starts, giving up at least 10 hits and five runs in each outing.
"I think he was starting to press," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think his struggles were getting the best of him. Psychologically, I think he was very worried he was letting his team down, that he wasn't giving his teammates a chance to win games."
Lannan also started the opener for the Nationals last year and led the team that season with nine wins.
The Nationals did not say how long Lannan was expected to spend with Harrisburg. Washington manager Jim Riggleman said the most important factor would be how many ground balls the sinkerball pitcher was getting, rather than statistics.
"The best thing for John is to send him out and see if he can get straightened out down below," Riggleman said. "It's tough to try to work out mechanical things in the big leagues."
Could Riggleman really be so foolish? I mean, ground balls? Seriously?
Last season, 52 percent of the batted balls against Lannan were ground balls; this season it's been 50 percent. Obviously, 50 percent isn't as good as 52 percent -- or 54 percent, Lannan's figure in 2008 -- but a difference of a couple of percent doesn't come anywhere near explaining the difference between Lannan's 5.76 ERA this season and his 3.88 ERA last season.
The easiest (and most accurate) explanation for that difference involves luck and the strike zone. After three straight seasons of extraordinary luck, Lannan's been unlucky this season. At the same time, he's also lost control of the strike zone, completely.
Not that he ever had much control of that.
As a rookie in 2007, Lannan started six games and walked more hitters than he struck out. But he lucked into a 4.15 ERA anyway.
In 2008, Lannan's strikeout-to-walk ratio was just 1.63, but thanks to a .273 batting average on balls in play (BABiP) he posted a 3.91 ERA.
In 2009, Lannan's strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped to 1.31, but thanks to a .276 BABiP he posted a 3.88 ERA.
After three straight seasons of sub-.280 BABiP and solid ERAs despite low SO/BB ratios, it was somewhat understandable if somebody thought Lannan had some special ability to prevent runs without doing the things that typically prevent runs. Maybe he found a new way to pitch!
Or maybe not. This season, Lannan's given up a .341 batting average on balls in play, and at the same time his strikeout-to-walk ratio has collapsed: In 75 innings, he's walked 35 and struck out only 24.
And again, this isn't about ground balls and fly balls, or at least not superficially. He's getting roughly as many ground balls as he's always gotten, and he's given up only seven home runs. It doesn't seem to be about arm strength, either; Lannan is throwing as hard as ever, maybe even a little harder.
I don't mean to suggest the Nationals should just keep running Lannan out there every five days, hoping his luck turns around. The game isn't always that simple. I will suggest that Lannan's struggles have little or nothing to do with ground balls, and almost everything to do with gaining some control of the strike zone. If he can get back to where he was in 2008, he'll have the makings of a decent No. 4 starter.