Washington Nationals: John Lannan’s Disappearing Sinker
For the last several years, John Lannan has been a solid starting pitcher for the Nats. He has relied on a two seam (sinking) fastball to produce ground balls. Even when he has allowed runners to reach base, he has been able to get out of jams by inducing batters to ground into double plays. This year has been a different story. He’s struggled to get batters to hit ground balls. He’s entered the death spiral of starting pitchers – he’s struggled to get batters out, which has forced him to pitch to additional batters each inning, which has forced him to throw too many pitches, which has forced him to leave games early. Let’s compare Lannan’s 2010 effort to his Pitch F/X data from 2009.
Identifying a Sinker
Several years ago, John Walsh wrote an excellent piece in The Hardball Times titled “In Search of the Sinker“. In it, Walsh described how he used the GameDay/Pitch F/X data to classify the sinker based on vertical movement. In short, he notes that a sinker is a fastball that drops 5-10 inches more than a four seam fastball. Using that same math, we can look at the drop on Lannan’s sinkers. We can also break the drop in to smaller groupings, 5-10 inches more than a four seamer, 2-5 inches more, and < 2 inches more than a four seam fastball. In this post, when you read that a sinker drops 5 inches, understand that it drops 5 inches more than a four seamer, not 5 inches total from the mound to the plate.
A quick look at the data identifies the problem. In 2009, 57% of the two seam fastballs Lannan threw dropped 5-10 inches more than his four seam fastball. In 2010, the rate falls to 43%. Here’s the data:
It’s pretty easy to see the problem – major league batters can adjust to a ball dropping 2-5 inches more than a four seamer much easier than they can a ball dropping 5-10 inches more than the four seamer.
2009 Sinkers In Play
Because Lannan’s two seamer had a lot of drop in 2009, batters tended to hit ground balls. In 2009, 70% of Lannan’s two seamers put in play resulted in ground balls. Here’s the breakdown:
- 5-10 inch drop – 109 Balls In Play – 70%
- 2-5 inch drop – 45 Balls in play - 29%
- <2 inch drop - 1 Ball in Play – 0%
Here’s what batters did in 2009 when they hit Lannan’s two seam fastball:
You can see that the result of less drop is a higher rate of balls hit in the air. In 2009, Lannan had a big drop on his two seam fastball. Because of this, 61% of all two seam fastballs put in play were ground balls.
2010 Sinkers in Play
2010 is a different story. Lannan’s two seam fastball doesn’t have the sink on it this year that it did in 2009. Here’s the 2010 breakdown of two seamers in play:
- 5-10 inch drop – 55 Balls In Play – 51%
- 2-5 inch drop – 50 Balls in play - 46%
- <2 inch drop - 3 Balls in Play – 3%
Here’s the 2010 result of two seam fastballs in play:
At this point in the season, Lannan’s two seam fastball has resulted in a ground ball in play rate of only 44%. That’s a huge drop off from 2009.
Because John Lannan isn’t a strike out pitcher, he has no means to recover when he’s getting pounded. He basically has to keep throwing pitches that batters can hit until Riggleman pulls him from the game. This problem isn’t going to go away until Lannan finds the adjustment to make the two seamer sink again.