Look up "fifth starter" in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of John Lannan. No longer able to hit Phillies batters with "errant" pitches, Lannan looks to be a steady bridge between Kyle Kendrick and one of the three aces. Unfortunately, in order to be decent, he's going to need solid defense behind him, something the Phillies might not be able to supply.
2012 totals: 4.13 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 4.70 xFIP, 97 ERA+ over 32.7 IP and 6 starts
2013 Oliver projection: 4.06 ERA, 4.09 FIP over 184 IP
2013 Bill James projection: 4.58 ERA, 4.38 FIP over 55 IP and 10 starts
2013 Steamer projection: 4.75 ERA, 4.43 FIP over 122 IP and 22 starts
2013 PECOTA projection: 4.47 ERA, 4.37 FIP, over 92.7 IP and 16 starts
Before this year, when I saw John Lannan's mug, I had two very different reactions. On the one hand, I feared for the safety of Phillies' players. As we have long documented here at TGP, Lannan has been a veritable wrecking ball against the Phillies -- not in terms of performance, but rather in terms of hitting Phillies' batters and injuring them. I'll be shocked if Chase Utley and Lannan ever say a peaceful word to each other in the dugout this year.
On the other hand, Lannan has always meant good results for the Phillies. The Phillies have an .899 OPS against Lannan and have won 15 of 19 games he has started against them in his career. As I wrote back in December when the team signed him: "That's a .790 winning percentage. Compare that to the Phillies record when all other pitchers start against them since Lannan entered the league: .566."
But that's all water under the bridge, as we can do nothing about the fact that at this point in time Lannan is a Phillie, and he will, barring injury, take the ball every fifth game, trying to hold down the Phillies fifth-starter slot. If he's healthy, Lannan might be a decent fifth starter. From 2008 through 2011, Lannan started between 25 and 33 games each year and had an overall ERA+ of 103. An above-average ERA from a fifth starter is value added, no doubt. In 2012, he only had 6 major league starts, as he was the odd man out in the Nationals rotation and spent most of the year in AAA. In those 32.7 major league innings, he did what he always does -- he had a 4.13 ERA and 97 ERA+ with a high-ish WHIP (1.44). That's almost identical to his minor league performance last year -- a 4.30 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 24 starts.
There are two concerns with Lannan, though. First, he has an awful strikeout to walk ratio, one of the worst in baseball. Last year, his 1.21 K/BB ratio would have been second-worst in the majors (to his new teammate Aaron Cook!) if he had pitched enough innings. In 2011, Lannan did have the worst in the majors. In 2010, his 1.45 ratio would have been worst in the majors if he had pitched just a few more innings. The bottom line here is that Lannan puts men on base via walk and doesn't strike many out. That is a dangerous combination, especially because of the next concern.
Second, Lannan is an extreme ground ball pitcher. Over his career, 53% of his batted balls have been grounders. It may be a small sample size, but the trend over the past three years is even more concerning. His GB% has risen from 51.5% to 54.1% to 56.9%. That final number, if he had pitched enough innings, would have been the fifth highest in baseball last year.
On a team with a stellar infield defense, I'd be more than happy with such a high ground ball rate. However, Lannan is not pitching on that team. Rather, the Phillies almost certainly will have problems with all of the ground balls Lannan induces. The Phillies' two best infield defenders are up the middle, in Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. As good as both have been in their careers, they are both in their mid-thirties, and Utley is coming off two years marred by knee injuries. However, they are both Ozzie Smith in his prime compared to the other two infielders, Ryan Howard and Michael Young. I seriously worry those two may wind up among the worst-fielding corner infield combinations in the history of baseball. Any ground ball Lannan induces to the left of Rollins or the right of Utley is going to be a risk for a single or error. And any shading Rollins or Utley does to compensate will expose the middle of the field.
In other words, the best part of Lannan's skill set, inducing ground balls at rates higher than almost any other pitcher in baseball, is decidedly not compatible with this Phillies defense. Combine that with the fact that he doesn't strike men out but does walk them, and this could be a dangerous situation for Lannan.
Therefore, I think all but the Steamer prediction listed at the top here are a bit optimistic for Lannan, and even that could be the better end of the spectrum for him. There is no doubt he is a decent fifth starter, maybe one of the better ones in baseball, but with the defense the Phillies are putting behind him this year, he is likely going to suffer.