If a baseball season is six months of turning points - crossroads where a player can either figure it out or fall further into the depths of major league purgatory - John Lannan’s happened at 30,000 feet, somewhere between Baltimore and Milwaukee.
In the midst of the Nationals‘ worst stretch, a 1-7 road trip in mid-May that ended with a sweep in Milwaukee, Lannan was 2-5 with an ERA over 5.00 and with the memory of being shipped to Double-A in 2010 fresh in his mind. Opponents were hitting .303 against him, and the Orioles, one of the worst teams in the American League, had just tagged him for six runs in six innings.
Livan Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez and the 35 years of major league experience between them, sat Lannan down on the team’s charter flight and told the 26-year-old lefty that enough was enough. Enough time had gone by where they watched Lannan’s lack of conviction in his ability derail him.
“You’re really good,” Hernandez told him. “It’s important for you to know that you’re good, because you are. You really are.”
“It’s tough for me to believe it,” Lannan admitted, looking back on the talk. “Trusting it is a huge part of my game.”
That conversation was followed by an hourlong chat with pitching coach Steve McCatty after a bullpen session in which Lannan threw twice his normal amount of pitches - on the advice of Hernandez. Then came a string of starts that would rival those of some of the best pitchers in the league.
“When those guys sit you down and say something to you, it not only means they’re probably telling the truth, it means that they care enough to tell you something,” Lannan said. “They gave me advice, and I took it.”
Starting with 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres his next time out, Lannan reeled off 11 straight starts where he averaged 6 1/3 innings and never allowed more than three earned runs. He also threw his sinker almost exclusively, with authority, and dropped his opponents batting average to .218 in that time.
“What is John Lannan?” McCatty asked him that day in Milwaukee. “John Lannan is a sinkerballer guy. He throws sinkers. He does have a nice changeup and the other things work, but his bread and butter is sinking the ball and throwing strikes. …
“You can talk about the perfect pitch in the perfect situation all the time but if that’s not your strength and you get hurt in that situation, then you’ve got to go back to the sinker.”
McCatty calls Hernandez “mentally strong,” and “the consummate pitcher.” No one can replicate what the 36-year-old does on the mound, but his mental approach - one that relies on using his own strengths and doesn’t waver based on game situation or particular batters - is one that fits McCatty and the staff’s philosophy.
“Think,” said Hernandez, who said he could see himself as an adviser or assistant to a general manager, perhaps even with the Nationals organization. “Pitching is about thinking about what you’ve got to do with the hitter. It’s more important to know why you need to throw the pitch. Remember, we’ve got to be smarter than the hitter.”
Between Single-A and Double-A, they’d asked Lannan to write down a few opposing hitters and how he’d approach them. He couldn’t do it. His success was predicated on his pitches, and he simply was pitching better than the level of play. His mental approach wasn’t an issue because he didn’t have one.
In 2010, a year Lannan calls his biggest for learning, that wasn’t the case. His brief minor league return reminded him of his blind faith in his ability. This season has been about finding the balance. Trusting his stuff, remaining mentally focused enough not to deviate from his strengths but using them appropriately.
His year is not finished, and there still are goals to be reached. Lannan, at 8-8, confided in Hernandez that he’d like to reach the 10-win mark this season for the first time in his career. His walk totals have escalated recently, but whenever he needs a reminder of how to get back to the guy he’s been for much of this season, he looks to the big Cuban righty a few locker stalls down.
“Livo enjoys life, to the fullest, every day,” Lannan said. “Sometimes you catch yourself not doing that, and he reminds you that we’re lucky to be here. And everything’s perfect, pretty much.”