John Lannan has been the Nationals' opening day starter each of the past two years, but until recently, he hadn't done anything to cement a place in the Nationals rotation of the future (however you choose to define that). Midway through this season, his stock hit an all-time low.
Over the span of four starts, Lannan gave up 39 hits and 22 runs in just over 19 innings pitched. The Nationals sent him down to Double-A Harrisburg to try and straighten out whatever it was that caused his sudden and significant drop in effectiveness. After a few starts in the minors, the Nationals called Lannan back up to the parent club. The results have been impressive, and for Lannan, they couldn't have come at a better time.
Lannan has made nine starts since he came up from the minors, and as Ben Goessling points out, he has looked about as good as he has at any point in his career.
Lannan had 24 strikeouts in 14 starts before he was sent down in June. He has 41 in nine starts since he came back, and 19 in his last three outings (including six in a win over the Braves yesterday). His strikeout-to-walk ratio in his last four starts is 3.28-to-1; he's never consistently posted a K-to-BB ratio that good in his career. He's sacrificed a few ground balls in his last two starts, but his Sept. 4 outing at Pittsburgh, during which Lannan struck out seven while inducing 15 grounders and holding the Pirates to one run in seven innings, ranks as one of the finest of his career.
It's not just hunger that has keyed Lannan's recent success (although I'm sure that has something to do with it), there was a small mechanical adjustment made to Lannan's delivery while he was in the minors.
There's been a subtle difference in Lannan's delivery since he's come back from the minors - as we've mentioned here a couple times, he's crouching a little more, particularly from the windup, to hide the ball better. For a 6-foot-4 pitcher who stood pretty tall on his way to the plate and doesn't have overpowering stuff, the small adjustment - cooked up at Harrisburg with pitching coach Randy Tomlin - has worked wonders.
If you've watched Lannan pitch since he came back, you can see that he looks like an entirely different pitcher out there. It's always good to pitch well, but as Goessling explains, pitching well right now in this particular season could be especially beneficial to Lannan.
All of this comes at an opportune time for Lannan; he hits salary arbitration after the season, and is looking more than ever like a pitcher in whom the Nationals need to invest.
The last part of that sentence is the most important part. When Lannan was struggling in the majors and being sent down to Double-A the team might have seen him as expendable. But now that he has shown the ability to pitch to his potential, the Nationals likely can't afford to let him walk. Sure, he probably made himself some money by pitching the way he has; but more important than demonstrating his value to an arbiter, he demonstrated his value to the team.