Monday, February 22, 2010

Unlikely Story

EDIT: Huh. For some reason, I read "Brown" as "Bowden." Um .... disregard?

Chico Harlan kicked off Sayonara Week with a splendid piece on John Lannan's rather idiosyncratic path to big league success. And yes, I realize that Harlan's story was published on Friday, which is roughly equivalent to the Precambrian Era in blog terms, seeing as it's now Monday night. However, it still beats the breathless updates about Kris Benson's workouts and Stephen Strasburg's fiber intake, or whatever passes for news these days on Twitter, so check it out.

As is federally mandated of a writer when discussing Lannan's path to success, Harlan includes an anecdote that would sound too incredible to be true if it were not, in fact, true: Jim Bowden's challenge to Lannan, prior to the 2007 season, to make it to the big league roster that very season. Lannan says that Bowden's call "changed the way I looked at everything." I'll bet. While an athlete's success must in large part be grounded in a productive form of narcissism, in more self-aware moments Lannan might have suspected he was a rather nondescript former 11th round pick with a decent chance of being one-third of the way to being a six-year minor league free agent. If so, the thought wouldn't have been without reason. Lannan had advanced so far as Savannanah, straight-up A-ball, and wasn't any great shakes there.

Forget what we know now, and remember how Lannan was considered back then, after his first two seasons in the minors. Scroll through the NFA archives -- outside of the usual organizational updates, there's not much there concerning Lannan until his fine 2007 breakout season was well underway, nor should there have been. By my recollection, Brian had him rated in the upper 20s among the organization's prospects entering 2007. I think Baseball America rated him No. 20. John Sickels didn't rate Lannan among the Nats' top 20; he listed among the also-rans, behind guys with such starry futures as "this is a generous grade but I like his arm," "gets grounders," "number four starter perhaps," "good arm, terrible numbers," another "good arm, terrible numbers," "decent middle relief type," and the always inspring "can't throw strikes." Bonus points if you can rattle off who these other guys were; extra bonus points if you even remember the last couple of these guys.

Given this background, the question occurs to me: What the hell was Bowden thinking? Yes, we often pondered that question in the Days of Bodes, but one really has to ask what he saw here -- and to give him credit for it. I mean, he actually did see something, right?

Probably, but let's allow our minds to run in another direction for a moment. Remember, this was 2007, the year when the Nats invited anyone short of Ethel Merman to try out for a spot in the starting rotation, and the main reason she wasn't invited was because he'd been dead 23 years. No fewer than 14 pitchers had some sort of recognized shot at a job, with somebody named "Other" proudly finishing ninth in the heart of the fan. I recall that spring training fairly well from my blogging basement; things seemed less than tidy at the time. I wasn't alone in thinking that, rather than a rotation, the Nats would find it necessary to implement different waves of starters as the season progressed.

So, the thought occurs to me, what if Bowden's rather unexpected words of encouragement to Lannan in the winter of 2006-07 could be viewed in light of this pitching mess with which the team likely suspected it faced? What if, instead of demonstrating an uncanny grasp of what Lannan was to become, Bowden had instead simply picked Lannan as a good candidate for an inevitable slaughter?

It makes some sense, right? Heading into the 2007 season, the probable starters were . . . whom? Well, there was Patterson -- there was the hope, at least, of Patterson. Shawn Hill was not a bad sleeper pick. And after that? Redding, Simontacchi, and Williams were reclamation projects; Traber, Lewis, and Michalak were hangers-on; Bergmann was just beginning his unsteady starter-reliever two-step; Chico was a rookie. There were others. I'm not even sure if Bacsik was on the radar. It was a mess. Basically, the suspicion here would be that Bowden, anticipating this mess, looked for a college arm (thus, with at least some seasoning), who wasn't a notable prospect (thus, could not be considered "rushed), who could plug a gap on the major league staff as soon as that summer (thus, could serve as a punching bag), and picked Lannan. And, as luck would have it, he made a great pick.

I thought of ways to test this suspicion, and the one I settled on was to look at what the really bad (i.e., 100+ loss) teams of recent years did. This approach seemed to make sense, as most people (perhaps even some within the Nats' front office) believed the 2007 Nats would be pretty lowly, especially given the lousy options presented to them on the pitching side. So I looked at all of these piss-poor teams, from the obvious ones like the 1996 and 2003 Tigers, to the forgetten horridness that was the 2004 Diamondbacks, to the more unassuming incompetence achieved by 100-loss outfits from Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Milwaukee. And guess what? No one on those teams was a good comp for John Lannan in 2007. There were some pretty obscure guys who made horrific debuts for those teams, but no one matched Lannan's pre-2007 combination of youth (22), low draft position (11th round), inexperience (only reached A-ball), and poor minor league results (9-13, 5-ish ERA). (The closest match I found was somebody named Dave Pember, a former 8th round pick who, two years after going 2-10 in the Midwest League, was briefly getting slapped around for a 106-loss Milwauke team. But even Pember was two years older than Lannan and had pitched 120+ innings at the A+ level the year before he debuted.)

Lannan was neither a young prodigy nor a fellow who had paid his dues in the upper minors. Although I can't say my research here is in any way exhaustive, the attention he received from Bowden doesn't seem to follow any pattern that I can detect. Futhermore, if Bowden was merely looking for a prospective punching bag from the Savannah team, why Lannan and not Craig Stammen? Stammen was drafted only a round later than Lannan in 2005, was a year older than Lannan, also was not considered too much of a prospect, and had pitched better than Lannan to that point. But it took three more seasons for Stammen to reach the majors.

I suppose the simplest answer, unlikely as it may seem at first blush, is the party line: Bowden (or someone in the Nationals' employ) saw something here, and Lannan has delivered.

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  • A couple points:

    1) Do we know Bowden didn't give Stammen a similar call? Maybe this is something he did more than once and we just haven't heard about the guys who didn't make it. Lannan wouldn't have made it up to the Bigs in 07 if he didn't pitch well at each level that year, so what separates him might be his performance. The problems with the rotation that year might have made Bowden trigger-happy to promote anyone like Lannan, but it's just Lannan was in the right place at the right time, pitching the right way.

    2) Do we know this story is true? People often forget the details of conversations and perhaps Bowden said or meant something different.

    3) Welcome to Capitol Punishment, Basil! Although Chris got most of the "please come back!" attention, you were definitely missed when you stepped down from FB.

    By Anonymous cass, at 2/23/2010 1:10 AM  

  • Excellent ruminations. Just don't plant a seed of nostalgia for Jim Bowden. He is entertaining enough on the radio.

    By Blogger Positively Half St., at 2/23/2010 4:40 AM  

  • Harlan includes an anecdote that would sound too incredible to be true if it were not, in fact, true: Jim Bowden's challenge to Lannan, prior to the 2007 season, to make it to the big league roster that very season. Lannan says that Bowden's call "changed the way I looked at everything."

    It's not, in fact, true. It was Dana Brown who made that call, not Bowden. RTFA.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/23/2010 7:31 AM  

  • I think the difference between Bowden and Dana Brown is pretty significant. Does this post hold up if we change the names? I think the premise is pretty sound, although I find it much less likely if we are talking about Dana Brown.

    By Blogger pauloyd, at 2/23/2010 9:00 AM  

  • It's not, in fact, true. It was Dana Brown who made that call, not Bowden. RTFA.

    You're right, Anon. Very sloppy on my part. Mea culpa.

    By Blogger Basil, at 2/23/2010 9:51 AM  

  • Ah, your first Roseanne Rosannadanna moment: "Oh, ummmm, never mind"

    Welcome to my age.

    By Anonymous VladiHondo, at 2/23/2010 2:15 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger WFY, at 2/23/2010 3:44 PM  

  • Wasn't that Emily Litella?

    By Blogger WFY, at 2/23/2010 3:44 PM  

  • Even if Bowden did have a say in getting Lannan up so quickly, I think it would have been one of the two times a day a broken clock is right. If you make hundreds of bad choices sooner or later you're gonna get lucky

    By Blogger Rob B, at 2/23/2010 10:43 PM  

  • I guess I shouldn't be so condescending after this debacle!

    By Anonymous ntr Basil, at 2/23/2010 11:13 PM  

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