The injury to Chien-Ming Wang means John Lannan is almost certain to be the Washington Nationals’ fifth starter to open the season. While many teams would love to have a fifth starter with Lannan’s credentials, this might not be the optimal outcome for Washington. Overlooked is a player with excellent, though largely unknown credentials, who could add balance to the staff, start in a pinch, and even pinch hit or pinch run.
Who is this underrated and overlooked pitcher?
While this seems preposterous on the surface, some in-depth analysis of the data and the make-up of the Nationals’ staff without Stammen may make this proposal more understandable.
First, with Lannan as the fifth starter, the long relievers end up being Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny, both left-handers. Stammen, a righty, gives the Nationals a better balanced tandem of long relievers. Move Detwiler to the fifth starting spot, Lannan to AAA (he has an option left and Detwiler does not), and Gorzelanny and Stammen give Davey Johnson the two long relievers he likes to have on his staff.
The drawbacks to this set-up are:
- Lannan, rightfully so, would take offense at being sent to the minors, and
- Sean Burnett becomes the only other left-hander in the bullpen. Having both Detwiler and Gorzelanny gives Johnson the option of using one as a situational lefty in games that require it.
However, top set-up man Tyler Clippard, despite being a righty, has good numbers against left-handed batters, so the need for another left-hander is less so than on other teams’ staffs.
The other important factor is that Stammen is a solid pitcher, especially in relief. In both the majors and minors, roughly eight seasons of data, Stammen has a respectable WHIP of 1.37 and strikes out about 6 batters per nine innings. His Fielder-Independent Pitching (FIP) is 4.23 (xFIP is 4.01) 7/10 of a run less than his actual ERA (majors and minors combined) of 4.93. With the Nationals defense much improved since 2009-10, when he spent most of his time in D.C., his actual ERA should approach or even exceed his FIP ratings.
Also, Stammen is more effective as a relief pitcher. With a good fastball, excellent slider (when he can throw it for strikes), but ineffective other pitches, Stammen’s performance tends to be much better the first time he faces a batter. The batter adjusts to his limited repertoire in subsequent at-bats.
Finally, unlike most of the other Nationals’ pitchers (and many of their position players so far this Spring), Stammen is an excellent hitter and base runner. He has a .563 OPS as a hitter, with 16 RBI’s in limited major league playing time. Stammen gives the pitching staff more versatility and balance and extends Davey Johnson’s bench as well. He is like having a 26th player. While rarely needed, it is a nice option to have and could decide a game in the Nats’ favor. If the Nationals are as good as they claim to be and in the race for the 5th playoff spot, one game could have enormous meaning by season’s end.
Of course, if any of the four – Lannan, Detwiler, Gorzelanny, or Stammen – are traded, all this becomes moot. In the meantime, while Stammen is great insurance to have in Syracuse, the Nationals may be better off in the long run taking him with them to Chicago to start the 2012 season.