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February 21, 2007

Player Profile

Aaron Harang

by Marc Normandin

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If you asked which player I have received more e-mail in regards to profiling during my time at Baseball Prospectus, the answer would most likely be Aaron Harang. The questions are many: how did he become so productive? Why does PECOTA dislike him for 2007? Does he give up too many flyballs to be successful? He's certainly an interesting case, given that he was basically a league-average pitcher all of three seasons ago, and now he's the staff anchor for Cincinnati. And I don't meant that in a nominal sense, like Eric Milton heading into 2005.

Aaron Harang was originally selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 22nd round of the 1996 amateur entry draft, but declined to sign in favor of attending San Diego State University. The graphic design major was made selection #195 in the 1999 draft by the Texas Rangers, and this time signed on to pitch professionally. He made his pro debut at Pulaski of the Rookie League at age 21, with a follow-up campaign in Charlotte of the Florida State League:

Year  Team             IP      K/9   BB/9  K/BB  HR/9  H/9   RA
1999  Pulaski   (Rk)   78.1   10.0   1.9   5.1   0.6   7.4   2.53
2000  Charlotte (A+)  157.0    7.8   2.9   2.7   0.6   7.3   3.90

Harang pitched well in his debut, striking out 10 batters per nine while walking just under two in the same frame. The next year he upped his innings pitched while losing a few strikeouts and adding a few walks. His home run rate stayed the same after the jump, as did his hit rate. Harang would win the only league pitching award of his career during his first season, taking home the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year award in 1999, but he made minor league All-Star teams in both 1999 and 2000.

During the 2000 offseason, the Rangers dealt Harang and Ryan Cullen to the rival Athletics in exchange for Randy Velarde. Rangers fans probably don't want to talk about this deal, since it was a potential boon for a division rival, but they can take heart--the Athletics would give Harang away for peanuts themselves in due time. Harang was promoted to Double-A Midland for the 2001 season; he was entering his age-23 season and had not been tested past the low minors yet. Baseball America ranked him as the 27th-best prospect in the A's organization, crediting his "poise and feel for pitching" as well as his "fastball that touches 90 mph...and an effective slider." Harang's peripherals were a mixed bag following the campaign:

Year   Team          IP    K/9   BB/9  K/BB  HR/9   H/9   RA
2001  Midland (AA)  150.0  6.7   2.2   3.0   0.5   10.4  4.86

His hit rate jumped to well over a hit per inning, and his strikeouts continued to dip. Everything else seemed to remain stable. The season does not look all that impressive until you throw the context of the environment he was pitching in. With that in mind, Baseball America moved Harang up to #16 in the A's organization following the season, noting, "After surviving a year pitching his home games in a bandbox in an overall hitter's league, Harang is ready for Triple-A." The A's did not immediately agree, as his first three starts for 2002 would come at Midland once again. Harang would see time at Triple-A Sacramento, and make his major-league debut during the year:

Year   Team               IP    K/9   BB/9  K/BB  HR/9  H/9   RA
2002  Sacramento (AAA)   38.2   9.1   2.1   4.3   0.2   9.5  4.01
2002  Oakland (MLB)      78.1   7.4   5.2   1.4   0.8   9.0  5.07

Time in Sacramento was much happier than that spent in Midland the previous season, but Harang's debut was something short of a success. His walk rates, which to this point had been excellent, climbed over five per nine, and he started to give up a few more home runs. A bit of a rise in these categories is to be expected, but for someone who was widely considered to have some of the better command in the organization, the significant jump in walk rate was a bit disconcerting.

Still, Baseball Prospectus 2003 liked Harang at the back of the A's rotation for 2003:

Yes, the A's grabbing pitching from Texas. Harang's filled in nicely as a #5 starter, and with the trade of Cory Lidle, he'll get a crack at the rotation again. He's got a decent, slightly straight fastball, but he's really more of a work-the-strike-zone guy than an overpowering guy, despite his enormous 6'6" frame. But hey, angles are angles. Harang's going to have to pitch well to hold off Rich Harden.

The A's started Harang out in Sacramento in the hopes he'd turn around and regain the peripherals he had prior to his debut, and he did. The problems arose when he was promoted to the majors again and forgot how to strike people out, and although walking batters was no longer a problem, getting batters to hit it where they are appeared to be a lost art for Harang. The A's decided to peddle Harang to shore up a stretch drive, dealing him to the Reds along with Jeff Bruksch and Joe Valentine for Jose Guillen, who at the time was hitting .337/.385/.629, and who was bound for free agency at year's end.

Year  Team              IP    K/9   BB/9  K/BB  HR/9  H/9   RA
2003  Sacramento (AAA) 69.2   7.8   2.2   3.5   0.7   8.0  3.12
2003  Oakland          30.1   4.8   2.7   1.8   1.5  12.2  5.68
2003  Cincinnati       46.0   5.1   2.0   2.6   1.2   9.4  5.48

Harang might have lost a little something on his pitches trying to compensate for the high walk rate from 2002 in Oakland, and his numbers suffered for it. Although Harang wasn't ready to help an aspiring playoff team, he was a nifty and promising addition to the Reds rotation, which could afford to take chances. He wasn't that far removed from prospectdom, and had only thrown 108.2 innings for Oakland before they shipped him out.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was not convinced Harang would succeed with a team like Cincy, although PECOTA was somewhat kind, projecting a 4.94 PERA:

A fourth starter picked up from the A's for Jose Guillen, Harang doesn't throw that hard for a big guy. He works up in the zone, which got him into trouble last year with long balls, something that's not likely to go away. Harang needs a big outfield patrolled by gazelles; he'll have neither in Cincinnati, so his success will depend on his walking almost no one.

Luckily for Harang, not walking batters was the one standout skill in his peripherals, although he continued to give up home runs...

Year  Team         IP     K/9   BB/9  K/BB  HR/9  H/9   RA   BABIP
2004  Cincinnati  161.0   7.0   3.0   2.4   1.5   9.9  5.03  .315

...but he didn't walk too many hitters, and managed to keep his hit rate somewhat sane while bringing his strikeouts back up above league average. It was a step in the right direction, and he even bested his PERA forecast by posting a 4.65. The statistics are actually somewhat skewed, as Baseball Prospectus 2005 will tell you:

Check his game log. Harang was miserable through his first 11 starts, tossing up a 5.43 ERA, with ugly peripheral stats. When the Reds diagnosed a sore elbow and placed him on the DL, you had to expect the worst. But then Harang came back strong, yielding just one run in his first three starts back, racking up 21 strikeouts in 18.2 innings and showing vastly improved command. Harang's last few starts were erratic, but the Reds are optimistic that some of his post-injury goodness could carry forward. Even so, he'll need to cure that gopheritis (a homer every 6 IP last year) to succeed.

The pitcher that Aaron Harang became in the 2005-2006 seasons was exactly what he needed to be in order to succeed: he cut down on his home runs allowed, and continued to be stingy with the free pass. He even turned into the strikeout pitcher his early minor league numbers had suggested during 2006, crossing the 200 K mark:

Year  Team         IP    K/9  BB/9  K/BB  HR/9  H/9   RA   BABIP
2005  Cincinnati  211.2  6.9  2.2   3.2   0.9   9.2  3.96  .310
2006  Cincinnati  234.1  8.3  2.2   3.9   1.1   9.3  4.19  .325

Harang stopped working up in the zone as often, instead doing most of his work on the lower corners. He's primarily a fastball pitcher, although he uses his slider with very good results. His problems mostly have to do with 1) pitching at the Great American Ballpark and 2) left-handed hitters. GAB simply causes Harang to give up more homers than he ought to: From 2004-2006, he held a 1.4 HR/9 at home, with only a 0.9 HR/9 on the road.

As for the lefties, Harang historically has no real problems with them, but in 2006 they hit .267/.313/.441 against him with 10 homers in 374 at-bats. The cause of this seems to be his change-up; once considered his top offering, it was beat all over the place to the tune of a .339 batting average in 2006 with almost all of that damage coming against lefties. It could be a single-year fluke, but it's something to watch for in the future.

Harang's batted-ball data has been fairly consistent over the years, with much of his progress as a starter stemming from work on his strikeout and walk rates:

Year P/PA  FB%   LINERD%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP Dif.
2002 4.1   46.2%  22.5%  31.4%  15.6%   6.4%  .312   .345  +0.33
2003 3.9   35.8%  23.3%  40.9%  20.7%  12.0%  .310   .353  +0.43
2004 3.8   38.5%  19.6%  41.9%  10.8%  13.3%  .315   .316  +0.01
2005 3.8   39.0%  21.8%  39.3%  13.7%   8.8%  .310   .338  +0.28
2006 3.7   39.6%  21.9%  38.5%  12.8%  12.8%  .325   .339  +0.14

Harang almost always has a lower BABIP than his expected BABIP, but a lot of that has to do with his consistently high flyball rates. Earlier in his career these flyball rates got him into trouble with home runs, but as he stopped working as high in the zone, the number of home runs decreased while the number of flyouts increased. This has worked to Harang's advantage, although pitching half of his games in the GAB still presents somewhat of a problem for the staff ace.

PECOTA is forecasting a 4.32 PERA for 2007, which seems like a slight considering Harang's work the past two years. His 75th percentile is somewhat more optimistic, with a PERA of 4.02. The reason his PERA is high relative to his 2006 performance is because of strikeout rate; although Harang's K/9 was 8.3 last year, it's been anywhere between 4.8 and 7.0 in his other major league seasons. PECOTA therefore forecasts a 6.8 K/9 for Harang, which skews his PERA up a bit. All of the projections within his range of outcome have between a 6.5 and 6.9 K/9, so if Harang's 8.3 is closer to his true level of performance, then his actual PERA should reflect that, and he will most likely best his forecast. If he drops back down to around seven strikeouts per nine, as he did in 2004-2005, then his PECOTA should be spot on.

Although Harang is a legitimate frontline starter, he has been a bit lucky due to his flyball rates, and PECOTA is also accounting for his starts at the Great American Bandbox. The Reds were smart to lock up Harang to a deal through his age-33 campaign, and at a bargain price to boot. All in all, it's a fair forecast, and coupled with the more optimistic projections for teammate Bronson Arroyo, presents a nifty picture of the front end of the Cincy rotation for the coming year. Finding three other useful starters...well, that's a different story.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles.

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