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July 10, 2007

The San Francisco Treat

Picking the All-Star Starter

by John Perrotto

SAN FRANCISCO - Jim Leyland certainly doesn't seem like a manager who would rely on statistical data to make decisions. With his gray moustache and cigarette that he is forever trying to hide from the camera's view, the 61-year-old Detroit Tigers skipper is as old school as they come.

However, Leyland has always been a proponent of using batter/pitcher matchups to determine his starting lineups, going back to his days as a rookie manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. And when it came time to decide who the starting pitching would be for the American League in Tuesday night's All-Star Game at AT&T Park, Leyland went to the numbers. "For the last three or four weeks, I've been having our PR guys with the Tigers run just about every number imaginable," Leyland said Tuesday.

The numbers kept saying over and over that Leyland should buck the traditional custom of giving the starting nod to the pitcher leading the league in victories. Thus, Oakland Athletics right-hander Dan Haren draws the starting assignment against San Diego's Jake Peavy. Haren is 10-3, good for a tie for fourth in the AL in wins behind Boston's Josh Beckett, and Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, who have 12 wins each, and the Los Angeles Angels' John Lackey, who has 11. However, Haren leads the league with a 2.30 ERA.

From a Baseball Prospectus POV, Haren is also the best pitcher in the AL this season. His 4.7 SNLVAR leads the league, and far outpaces Minnesota's Johan Santana, second at 4.0. Haren's 9.8 expected wins also top the AL.

"I think Danny is very deserving," Leyland said. "He's pitched as well as anybody in the league. The numbers show that." Leyland then paused and allowed that conventional wisdom also played a part in his decision, since Haren pitches across the bay from San Francisco in Oakland. "If this game were in Cleveland then C.C. Sabathia would probably be our starter, and if the game were at our place in Detroit, then Justin Verlander would probably start," Leyland said. "The game being here in the Bay Area definitely works in Danny Haren's favor, but he also deserves this opportunity."

While all the statistical indicators show Haren has been the AL's top pitcher, the 26-year-old admits he has "pretty much flown under the radar" this season. In fact, when a writer asked Haren about leading the league in ERA two weeks ago, he smiled and thanked him for noticing. If the AL Cy Young Award voting were held today, Haren almost certainly would not be the winner. Perhaps part of that is pitching on the West Coast, or not having as many wins as Beckett and Sabathia.

For his part, Haren says going unnoticed worked to his advantage because he likes to keep things simple. Asked why he is having a breakout season, Haren said, "primarily, because I'm keeping the ball down. You can take into account a lot of factors but pitching becomes simple if you throw most of your pitches below belt level."

In this era where every pitch is catalogued, numerically and visually, Haren is admittedly not a pitcher who likes to spend hours studying the stats sheets, scouting reports, or videotape. That is not to imply he is lazy; instead, he says he prefers a clear mind when he takes the mound, relying on the wisdom of Athletics catcher Jason Kendall and his 13 years of experience. Kendall's -11.8 VORP is the worst mark this season among the 103 AL players with at least 230 plate appearances, and it makes his $13 million dollar salary seem ridiculously out of line with his declining skills. Still, Haren credits his battery mate's nurturing ways for his performance during their three seasons together with the Athletics.

"Jason makes such a big difference for me," Haren said. "He knows all the hitters in the league, their strengths and weaknesses and how to attack them. He puts down the signs and I pretty much do what he says. It takes a lot of the pressure off me and allows me to just worry about making pitches. You can't underestimate the value of that."

Haren will be facing a National League squad managed by the Cardinals' Tony La Russa. Haren was the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2001 from Pepperdine, and made his major-league debut two years later. Haren pitched 118 1/3 innings for the Cardinals in the 2003-04 seasons and recorded 1.9 SNLVAR before being traded to Oakland for left-hander Mark Mulder in a package that included right-handed reliever Kiko Calero, and minor-league first baseman Daric Barton.

That has been a great trade for the Athletics: Haren has emerged as a star, Barton could become one, and Calero has been a useful bullpen part. Mulder, meanwhile, is recovering from shoulder surgery performed last September and has rarely flashed the form he showed when he was one of the Athletics' Three Aces along with Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.

Haren has 15.3 SNLVAR since the trade while Mulder has 5.5. Furthermore, Calero has a 3.867 WXRL in that span ,and Barton is hitting .321/.405/.483 in 370 plate appearances for Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League this season.

While La Russa stopped short of saying the deal has been a bad one for the Cardinals, he did admit that it still burns highly regarded pitching coach Dave Duncan. "Dave Duncan and I have been together for a long time, been friends for a long time, and it's probably the closest to disrupting our relationship that it's ever been when we made the trade because Dave was adamant that he wanted Dan to be part of the Cardinals' future," La Russa said. "He was young and we asked more of him than we really should have at the time. We were all very impressed with his competitiveness, his toughness, and obviously his stuff. We really liked him. Dave really loved him and we're not surprised by his success."

Getting to start in an All-Star Game is a sure sign of success for any young pitcher. The statistics, beyond the victory total, back that notion up.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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