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December 5, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Nationals Sign Dan Haren

by Sam Miller

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WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly signed Dan Haren to a contract for one year, $13 million.

I once asked Dan Haren, early/midway through 2011, if he had lost anything. This was a pretty standard softball that would give him a wide latitude to say "not really" and then go into how he used to be a thrower but now he’s a pitcher and that sort of stuff. But he surprised me and answered with a qualified “yeah.” The problem, he said, is that he couldn’t throw as hard as he used to. He was still very good—this was in 2011—but it wasn’t as easy as it had been when he could throw hard.

Throwing hard is a young man’s game, and while there are a few exceptions, nearly all pitchers lose speed the longer you know who they are. (Correlation equals causation, right? You are to blame!) This loss of velocity can become a very easy and very lazy explanation for any pitcher who struggles. Consider the 10 pitchers who threw the most innings in 2012, with their fastball velocity in 2012 and their highest fastball velocity since 2007:

Pitcher Best velo 2012 velo
Verlander 95.6 94.7
Dickey 85.4 83.0
Hernandez 94.5 92.4
Kershaw 94.3 93.0
Shields 91.5 92.0
Kuroda 92.4 91.3
Cain 92.8 91.1
Peavy 93.9 90.7
Richard 91.8 90.6
Vargas 87.7 87.9

Felix Hernandez had perhaps the best strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate of his career in 2012. Now imagine that, for whatever reason, he hadn’t; imagine he had been bad. Bet you anything we’d be blaming it on the velocity loss. That may be true for all eight of the 10 who saw some velocity loss. It may be particularly true for the four with career-low* velocity, whose 2012 figures are bolded; and maybe even for Verlander, whose velocity has dropped slightly in each of the past three seasons. But these 10 actually all represent successes, velocity loss and all. Velocity loss is just a part of pitching. Or, rather, velocity loss is just part of life, and adjusting to it is just part of pitching.

That’s not to say that Haren’s velocity loss isn’t the reddest flag on this year’s free agent market. It probably is, because of the size of it and because of the health concerns (back, hip) that coincide. But it’s important to talk about the limitations of what seems like common sense.

Haren’s velocity has been dropping steadily, by about a half-mile per year, since 2007. A pitcher who used to throw an average fastball just under 92 mph now throws an average fastball less than 89 mph. (That might actually serve as a buffer against the idea that he’s certainly hurt because of his velocity loss. Counterargument: 2011 to 2012 was his biggest drop, and that whether he’s hurt or not might be irrelevant at this stage of his fastball.) That means he has to adapt a lot, and for the most part he has done it well:

2007 to 2008: Fastball drops from 91.8 to 91.1 mph. Haren starts to slowly introduce a cutter, which he had been working on in Oakland. “I remember guys laughing at it because it was terrible,” he would say of his initial attempts with the pitch. He still pitches like a power pitcher, challenging hitters with fastballs up and putting them away with splitters down or sliders away. Fourth-best FIP in baseball.

2008 to 2009: Fastball drops from 91.1 to 90.5 mph. He throws the cutter more. The cutter partially replaces his slider, which had more break and less velocity, and which, according to Haren, was less effective in the humidity at Chase Field. Throwing the cutter earlier in counts, he increasingly goes to the splitter instead of the slider as his go-two two-strike pitch. 13th-best FIP in baseball.

2009 to 2011: Fastball drops from 90.5 to 89.8 mph. Haren meets with the Angels’ coaching staff to talk about what kind of pitcher he is now. He begins relying on his cutter as much as any starter, throwing it with nearly half of his pitches in 2011. His fastball usage drops from 49 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2011. His splitter is inconsistent at times this year, and he cuts his curveball usage by half, which may be reflected by this quote:

"I tell Jered this: It's not for everyone. It can mess up your other pitches—you can lose your feel for the pitch. You can lose your grip on your curveball. You can start to lose velocity on your fastball. Jered's stuff is already good enough. He doesn't need it. When he's old like me, he'll need it."

He has the best FIP of his career in 2011, the 10th-best in baseball.

2011 to 2012: Fastball drops from 89.8 to 88.5 mph, and Haren uses it a tick more often than he did in 2011. Haren uses the splitter more than he ever has, especially earlier in counts: where he threw it 13 percent of the time on 1-1 in 2008, he throws it 31 percent of the time on 1-1 in 2012. His FIP is terrible.

To summarize, when Haren had heat, he was able to keep to a fairly simple plan: fastballs early, off-speed on two strikes. Success or failure depended on executing this simple plan. But as the velocity has dropped, he has added a cutter and come to lean on it most of all; increased his reliance on the splitter; and pitched with a plan that is much more fluid, relying on the ability to throw all his pitches in many counts. (Note: There is also some fluctuation between two- and four-seamer usage, but Mike Fast has noted the difficulty of distinguishing between Haren’s fastballs, and I’m not going to try.)

The good news for Haren is that there’s some success hidden even in his 2012 season. He kept a very high strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he did it without dramatically altering how much time he lives in the strike zone: 48.2 percent of his pitches were in the zone in 2011, 48.1 percent in 2012. He got swinging strikes at about the same rate as in 2011, seeing batters’ contact rate rise only from 79.5 to 80.1 percent.

The bad news is that you can’t necessarily adjust forever, and there’s a lot of failure right out in the open in his 2012 season. Haren is a fly-ball pitcher who works up in the zone with his fastball. Losing velocity on a high fastball is obviously trouble. The other bad news is that velocity may not be like, say, FIP, where the default assumption is that it’ll regress to the mean. Velocity might just keep going down. Velocity might also carry a more troubling story about health.

There’s a lot of conflicting information about this. The Angels nearly traded Haren to the Cubs a month ago, but the trade was reportedly scrapped because of Haren’s medicals. The Red Sox saw those medicals, and

But there’s also this team:

Wrote Saxon elsewhere,

The concern has not been over his back, which forced him to spend time on the disabled list last year, but with his hip. Haren has been dealing with on-and-off pain in his hip since 2005 and has had some pretty good seasons in the intervening years.

The Angels, who presumably know Haren’s health better than anybody, and who—this is important—would benefit from a durable fly-ball pitcher more than any team in baseball, decided they didn’t want Haren for what was essentially a $12 million option. That’s troubling! I'd seriously consider not touching the guy at any cost based on that information alone. But, on the other hand,

they did want to rely on Haren this season, just for less money. If we’re just arguing about a couple million bucks, then we’re not arguing about much. If it’s just about a couple million bucks, or even a few million bucks, the Nationals made a decent bet on a pitcher who might be a disaster and might win the Cy Young award, which is pitching in a nutshell. 

*Career-low, in this case, means since 2008, because this relied on PITCHf/x data. The reporting and analysis of Nick Piecoro, Albert Chen, and Mike Fast were useful here. PITCHf/x data from Brooks Baseball and TexasLeaguers were used.

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

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