A former 3-time All-Star, only 32-years-old, and available on a 1-year “prove yourself” contract – sounds like the perfect recipe for a shrewd free agent signing. That is certainly what I thought as the Nationals announced last December when they had signed starting pitcher Dan Haren to a 1-year $13 million contract to replace Edwin Jackson as the durable veteran workhorse in the starting rotation. Although Haren was one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball from 2005-2011, an unusually mediocre season in 2012 coupled with questions about his back and hip, allowed the Nationals to scoop him up.
However Haren continued to scuffle through an unimpressive spring with a 6.39 ERA, and did not provide much reason for optimism last Friday night against the Reds as his struggles continued into the regular season, allowing 6 runs and 9 hits in only 4 innings pitched. Because of his difficult season in 2012 and his continued underwhelming numbers in 2013, I decided to chart his start Thursday to closely observe Haren and see if he is a declining pitcher or if he can rebound to his previous excellent form.
The scheduling gods did not do Haren any favors, having his first start on the road at Great American Ballpark against Cincinnati, followed by a start against the quality hitting Chicago White Sox lineup on the brink of being swept by the Nationals. His results improved Thursday evening, as Haren allowed three runs and ten hits over five innings, with five strikeouts against zero walks. He threw 101 pitches in total, 65 for strikes, and according to my numbers, 61 pitches were 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs and 40 were off-speed pitches, either his splitter or his cut-fastball.
This performance had both positives and negatives: On the positive side, Haren threw 64% strikes for his outing, induced eight pure swings-and-misses, and struck out five hitters in his five innings. Also, according to BrooksBaseball.net, his average fastball velocity last night was 90.3mph, topping out at 92.2mph, more than enough to challenge major league hitters and more than 1.5mph faster than his average fastball velocity in 2012.
Conversely, Haren only threw first pitch strikes to 15 of the 26 hitters he faced, allowed ten hits including a few that were particularly hard hit and over the heart of the plate, and only lasted five innings before giving way to the bullpen. In addition, only 62.3% of his fastballs (38 of 61) were for strikes, poor fastball command for someone known for excellent control and further explains the low percentage of first pitch strikes. This uneven effort was not the dominating, rebound performance Nationals fans were hoping for, yet his start still gave the team a chance to eventually win the game.
Most Nationals fans, including myself, were excited the team signed Haren to take the place of Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation and considered it an upgrade to the roster overall. Without question only two starts against two power-hitting lineups fits the definition of a small sample size, but if Haren continues to pitch from behind in the count, combined with throwing too many pitches in the middle of the plate, he will struggle to pitch deep into games. It is far too early to hit the panic button with Haren, especially considering his track record of success, but he must throw more first pitch strikes and command his fastball better going forward if he wants his numbers to improve. I would not bet against his ability to rebound going forward, but as someone who boldly predicted Cy Young votes for Haren this season, I must admit his first two starts have tempered my expectations.