If Dan Haren had somehow been a free agent last year, he would’ve commanded a mint. It would’ve certainly topped C.J. Wilson’s five year deal for $77.5 million which was the highest among pitchers changing teams (C.C. Sabathia signed five year extension for $122 million with the Yankees). Alas, Haren was in the fourth and final guaranteed year of a $44.75 million dollar deal that included a club option for $15.5 million in 2013. Given his track record as one of the most reliable, quality arms in the game, it was easy to envision that getting picked up and Haren becoming a free agent for the 2014 season.
Things didn’t go according to plan for Haren. While he has suffered back and hip soreness for quite some time, neither had interfered with him establishing himself as one of the game’s true workhorses with 33 or more starts in seven straight seasons never throwing fewer than 216 innings and rising yearly since 2008 to a 2011 peak of 238. So of course with the worst timing possible, he is struck down by the back for his first ever DL stint in early July. Worse yet, the time missed is less of an issue than the damage to his performance as he labored to a 4.33 ERA and 1.29 WHIP (both full season career highs) in 177 innings.
The Angels declined the option instead paying him $3.5 million to test the market where he found out yesterday he was worth $13 million dollars for a year to the Washington Nationals. When you add in the buyout, he is actually going to make a million more than he would’ve had he been kept on in LA, but now with just a one year deal, he has to prove himself to the league before he will command another multi-year contract.
As Sam Miller pointed out yesterday on Baseball Prospectus, the declining velocity is a growing concern in addition to the back and hip especially since they may well be related. And given the uncertainty around his health, it is difficult to project how Haren will perform in 2013, but let’s try to get some clarity anyway.
Shifting from the American League to the National League often benefits a starting pitcher and we’ve seen that in Haren’s career already. Excluding the 119 innings as a Cardinal split over two years from ages 22 to 23, we see that Haren pitched to a 3.59 ERA with a 7.2 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in 1172 innings between Oakland and Los Angeles compared to a 3.56 ERA, 8.7 K/9, and 1.6 BB/9 in 586 innings with Arizona.
In the last five years, the difference in ERA between starters in each league is 0.24 favoring the National League. That figure is on the rise recently after a 0.20 split in 2010 rose to 0.28 in 2011 and then 0.32 last year. Strikeout rates favor the NL by 0.3 and those have held pretty steady in recent years as well while walk rates are essentially dead even.
Any potential gains from the league switch may well be washed out by the trade in home parks. Angels Stadium remains overlooked as one of the most pitcher friendly parks in the game. He is leaving the park that ranked third-friendliest for pitchers (according to Baseball-Reference) last year and fourth-friendliest over the last three years to enter the 16th-friendliest from last year and over the last three years. Nationals Park has essentially been a dead even park for its entire existence. On the scale, 100 is even and the park has never rated higher than 101 for pitchers or lower than 98 for batters in a given year.
Digging deeper shows even more potential pitfalls for Haren. Over at Statcorner, they give a lefty-righty breakdown of each park factor in several categories. They show the home run park factor in Anaheim to be at 82 for lefties (again with 100 being average) and 80 for righties while it jumps to 96 and 106, respectively in D.C.
Let’s not forget that Haren spent a good bit of time in a hitter’s park when he was with the Diamondbacks from 2008 through half of 2010 before being traded to LA. During that time the park rated at 107, 106, and 105 for pitchers. He didn’t really have trouble with the park until 2010. In 2008, he had a 3.35 ERA in 113 innings at home with a 0.8 HR/9 then in 2009 he was even better with a 2.81 ERA in 115 innings and a 0.9 HR/9. He had a 4.36 ERA in 74 home innings in 2010 including a ghastly 1.6 HR/9 before the trade.
What we don’t know is whether or not his back and/or hip were bothering him at all during that 2010 run. In fact, it would make sense if either was an issue during the early part of the season because the poor home numbers are confined to a four start block in late April through May when he had four starts and posted a 6.67 ERA over 27 innings allowing nine home runs (3.0 HR/9) with four or more earned runs in each outing.
He also had a 35/5 K/BB in that span so the struggles were a bit baffling. He closed out his Arizona tenure with a 3.34 ERA in 40 innings spanning six starts in June and most of July. He only allowed four home runs (0.9 HR/9) during that time. It would be pure speculation to suggest he was banged up during that rocky run, but it also wouldn’t be surprising.
The focus on league switch and ballparks is important because of Haren’s home run tendencies, dwindling velocity, and injury concerns, but the fact is that if the latter of those three is in check, he will be good (and possibly even great). He showed as much last year for various spells. He had a 3.34 ERA in April, saw it balloon to 4.41 in mid-May before chiseling it back down to 3.53 in June. Then the back issue wreaked its havoc for a four start spell that saw him yield a 9.14 ERA in 22 innings before finally succumbing to the injury and hitting the DL.
He looked sharp instantly upon his return on July 22nd, but strained it again leading to some mid-August struggles. Then he closed the season strongly with an eight start run of 2.81 ERA in 48 innings with 41 strikeouts and just five walks. Looking at his gamelog seems to show the obvious points where the back and hip were causing the most pain for Haren. Haren still had an excellent walk rate, solid strikeout rate, and finished 17th in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
An offseason to get right will obviously serve Haren well and clearly the Nationals saw enough in his medical records to give him $13 million dollars so I would still trust him as a fantasy asset. The beauty of his shaky 2012 and the continued talk about his back troubles is that it will lower his 2013 price at the draft table. He bounced back from his rough 2010 and he can bounce back from this. The drop in velocity is never great, but if he had put up his same peripherals with a normal home run rate (~1.0 HR/9 for him) and a 3.50 ERA, then we wouldn’t be ringing the alarms as loudly about it. The caution for injury will be built into the price of Haren; he has a deep enough track record to be trusted again in 2013. Given health, bet on 200+ innings of 3.50-3.75 ERA (a difference of five earned runs over 200 innings) with at least 7.5 strikeouts per game and a strong WHIP on the right side of 1.20.