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What's Up With...? Dan Haren

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So far, Dan Haren has already allowed 32 earned runs in nine starts. Last season, his 32nd earned run didn't come until July 23rd. In his twentieth start. While his hitting has been a source of delight, the hard fact is, it's Dan's pitching for which we are paying $8.25 million this season, then $12.75 million in 2011 and 2012. And a 4.85 ERA - worse than league-average - is cause for concern.

And so, after the jump it's time to pose the eternal conundrum once again. What's up with... Dan Haren?

The basic stats
At first glance, these aren't pretty. Hitters are batting .280 off Haren, a number which hasn't been allowed by our ace for a long time - he's been at or below .265 there, since his rookie year of 2003. The same goes for a slugging percentage of .460, mostly powered by an extra-base hit rate of 3.92 per nine innings, compared to 2.75 last season. The home-run rate is a little higher than previously, but I also note that Haren is walking more people. Not, perhaps more than average - 2.26 is hardly him turning into Wild Thing - but compared to the 1.49/9 IP he posted last season, it is a significant increase. He walked three batters last start, a number surpassed only once in his time with Arizona.

The good news is that Haren's K-rate is actually a career high: he has fanned 62 batters in only 59.2 innings. And he has also been the victim of a hefty BABIP: .349, is not only more than fifty points above his career average, it ranks him in the top 10% of all qualifying pitchers this season (albeit still behind Edwin Jackson's .352). As Nick Piecoro pointed out, Haren's line-drive and inflield-fly rates are also at or below the numbers posted last season. Piecoro says, "These are all good indicators that hitters aren’t teeing up against him, but rather that balls are finding holes at a somewhat fluky level."

Similarly, Dan's first-strike and 0-2 count percentages are hardly changed from 2009. But he is getting a lot less strikeouts looking: in 2008-09, those represented 31% of his K's; but in 2010, that number has been cut in half to 15%. That's a little odd, because while Haren's overall percentage of strikes looking has declined, that's by nowhere near as much - 25% of strikes see the hitter leave the bat on their shoulder, compared to 28% and 30% in the previous two seasons. However, that may not be a bad thing, as we'll see below.

What does Dan have to say?

Going by Haren's own comments after his disappointing outings, the main problem seems to be a problem spotting his fastball where he wants it. Perhaps the most telling comments came after his start on April 26

"I'm still kind of fighting myself. My secondary pitches are there, my curveball, cutter and my split have been really good this year, but just kind of fighting myself with fastball location. I still can get a lot better... I don't remember having this much mechanical problems this early in the season ever really. It's weird. My arm feels really good. My body feels really good. Just mechanically I'm a little bit off."
    [Sources and AZ Republic]

He said something similar on April 11: "Most of the damage they did was on balls that were belt high and that's not my game... I looked for a little bit more and unfortunately I elevated it as a result." It seems to be that when Haren doesn't have his A-game, he tries to overthrow as compensation, which can lead to pitches sailing up to the top-half of the strike-zone. Haren said his last start, in Atlanta, was "as bad as I've been as a Diamondback probably. I didn't have it. Nothing behind the ball. I was in trouble early, couldn't put anyone away. I was really pitching with the cutter. That was the only thing I really had. Struggled to throw strikes."

The pitch f/X data

The result has been a radical realignment of the pitch-types on which Haren had relied. Here is a table breaking them down, both for this season and over the same period in 2009.

2009 2010
4-seam Fastball 45.6% Cut Fastball 38.0%
Curve 18.1% 4-seam Fastball 24.7%
Slider 16.8% Split-Finger 11.9%
Change-up 11.5% Curve 11.4%
Cut Fastball 5.4% Two-seam 10.8%
Two-seam 2.4% Change-up 3.1%
Other 0.1% Other 0.1%

There is some data here which I'm not sure about - has Haren really abandoned the slider entirely? But what is apparently clear, and ties in with his comments above, is the sharp drop in his use of the straight fastball, and its replacement by the cutter. Haren is also right when he mentions his problems locating the fastball: the stats show he was throwing it for a strike 67.4% of the time a year ago, but that has now dropped to 60.3% in 2010. There is also a small downtick in velocity for his fastball, but only about one-half of a mile per hour, from 90.4 to 89.9 mph.

Remember I mentioned the decreased percentage of strikes looking? That's in part because batters are making less contact when they swing. Overall, they put bat to ball just 73.9% of the time, a number beaten only by three qualifying pitchers in the majors (Lincecum, Kershaw and Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays). The pitch values section also helps explain the switch to his cutter, because Haren's fast-ball has become fairly "meh" in terms of its impact. His slider has not been brilliant - especially considering it was the second-most valuable cutter in the majors last season - but it has definitely been better than his fastball.

Will Haren get better?

There's certainly some suggestion this should happen. There's a metric called FIP, which is based solely on the things for which a pitcher (and not his defense) is directly responsible i.e. home-runs, strikeouts and walks, and is scaled to be comparable with ERA. While Haren's ERA is 4.83, his FIP is 3.56. That's a good measure for what his ERA "would" be if, for example, his BABIP was not so unfortunately high. The resulting gap is the sixth-biggest in the NL [Edwin Jackson, incidentally is 3rd, with a FIP of 4.67] Even better is Haren's xFIP - that's FIP adjusted for a "normal" home-run rate. There, he is all the way down at 3.21, the fourth-best figure in the National League.

However, I would be a good deal more certain of future improvement, if Haren was pitching the same way he did at the start of last season. The problems with his fastball location, and the re-invention on the fly which Haren has gone through as a result, his cutter instead becoming Dan's bread-and-butter pitch, are quite significant. One wonders whether the adjustments necessary are responsible for some of the disappointing results we have seen this season, because this is the kind of tinkering I'd normally expect in spring training, not during the first quarter of the regular season.

Still, Haren isn't going anywhere, and he strikes me as the kind of pitcher who has got the smarts to figure out what's wrong, and either correct it, or make adjustments so it doesn't matter as much. He seems to have been doing so already, and while that does seem to remain a work in progress, I tend to think he will figure it out. Maybe - just maybe - this will be the season where Haren finally improves in the second-half of the year!