The Case of Aaron Harang: Old Dog, New Tricks?
I am going to start this off with three statements and you tell me which one isn't true
- Aaron Harang is 35 years old
- Aaron Harang is in his 13th season
- Aaron Harang currently leads the NL in ERA
The trick is, all three of those statements are facts.
Yes, after five starts, Harang is off to quite a start with the Atlanta Braves. Coincidentally, teammate Ervin Santana ranks 2nd in ERA within the NL. It's bizarro world for the Atlanta Braves but they find themselves atop the NL East with the second best record in all of baseball. But back to Harang: How has he gotten off to this great of a start?
Harang by the numbers
He was drafted in the 6th round of the 1999 amateur draft by the Texas Rangers but never played for them. His career has been spent between the Oakland Athletics, Cincinnatti Reds, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, and now finally the Atlanta Braves. He has spent the majority of his career, 8 seasons, with the Reds.
In his 319 starts before this season, Harang's ERA/ERA-/FIP- line averages out to 4.44/106/102. Is that atrocious? No, but is it ace material? Absolutely not. Those numbers pit Harang as the 4th starter in the rotation at best. Nobody told that to the year 2014, however. His averages this season through just 4 starts and roughly 26 innings are 0.70/19/75.
Indeed, his ERA- stands at (19). Remember, a range of 70-85 would be considered pretty good; 19 is undeniably incredible, regardless of how small his sample size is. So, is Harang doing anything differently than what he's done his whole career?
Taking a closer look
Brooks Baseball tells us all we need to know about literally any pitching statistic that has ever been recorded, so let's start by looking at what types of pitches Harang has utilized over the course of his career since the 2007 season.
The following table ranges from March 30, 2007 to December 2013.
As you can see Harang relied a lot on his fastball, as several starters often do. He mixed in a sinker and slider from time to time, with his sinker clocking in at roughly the same speed as his fastball. The problem with that is a 90mph fastball isn't terrifying to a hitter – certainly not anymore, at least. He hardly went with his curveball and looked to his changeup even less. Has 2014 shown us more of the same?
He's still sticking with the fastball, but has mixed in a handful more sinkers early on. The use of his changeup/curveball remains relatively the same and while he's added a cutter to his repertoire, he's only thrown it a total of 3 times. So what gives? How has Harang limited opponents to just over 3 hits per 9 innings?
While his strikeout rate is slightly higher this season (22.7%) than his career average indicates (18.9%), his walk rate this season (12.4%) is also slightly higher than his career average (12.4%). So yes, he's striking out a greater percentage of batters to start this season off, but he's also walking a greater percentage of them than he normally does. Therefore, it can't be just that.
It's almost impossible to cite the defense as a major reason for Harang's early success because they're only ranked 20th in overall fielding percentage. That number is a bit exaggerated due to the fact that second baseman Dan Uggla isn't too great anymore; he himself had two errors in one game over the weekend.
However, when you've got players like Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward playing behind you, you should feel a lot more comfortable on the mound. Perhaps it's the lack of plate discipline this season and in recent seasons. At this moment 11 teams are batting .239 or less – the Mets being one of them who faced off against the Braves early on.
It's entirely possible that Harang comes out during his next start and gets rocked. He's not doing a whole lot differently than what he was doing in the 12 seasons before this. He throws the same pitches, strikes out a fair share of players but also walks more than he used to.
Aaron Harang has never been a truly terrible pitcher, but he's never been an ace either. He's begun the 2014 campaign with a start that is entirely unsustainable, yet incredibly entertaining. Right now he is exactly what the Atlanta Braves need: a steady and healthy arm where there are very few.
All statistics courtesy of Brooks Baseball, ESPN, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs