I’ve always been an unabashed fan of Aaron Harang and his ability to post excellent ERA numbers despite pitching his home games at The Great American Ballpark. Something’s happened over the last two years, though, and he’s just not the pitcher he was from 2005 through 2007. Jon Heyman notes that the Reds righty has cleared waivers, but that even “the Yankees think Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang are overpriced.” At $18.5 million for Harang’s current level of production, that’s not surprising. So what changed Harang around?
The narrative points to May of 2008. Harang had just come off a poor start against the Padres, raising his ERA to 3.50. He had been his usual excellent self to that point in the season, and there was nothing that would indicate a change in performance. Then, on two days’ rest, or in other words his throw day, Dusty Baker inserted Harang into the 13th inning of a game. On a day he was just supposed to throw in the bullpen, Harang threw 63 pitches over four innings, allowing two hits and one walk while striking out nine. It was stellar, but it was also risky.
Harang then went out on three days’ rest to face the Pirates next time out, and got hammered for six runs over four innings. From the extra inning stint through the rest of the season, Harang allowed 69 runs over 105.2 innings, a 5.88 ERA. We know that correlation does not imply causation, but this looked like one strong correlation. What else could explain a pitcher who had an excellent three-year track record and a solid opening to the season falling off a cliff?
A 4.43 ERA this year might indicate that Harang hasn’t refound what made him so good from 2005 through 2007, but there are some indicators that he could turn it around. His strikeout rate is back up to his career normal after dipping a half a strikeout per nine last season. His walks are low as per usual. The difference, really, is that he’s still allowing more hits than in the past this season. In fact, he leads the NL in hits allowed. That’s obviously not a good thing, but considering his other peripherals, it might be a sign that Harang could come out of this funk.
For some reason, road woes are destroying Harang’s stats. He’s pitched 75.1 innings in the hitter’s haven that is the GAB, and has pitched to a 3.70 ERA and 1.235 WHIP. In his other 73 innings he’s had a 5.18 ERA and a 1.630 WHIP. That seems rather odd, that he’d pitch worse on the road than in a pitcher’s park. He does have a .368 BABIP on the road, vs. a .312 mark at home, so bad luck could be a factor.
Also, according to FanGraphs’s Pitch Type Values, Harang’s slider isn’t what it was in his three-year stretch. The linear weights indicate that it took a dive in 2008 and hasn’t recovered in 2009. He’s throwing it at about the same rate, but there is a noticeable difference: it’s lost about one to 1.5 mph over its peak velocity in 2006. Is that’s what causing the pitch to be ineffective? The linear weights also suggest that his fastball has been significantly worse over the past two years. That could go a long way in explaining his ineffectiveness. (And also why righties are feasting on him this year.)
(It must also be noted that these Pitch Type Value stats are experimental and not necessarily totally accurate. Still, the dip in velocity correlating with the dip in productivity does raise a red flag.)
Why is this up on a Yankees blog? Because Aaron Harang could make an excellent addition to this pitching staff. Problem is, his contract makes him a huge gamble. Perhaps he could refind the stuff that defined him from 2005 through 2007 in a new environment. Maybe he’d thrive at the New Yankee Stadium like he has at the GAB this season. If everything went right, he’d not only help the Yanks down the stretch, but also help fill in for Chien-Ming Wang next season while the latter recovers from shoulder surgery.
Of course, there aren’t many, if any, instances where everything goes right. A change of scenery might do him good, or it might not do anything at all. Acquiring him would be a rather large risk, to the tune of $18 million. That’s quite a gamble for a guy who would probably be, at best, a No. 3 starter in the AL. Still, the idea is intriguing enough for me to do this write-up. It’s so enticing, to see a pitcher at the bottom of his value who you know can pitch so much better. There’s little to no chance that the Yanks act on it, though.