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April 18, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Don’t give up on Haren yet

OK – after watching Tuesday’s game, I intended to write a post calling on Mike Rizzo to release Dan Haren. But then I went to build the case and decided it just wasn’t there. There’s a lot of evidence that Haren’s problem is more bad luck than bad stuff.

First, the summary of his ugly first three starts:

  • In Game 4 against the Reds, he pitched 4 innings, gave up 9 hits including 4 homers, and left with the Nats trailing 6–0 in a game they would ultimately lose 15–0.
  • In Game 9 against the White Sox, he pitched 5 innings, gave up 10 hits, and left with the Nats ahead 6–3 in a game they would win 7–4.
  • In Game 14 against the Marlins,  he pitched 4-1/3 innings, gave up 7 hits including a 3-run homer, and left with the bases loaded, one out, and the Nats trailing 5–0, having just walked in the Marlins fifth run. The Fish would go on to win it 8–2.

So what’s there to like? First, there are his strikeouts and walks, which are important because they are the first statistics to stabilize and the only ones that are even a little bit significant this early in the season. His strikeout rate is a respectable 17.1% and he’s only given up one walk (albeit at a very inopportune time), giving him a fantastic walk rate of 1.4%. Of course his 8.10 ERA is ugly, as is his 6.83 FIP, but he shows up much better with metrics that attempt to neutralize the luck elements associated with balls in play and with home runs. Haren’s batting average on balls in play is a very unlucky .420, his rate of home runs per fly ball has been 19.2% in this short season, and his left-on-base percentage has been 59.1%—all rates that are indicative of bad luck and almost certain to normalize. His xFIP is a more respectable 4.61 and his SIERA is 4.19.

Looking at the home runs he’s given up, there’s even more evidence of bad luck. Three of the four homers in the Cincinnati game barely cleared the fence—what the ESPN Home Run Tracker website call “Just Enough” (JE) homers. Normally, JE homers represent 27% of all home runs, so having 3 JE homers of 5 represents some bad luck. That site also estimates for each home run, at how many ballparks it would have been a home run under standardized playing conditions. The Choo homer would have made it out in only 6 ballparks, and the two Cozart homers in 11 and 13—in each case, a minority of all ballparks. Looking at the video, the Choo homer would have been a double in most other parks, but the Cozart homers probably could have been caught in a more spacious park. There was definitely some bad luck with Haren’s 5 taters.

James Wagner at the Washington Post describes how Haren has been throwing more straight fastballs and fewer cutters this season, and suggests that maybe he needs to throw more cutters and not throw them as hard. I don’t know whether Haren will be effective this season, but after looking at things more carefully, I now agree that what we’ve seen is more consistent with bad luck than with truly bad performance. In mid-April it can be tough to convince yourself that early season statistics are mostly noise, so I have to keep reminding myself. I’ll keep watching and waiting.

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