Much of the coverage surrounding the acquisition of Dan Haren, and the subsequent departure of Joe Saunders, was centered around who “won” the trade. That is, which team received the most value in the swap of players. Lost in some of that shuffle, it seemed to me, was any real analysis of what Haren’s presence, and Saunders disappearance, does to the Angels rotation. After the jump, we’ll fix that oversight.
As most who have read my posts here are aware, I was not the biggest Joe Saunders fan. That does not mean that it didn’t break my heart a little to listen to his interview, but from a baseball standpoint, I was not terribly upset to see him go. Despite his productive 2008, when he finished with a 3.41 ERA that was betrayed as a likely fluke by his .267 BABIP and 4.36 FIP, I was never someone that jumped on the Saunders bandwagon, and with what I believed was good reason. Most reasoning behind the benefit of the doubt that seemed to be perpetually given to Saunders was that injuries are what hampered him in 2009, but 2008 was the “real” Joe Saunders, and 2010 would show us that. In my opinion, it did. Occasionally quite good, including two complete game shutouts – one this season and one last season – Saunders struggled more than he excelled, and is finishing up his fourth straight season with a FIP above 4.50, and third of the last four seasons with an ERA above 4.40. Clearly, 2008 was a fluke, and not something anyone should be expecting him to repeat at this point.
Dan Haren, on the other hand, appears to be in the middle of his own fluke season, though his is in a clearly negative direction. That fact, combined with the state of the market right now, is likely why the Angels were able to land a pitcher of his caliber for the price they did, which is not terribly much all things considered. And really, as far as “down” seasons go, Haren is having a pretty good one. While his ERA, currently at 4.42, would be the highest he’s had since 2004 when he was still with the Cardinals, his 3.89 FIP continues the streak of now four straight seasons, and five of the last six, with a FIP under 4.00. There’s no question that Haren has a pretty clear track record as a very good, perhaps even near-ace-level pitcher. I’d even go as far as to say he has been better over his last three seasons than Scott Kazmir was in his prime three seasons, and WAR actually agrees, with Haren posting back-to-back 6 WAR seasons in 2008 and 2009, while Kazmir’s highest WAR of 5.3 came in 2007, and he never passed 4 in any other season.
Haren’s addition to the Angels’ rotation, combined with Saunders’ departure, clearly helps the team. As of this writing, the Angels’ starters have posted a 4.32 ERA and 4.25 FIP, good for 10th and 9th in the AL, respectively. The fact that Weaver, Santana, and Pineiro all have an ERA lower than that 4.32 shows just how bad the other two, Saunders and Kazmir (owners of a 4.62 and 6.92 ERA, respectively), have been that they can pull the collective ERA up that high given that the majority of the rotation is comfortably below it. Haren replacing Saunders in the rotation this year, and especially next season when he’ll have more starts to impact the team with, will help plenty in terms of lowering the team’s ERA and FIP, and increasing their strikeout rate while lowering their walk rate. His impact would’ve been even more had the Angels been able to offload Scott Kazmir instead of Joe Saunders, but Kazmir is the proverbial bed that the Angels’ front office has made, and now they have to lay in it.
Compared to Saunders, a guy that could barely crack 100 K’s in a good season, Haren’s near-200K’s per season is going to be a godsend for the Angels. Not only will he do better at missing bats (Haren’s career contact rate is 78.7%, compared to 84.1% for Saunders), but he’ll also help take some pressure off a defense that is clearly far from the best in the league, as we’ve already discussed. Haren does have a little trouble keeping the ball in the yard, giving up 1.08 HR/9 through his career, but Saunders was about the same in this category, giving up 1.09 HR/9. The main difference here is that Haren allows fewer base runners, with a 1.19 career WHIP vs. Saunders’ 1.39 career WHIP, and so the HRs don’t hurt him nearly like they do with Saunders. Clearly, in nearly every important aspect, Haren is a significant upgrade over Saunders.
When it comes to his place in the rotation, it’s hard to say where Haren will settle next season. If the choice is mine, I make him the ace of the rotation and Opening Day starter. As great as Weaver has been this season, and there’s no question he’s been great, it’s the first season he’s “put it all together” like this, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to repeat this success. There’s nothing glaring that says he won’t, outside of the simple fact that he hasn’t pitched like this at any other point in his career, so we can’t point to an inflated BABIP (only five points higher than his career average) of a FIP that is far out of line with his ERA (they’re currently both exactly 3.04, interestingly enough). If I’m putting money on it, I don’t expect Weaver to completely repeat this season’s production, but I don’t expect him to slip back fully to where he was, either. Somewhere in between is likely where I’d put him, though that’s based on nothing outside of my gut. With all that said, Haren has a pretty clear track record of performance that is better than Weaver’s track record, and something I have more confidence in him repeating. Were I making next season’s rotation, I’d put it like this:
5. Kazmir/Bell/Palmer/Random fan in the stands that is likely to pitch better than Kazmir
Most of this won’t have any major impact on the season, but people seem quite concerned with who the “ace of the staff” is, and as of now I’d put that label on Haren in 2011. However it shakes out, there is little question that the Angels vastly improved their pitching staff for both this season and next. Haren was a pitcher I coveted for a number of years, and I still almost don’t believe that we actually have him now. If you read my bit on Call to the Pen back before the trade deadline, you saw that I mentioned Haren as nearly an afterthought, and didn’t remotely expect the Angels to be involved in any discussions for him this season. As often as I’ve been down on moves the Angels have made lately, this is at least one area where I can say I completely agree with, and am fully satisfied with what they did.