Here’s a line that has been drilled into the head of every Angels fan, “Dan Haren is a workhorse, an elite pitcher, one of the best in the game. He’s a virtual lock for 200 plus quality innings. A pitcher that pounds the strikezone and makes hitters work every at bat they have against him.” OK, so that’s three lines, but you get the point. This was supposed to be a foregone conclusion this year. Jered Weaver is the Ace of the staff. C.J. Wilson, the big free agent signing solidified an already top notch rotation. Ervin Santana as the number four starter (Whole nother ball of gripe with that one), are you kidding me? And then Dan Haren, co-ace. According to his peripheral stats last year he was almost as good as Weaver was, he came in seventh in the Cy Young voting, oh man, this was gonna be awesome.
There were sky high expectations coming into this season, so we didn’t think too much of his of his first start where he went 5 1/3 innings giving up five runs. Jitters, right? The next three starts he got a little deeper, and then a little deeper into the game. An eight inning start on April 28th was vintage Dirty Dan, 8IP 7K 2BB 4H 1R. Welcome back Danny boy. What I thought was the real turning point was his start against Seattle on May 24th. Dom-i-nant. Complete game shutout, 14K, ZERO WALKS! Here we go right? Right?
Since then Haren has made 12 starts. Of which, only four have been “quality.” He’s gone to the disabled list for the first time in his career. He has been a shell of his former self. Which begs the question, Is Haren slumping? Or the more scary, is Haren declining?
This season to season production roller coaster is not new to Haren. In 2009 he posted an ERA+ of 142, produced a WAR of 6.3 (Baseball-Reference), All-Star game starter. Yeah, he was good that year. At 28 years old Haren was entering his prime years, but in 2010 his production slipped a little. A 106 ERA+ and 2.8 WAR. His production slip was easily blamed on his time in Arizona that year (141 IP, 92 ERA+, 0.4 WAR. also known as, league average-ish). He was decidedly better after the trade to Anaheim (139 ERA+, 2.4 WAR), but the season as a whole was a down year. In 2011 he goes back up, 119 ERA+, 4.0 WAR. He’s not striking out as many hitters as he used too, but he’s also walking less. Make a hitter know that he has to swing and he’s already on the defensive. And now this year, 76 ERA+, -1.0 WAR. If the season ended today he would have the highest BB/9 of his career at 2.3. Couple that with a still falling K/9 and hitters are no longer afraid to face you.
This would be quite the slump, but as the owner of a not so great back, I can fully believe that his back issues this year have his mechanics, and his head, a little messed up. And this kind of decline is unheard of. Or so I thought.
Kevin Millwood in 2005 posted a 147 ERA+ and 3.7 WAR. After that, outside of two above average seasons (and his madness inducing dominance of the Angels), he’s been below average generating a total of 8.1 WAR over the next seven seasons.
John Lackey had his best season in 2007 with a 150 ERA+ and 6.0 WAR at the age of 28. his age 29 and 30 seasons were good, but he was starting to slip. At age 31 he was almost exactly league average, and in 2011 Angels fans rejoiced as he crashed and burned with a 68 ERA+ and -2.1 WAR. How’s that contract working out for you now Boston?
Doug Drabek, although not a monster pitcher, was a very very good pitcher for Pittsburgh. His age 31 season with Houston he posted an ERA+ of 140 and 3.2 WAR. That was his last hurrah though. His ERA+ over his final four seasons were 81, 84, 77 and 62. His WAR? 0.4, -0.3, 0.2 and -1.6. He was out of baseball after that.
So apparently, steep decline is not unheard of.
Is Dan Haren in decline? I hope not. Is he slumping? Ummmmm, duh.
Back’s are tricky things. You don’t do just a couple things different with back injuries, you do everything different. His next start is getting skipped, and he needs to use these bullpens to figure out what he’s doing differently, because since tweaking his mechanics earlier in the year to accommodate his sore back, he’s fallen into some bad habits that have him pitching up in the zone more than ever before. And at 87-89 MPH, a belt high fastball is going to find the outfield bleachers a lot more often than the catcher’s mitt.