After his third start of the season, a dreary outing in Miami in which he could notch only one out in the fifth inning, Dan Haren sat in the clubhouse after talking to reporters and stared at the back of his locker for several minutes. Something just wasn’t adding up.
The four days after an encouraging second start against the White Sox, he felt great, including on Tuesday. His fastball velocity sat between 89 and 91 miles per hour, a clear sign he is healthy. His stuff was moving well, according to his own assessment and that of Manager Davey Johnson. But he allowed seven runs, three of them earned. He has given up 26 hits, five of them home runs, in 13 1/3 innings. Haren, signed to a one-year, $13-million deal as the final piece to help put the Nationals over the top, has averaged 4 1/3 innings per start. It has all weighed on him.
Haren, 32, isn’t one to watch much video of his starts, especially hoping to avoid negative reinforcement. But he watched Tuesday’s start twice. He even pulled up footage on his iPad of his starts during his stellar 2011 season and last season, looking to see what worked so well then. Haren’s velocity so far this season has been the same as the 2011 season, in which he posted a 3.17 ERA and finished seventh in the American League Cy Young voting, and he wants to return to what worked so well then. He noticed a few minor trends in studying the film.
“Just pitching more like myself,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten away from that. I was never really too much of a fastball thrower, but maybe I’m overdoing it a little bit on fastballs.”
Examining Haren’s pitch selection, there is truth to what he noticed. In his three starts, Haren has thrown 50 percent fastballs at an average of 89.5 mph. That may seem like a normal rate but given his recent rates it is a lot. In 2011, Haren threw nearly 35 percent fastballs and last season, as he battled back issues, he threw 40 percent fastballs.
Since he began using a cutter in the 2009, which he has attributed to helping his remain successful as he lost ticks on his velocity over the years, Haren has leaned heavily on the pitch. In 2011, he threw it 48 percent of the time and last season 36 percent – both totals the highest rate in the major leagues each year. He has thrown it only 35 percent in three starts this season.
“A lot of people get caught up in velocity and that’s probably why I tended to throw more fastballs than last year because I want to show my fastball is feeling better than it did,” he said.
Haren also raised an interesting point: he may be throwing his cutter too hard. The pitch averaged 85.3 mph in 2011 and 84.6 mph last season, but he has thrown it 85.7 mph this season. If he throws it too hard, he feels it doesn’t cut enough.
“Maybe backing off a little bit just to get more separation between the fastball and cutter,” he said. “It may be too close because I noticed, not like on charts or anything, but from looking up sometimes it’s too similar to my fastball … It’s maybe too short and I need it a little bit bigger.”
Haren hopes to return to what worked in the past. He doesn’t overpower hitters with an explosive fastball and instead relies on studying hitters and using his array of pitches with varying movements to attack them and make them uncomfortable. He is still adjusting to a new league of hitters after spending two and half seasons in the AL with the Angels.
“I feel awful,” he said. “I feel terrible. I came in wanting to make a good impression and obviously I failed to do that. Confidence-wise, in between starts, I build myself up to go out there and [Tuesday] I had all the confidence in the world. I gotta translate how I feel to better results out there because I’m not giving the team a chance. Historically I’ve been too good of a pitcher for this to just be it all of a sudden.”
While Haren may be unhappy with his start, teammates have been encouraging him and Johnson has not lacked for confidence in the 11-year veteran.
“I don’t think it’s going to be easy for any pitcher to walk onto this team and say, ‘I’m going to be better than the four guys you’ve already got. I’m going to pitch up to the level of what you’ve already got,’” Ian Desmond said. “It’s not an easy team for a pitcher to come in and feel like you’re one of the guys, when you’ve got everybody else throwing 98 with five pitches. But I don’t think he sees his value. … He obviously hasn’t hit his stride yet, but what he’s doing, the way he’s handling himself, is something for our other guys to learn from.”
Haren hopes, again, that in his fourth start he can finally show what has made him one of the most accomplished right handers of the past decade and prove his worth for his new team.
“I feel terrible about it after the game but you wake up and it’s a new day,” he said. “I have to move past it and if I dwell on it it’s only going to make things worse. … It’s not going to be for a lack of effort, and I’m sure things will change. It’s just a matter of when.”