Mistake Two was that Haren, feeling healthy again, was throwing his cutter too hard on the theory that, well, faster must be better. But in his case, it wasn’t. The gap in speed between his fastball and cutter, which had been four or five mph in his best years, had fallen below three mph. In visual terms, the gap between the pitches, which had once been more than three feet, was now less than two. Hitters could look for his fastball and still adjust to his cutter. He got hit so early and often, he seldom got to his splitter.
“Stop thinking about velocity,” Haren said. “It’s felt really good.”
In his first three starts, he missed his spots and gave up an astronomical 29 line drives (yes, that’s a stat now). In his past two starts, he couldn’t have delivered the ball to the plate more precisely with forceps. He allowed just three line drives in both games combined. Can it last?
Such tiny changes hardly seem to account for the difference between an 8.10 ERA before Haren figured out his problem and 2.84 afterward. What we’ll see now, over Haren’s next batch of starts, is a test case of his theory. If it’s wrong, Haren may be headed toward the end of his career. If it’s right, as the past three starts suggest, he may be one of the season’s biggest steals.
After seven straight years as a big-time workhorse, Haren, though only 32, has something of the feel of Kevin Costner’s veteran character making one last stand in “For Love of the Game.” Haren’s never-give-up-the-ball durability may have aged him ahead of schedule. But teammates love it. When Manager Davey Johnson came to the mound in Atlanta with hot Chris Johnson at the plate as the tying run in the eighth, Haren started cussing. “I got this guy.” Johnson grinned, left him in and watched Haren strike out Johnson on four dismissive pitches, then march off.
Just three weeks ago, Haren was probably the Nats’ biggest problem.
Can such minor adjustments have such big impact? Throw fewer fastballs, more cutters and splitters. Focus on location, not speed. Live low and away, like you always have. Take a little off your cutter.
“Water seeks its own level,” McCatty said.
If he’s right, then Haren is rising.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/