Dan Haren threw his first bullpen session of spring training today, which for both observers and the Nationals provided the first chance to gather insight on how Haren goes about his craft. It would be foolish to draw grand judgments on Feb. 15, but Haren looked great. He “stood out” to Manager Davey Johnson, and he peppered catch Jhonatan Solano’s mitt.
In the middle of Haren’s session, pitching coach Steve McCatty walked by and stopped him for a moment. “He’s trying to get to know me, and I’m trying to tell him just kind of how I like to pitch,” Haren said. “I’m not going to put the ball by too many guys. My game is command, keeping hitters off balance. Even not throwing 95 miles per hour any more, I can still get a decent amount of strikeouts.”
As Haren’s bullpen session showed, he tries to achieve that with sinkers and cutters. He didn’t throw anything else, holding off on his splitter and curveball. Last year, according to data collected by FanGraphs.com, Haren threw 40.1 percent sinkers and 35.6 percent cutters. He mixed his splitter 18.3 percent of the time, and threw curves and just six percent of his pitches.
“I throw a few curveballs, but it’s not really a big pitch for me,” Haren said. “The split I usually hold on to until March rolls around, because it’s a little rough on your arm. It’s not really a feel pitch, anyways. It’s really a fastball.”
Haren has a number of items he wants to work on this spring, and one of them was most evident today. His pitches dotted with right edge of the plate – inside to right-handed hitters and outside to lefties.
“That was a little bit of a weak spot for me last year, which I started turning around at the end of the year, pitching better inside to righties,” Haren said. “So that’s something I’m going to really focus on in spring, to command that side of the plate better.”
Solano came away impressed. “Especially when he throw a cutter outside to lefties, he had good command of that,” Solano said. “He was in the zone every time, down in the zone.”
As Haren kept firing, Johnson sidled behind him. “You look like you’re ready already,” Johnson said.
“Command,” Haren replied, “isn’t my problem.”
>>> After Haren finished, Ryan Perry took his place on the mound. Perry is one of the more interesting players in camp. He converted from relieving to starting last season despite having made five – five! – starts between his amateur and professional career. He didn’t even pitch in high school, and he quickly moved to the bullpen in college.
Perry, who came to the Nationals from the Tigers before the 2011 season, has clearly changed his approach. In college and with the Tigers, he based his attack on pure power, a fastball that challenged triple digits. Today, he didn’t throw one pitch above the knees. He pounded the bottom of the strike zone with sinkers, mixing in some sliders and cutters.
He was like a machine with his location – shins, knees, shins, knees. The emphasis was clear. Perry seems to be not only morphing from a reliever to a starter. He’s adapting his game, too, seemingly trying to get more groundouts. He’s moved from fireballer to worm burner.
“I think he came up with a new plan,” said Solano, who also caught Perry. “He worked very well today. I hope he stays with the same plan for the season, for the rest of spring training.”
He seems to have a legitimate chance to earn a role as the Nationals’ sixth or seventh starter while starting the season in Syracuse, a role that carries with it real value. When attrition strikes the Nationals’ rotation, which is usually inevitable, Perry could be one of the candidates to step in.
>>> As the pitchers and catchers went through their official workout on the backfields, position players took semi-organized batting practice on a diamond adjacent to the stadium. One of the standouts was Matt Skole, the reigning Nationals minor league player of the year. He smashed a ball over the fence and on to the road. He hits with a ton of lift. It’s just batting practice, but it was a good first impression.