Starting rotations are a funny thing. The natural inclination to number the slots creates misplaced expectations in both directions. Not every No. 1 is an ace. Not every No. 5 is a stop-gap. Not every No. 5 is a No. 5 . Some are a No. 4, but the sequencing becomes arbitrary — from a skill perspective — at the tail end.
Dan Haren came to Washington to take Edwin Jackson’s spot in the rotation. A quality back-end arm who may be somewhat unpredictable. Jackson’s issues seemed to arise from mechanics while Haren’s seem to arise from limited margins. Both markings of back-end arms, but in very different ways.
A power pitcher has a different existence, able to hide command issues by blowing guys away. As velocity inevitably declines, pitchers must adapt. Haren happens to be a great example of this type of pitcher. No longer able to crank out mid-90s fastballs, he’s relying more on sinking and cutting the ball and keeping barrels away from baseballs.
But when the pitch is 85-88 the margin of error is slim. Throwing something center-cut at 86 is not the same as doing it at 94. Right?
A look at Haren’s lines from his first six starts will remind you of the slow start and subsequent — and recent — improvement.
Those top-line results are informative, but a look under the hood is in order. Haren’s finesse technique is more about inducing ground balls than it is about missing bats. As a matter of fact, the game with the most whiffs (misses per swing) was Haren’s worst start of the season. He put more pitches in the strike zone (ISZ), gave up fewer ground balls per ball in play (GB) and got hit the hardest (based on slugging on contact,”SLGCON”).
Fewer pitches over the plate, fewer bats missed, better results.
Here’s something strange. Take a look at the rate Haren threw a ball down the middle of the plate and in the middle of the hitter’s strike zone (belt high). The pattern fits what you may predict — until the last start.
Despite avoiding the plate in general on May 2 (.46 ISZ), Haren maxed out his pitches thrown down the pipe (11%). How much did he get away with it? Of the 10 pitches Haren left over the middle, every single one of them was a cutter. And Braves hitters swung at 8 of them. Five were put in play and turned into outs, a sixth was a single and a seventh was a Dan Uggla home run. Uggla fouled off the last one Haren left over the plate, missing a chance for a second big blast.
If you feel like Haren was dodging bullets, you may be right. While he avoided the middle of the plate more in his first five starts, he also got a different set of results when he did go there. As noted above, 7 of those pitches were put in play on May 2. Only 3 other center-cut offerings were put in play during Haren’s previous five starts for the Nats (a single and two outs).