VIERA, Fla. — There are durable starting pitchers, workhorses who relish churning through innings, at least six each time they take the mound, and take pride in steadying a rotation with a reliable presence every five days.
Since 2005, he has tossed 1,758 innings, second most in the major leagues behind left-hander CC Sabathia. His right arm has carried the load of 29,575 regular season pitches. Until last season, the three-time all-star tossed seven straight seasons of at least 200 innings. Most impressive of all, he has missed only three starts in his career.
Throwing a ball overhand at major league-level velocities over and over is an unnatural motion and has many ripple effects throughout the body. With his unique, halting delivery, highly self-critical and analytical approach, and meticulous preparation between starts, Haren has found a way to emerge as one of the most accomplished right-handers of the past decade.
“I take a lot of pride in pitching no matter what,” Haren said.
The Nationals aggressively pursued Haren as a free agent this offseason, while some teams backed off after a stint last season on the disabled list — the first of his career — and a resulting dip in his numbers. Comfortable with the state of his hip and back, Washington signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal, adding a wealth of experience to a talented but young starting rotation.
“You’re not going to find anybody that competes better than Dan Haren,” said Mike Scioscia, Haren’s manager for the previous two-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Angels.
It means so much to Haren to be on the mound every five days that his 18-day stretch on the disabled list was scheduled during the all-star break. He watched the Angels play in New York on television from his home in Los Angeles and the unusual feeling ate him alive. Not taking his team deep into a game hurts him, too. He is keenly aware of a starting pitcher’s duty.
“The season is so long there’s only a handful of times you go out there and you feel absolutely great,” Haren said. “But a lot of times there’s something in between starts. You get sore in a certain area, whether it be your shoulder, elbow or something, you gotta go out there and just tough it out. I think more than anything, I’ve learned to pitch without my best stuff, being able to compete at a high level without having my ‘A’ stuff that day.”
In being ready every five days for so many years, Haren has grown particular about how he prepares himself. He takes only one month off after the season, and throws frequently during the winter. A former pitching coach said Haren would even throw two bullpen sessions between starts. Haren lifts weights often and mixes in cardio exercises.
This winter brought more changes to his regimen. After examining Haren, the Nationals also put the right-hander on a “very aggressive and regimented” stretching program with New York-based massage specialist Keith Pyne, according to General Manager Mike Rizzo. Haren also adopted a stricter diet. He avoids fast food, desserts and fried foods, and prefers fruit, berries and water. He feels guilty when he eats a heavy meal and limits himself to one diet soda a day.
“You build up in between starts to put yourself in the best position on that fifth day to go out there and perform,” he said. “I’m just kinda a little bit [obsessive-compulsive] about it. I have to make sure that I lift and do all of my stuff in between starts.”
Haren learned from a young age the importance of a routine. Growing up in West Covina, Calif., his father, also named Dan, wouldn’t allow his son to spend time with his friends on weekends until he had played catch or hit with him at the nearby baseball field.
“I hated him then for it and I never wanted to do it, but I always did it,” Haren said. “He wanted me to be working harder. He always pushed me. He wanted me to play with the older kids. When I was 12, he wanted me to play with 13-, 14-year-olds. He always wanted me to compete against the best competition. It really helped.”
He was drafted out of Pepperdine as a junior by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round in 2001.
Haren’s ability to rack up innings is a result of his pinpoint command, his arsenal of breaking pitches and his approach. One of his foremost concerns is to limit walks. His career rate of 1.89 walks per nine innings is the second-best among active pitchers, a sliver behind Philadelphia Phillies great Roy Halladay. And though Haren’s velocity has decreased, his strikeout rate has risen as his walk rate has improved. His career strikeout-to-walk rate of 4.013 is fifth in major league history, and he trails only Mariano Rivera in that category among active pitchers.
What makes Haren so effective is his ability to make batting uncomfortable. His cutting and dipping pitches — cutters, curveballs, change-ups and split-fingered fastballs — induce weak swings and groundballs. This spring, he is pushing himself to throw inside to right-handed batters, a tactic he found effective late last season as he adjusted to his injuries. He adapts and reads hitters’ reactions.
Bryan Price, Haren’s pitching coach in Arizona in 2008 and early in 2009, was impressed with Haren’s feel for all of his pitches. He could throw his curveball, for example, in dangerous counts that might normally merit a fastball. “He had his whole arsenal in every single count,” said Price, now the Cincinnati Reds’ pitching coach.
Haren’s fastball averaged 88.5 mph last season, the lowest of his career, as he battled his mechanics through injury issues. But he doesn’t worry about throwing hard. His velocity has been generally between 87 and 91 this spring, an improvement and likely a sign he is fully healthy. Haren will gladly take the extra velocity because it expands his margin for error, but ultimately, he knows that his style is picking apart the strike zone.
“He knows how to pitch,” Price said. “He’s that guy who you can see, if his velocity drops down, you can still be equally as effective because his stuff is still so crisp. He’s so acute with his command.”
Last season did not live up to Haren’s career standards. He posted a career-worst 4.33 ERA over 1762 / 3 innings. Injury concerns over his hip and back, which surfaced last spring, persuaded the Angels to buy out his contract. Other teams quietly expressed concern over his health, though Haren said he passed a physical for another interested team. That some teams would balk at his near-spotless injury track record miffed Haren.
Rizzo is confident Haren’s training regimen is “going to allow him to pitch healthy through the whole season.” The general manager said Haren has long dealt with tightness in his hip and maintained it well, even as early as college.
Said Rizzo: “If he stays on the mound, we’re going to like the results.”