The Dan Haren Issue

Dan Haren has not pitched well for the Nationals. There have been a multitude of issues, but the main and most important one is he has been getting hit hard. His line drive rate is up to 25.9% from his career average of 19.9% and his ground ball rate is down to 25.9% from his career average of 43.0%. Avoiding line drives and inducing ground balls is good for a pitcher. Most line drives are hits while most ground balls are not. Giving up more line drives and less ground balls is never good and it has led to Haren having a .420 BABIP so far on the season compared to his career average of .292, and this doesn't include the five homeruns he has given up, but even if nothing else changes a 3.38 HR/9 is unsustainable.

The Haren issue at its core is a binary one. He either improves or he doesn't. To what degree he has to improve is important, but more important is what’s causing his issues. The main culprit so far in 2013 is his cutter. Many people have watched and noticed that he is leaving fastballs right over the heart of the plate and the big issue is he isn't missing his location. While he is aiming for the heart of the plate, that is not where the pitch should end up. For his career Haren's cutter has a horizontal movement of 2.0 inches and vertical movement of 4.4 inches. So far this season it is moving horizontally 1.4 inches and vertically 1.3 inches. In essence Dan Haren's 85 MPH cutter isn't cutting. Leaving it over the heart of the plate and turning it into a BP fastball. The movement on Haren's other pitches has been fine but he doesn't have a single pitch that hasn't been hit to at least a 44% line drive rate. Everything with Haren builds off the cutter and works towards the splitter and if the cutter isn't doing what it is supposed to do then the straight fastball and sinker won't fool many batters.  

Now the question is: what can be done to make Dan Haren better? I am certain that if I know the cutter isn't breaking as normal then Haren and Steve McCatty know this and are working to correct it. Haren is mainly a fastball pitcher throwing four different types of fastballs; a cutter, four-seamer, two-seamer/sinker, and splitter. He also has a curve and a change-up that he hasn't thrown since 2011. If the cutter does not improve Haren could start working the fastball more to the edges of the plate, mixing in the curve more often than the 8 total times he has thrown it this season, and perhaps bring back the change-up. That last one may not be an option. There is a reason he stopped throwing that pitch in the first place and it may not be a pitch that Nationals fans want to see him throw. The other thing is the cutter could get better. Like batters, pitchers slump. They struggle with everything from release point to landing area. Haren's issues could be with any number of mechanical things that don't show up in the statistics but can be identified in video or bullpen sessions.

Either Haren gets better or he doesn't, but how much better does he need to be? In 2012 the Nationals had a .387 winning percentage win Edwin Jackson took the mound and still managed to win 98 games. Last season was the worst of Haren's career and he ended it with a 4.33 ERA or slightly higher than the NL average of 4.04. A fifth starter is a slightly below league average starter to begin with so if Haren can get back to his 2012 numbers then he will be just fine as the Nats fifth starter. For reference other contending NL teams fared just as well with their fifth starters. In 2012 the Braves gave 31 starts to 4.48 ERA pitcher Tommy Hanson, the Reds 30 starts to 4.58 ERA pitcher Mike Leake, and the Giants 33 starts to 5.18 ERA Tim Lincecum. All teams have a fifth starter. The baseline for Haren isn't high.    

If Haren can't get better the Nationals have a few solutions. The most important ones are the internal solutions. First up would be Spring Training sensation Chris Young who has a career 3.79 ERA over 159 games started but has struggled to stay healthy. Young was impressive in Spring Training and has the makings of a serviceable back of the rotation starter for the Nationals. Next up would be Ross Ohlendorf who is off to a 2-1 start with a 3.45 ERA at AAA Syracuse, but has a career 5.10 ERA in 108 games at the majors. The last internal solution until someone better develops is Daniel Rosenbaum who is off to a very impressive 1-0, 0.82 ERA start at AAA Syracuse and over five minor league seasons has a 2.79 ERA. Rosenbaum is in the Tommy Milone mold where he is a soft tossing lefty with amazing control. The big difference between the two is that while both are finesse pitchers Milone had a 8.1 K/9 in the minors and Rosenbaum 6.8. Even with that low strikeout rate and below average stuff he has the makings of a decent back of the rotation starter.  

That rounds out the internal options, and those are the only options that exist until late July. With the Nats need for a number five starter and an already depleted minor league system it is doubtful they would want to put together the type of package it would take to get David Price or even Justin Masterson. Someone like Edison Volquez or Bud Norris would be more on the Nationals radar but nothing on the trade front will happen until July and isn't even worth discussing right now. Dan Haren will be given the time to figure things out. Pitchers with his background and ability don't completely fall apart and the expected decline heading into the mid-30s doesn't happen all at once. The most likely outcome of all this is that Dan Haren will figure out why the cutter isn't breaking like it should and begin to return to being more of the Dan Haren baseball fans are familiar with.

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