Sep 11, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) pitches against the New York Mets during the first inning of a game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Why Dan Haren Is the Perfect Free-Agent Pickup for the San Francisco Giants

Aug 20, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The hot stove is starting to heat up and the latest the rumor mill has churned out is the San Francisco Giants’ interest in Bronson Arroyo, Dan Haren, Tim Hudson and, well, about nine others, give or take a couple. That news comes via Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Shedding more light on the situation is ESPN’s Buster Olney, who went as far to report that the Giants are well-positioned to land the 36-year-old Arroyo, depending on how the market develops.

This all can be summed up as preliminary chatter. No, it’s not unusual. The phones are constantly buzzing in front offices around the league. General managers are checking in on everyone (well, not everyone, but you know what I mean), gauging interest and what not. That’s more or less how the early stages of free agency go.

Either way, San Francisco’s wide search for a starter or two shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, if you’ve been paying attention. And if you were paying attention, you’d agree that the Giants’ starting pitching was uncharacteristically bad in 2013. As a group, they posted the seventh-highest starters’ ERA in baseball.

The advanced metrics give them a bit more justice: FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) says they were baseball’s 14th-best rotation, while xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) puts them smack-dab in the middle.

Aug 15, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) throws during the second inning against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

But let’s get back to that mini list Schulman tossed into open waters. More specifically, the notion of the Giants adding Dan Haren. I’ll just throw this out there now: Haren would–gasp–be a perfect pickup for the Giants.

I know what you’re probably thinking: Haren’s just your typical washed up veteran looking to regain some value on a short-term deal. I’ll give you the latter part. The 33-year-old Haren is indeed a veteran with 11 years in the big leagues under his belt. I’d also say he’s looking to regain some value.

Behold, the first of many tables:

Time Period    ERA    ERA+    Average IP
2005-2011    3.49    122    226
2012-2013    4.50    84    173

 

So yeah, Haren has taken a few significant steps back. ERA+ (100 is average) says he’s been a below average pitcher since the start of 2012. ERA paints a similar picture.

Then there’s his calling card (since 2008, he’s ninth in baseball in innings pitched, and that includes the clunkers–2012, 2013): chewing up innings. One quick glance at the table above and you’ll clearly see that Haren is no longer the innings-eater he once was.

There are a couple of notable factors that may have contributed to Haren’s decline in the innings pitched department. Injuries are one. And for that, Baseball Prospectus’ handy dandy injury tracker, well, comes in handy.

Sep 6, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you visit that page, you’ll notice a fairly clean track record. Through 2011, Haren never went on the DL–not once in nine years, which screams “durable.” But then 2012 came along and he missed 14 games with lower back stiffness. In 2013, shoulder inflammation caused him to miss another 14 games. Both injuries resulted in his only two career trips to the DL.

Another is simply Haren’s age (33). He’s no longer a ripe 26-year-old with a rubber arm. There’s no explanation for this; it just happens.

So … we know Haren is trending down. Why? Well … let’s dial our eyes in on another handy table.

   FB AVG    SI AVG    CH AVG    CB AVG    CT AVG    SPL AVG
2007-2011    0.253    0.292    0.118    0.233    0.236    0.180
2012-2013    0.226    0.282    N/A    0.300    0.312    0.188

 

The red flags here are his curveball, which he doesn’t use much anymore, and more substantially, his cutter.

The thing is, while Haren isn’t what he used to be, the Giants wouldn’t look for the near-Cy Young version of Dan Haren. Or the front-of-the-rotation Dan Haren. They’d merely wish and pray for a competent third or fourth starter who can eat up some innings.

Haren would, and that’s an optimistic “would,” be able to fill that bill. But just speculating isn’t enough. There are some real clues that he can still be a more than capable starter.

Take his five September starts, for example. He posted a 2.89 ERA (3.26 FIP), struck out 24.3 percent of the batters he faced and yielded a .261 opponents’ on-base percentage. No, this five-game stretch doesn’t erase the 5.02 ERA he carried heading into September, but it sure does alleviate some of the concerns.

So you have the plain numbers, but let’s get to the “how.” Hint: With a darn good cutter and sinker combination, coupled with a nasty splitter.

Time for another table.

   CT FREQ (%)    SI FREQ (%)    SPL FREQ (%)    SPL AVG    CT AVG    SI AVG
April-August       39.93    36.5    16.75    0.198    0.345    0.265
September    40.63    35.21    13.32    0.167    0.237    0.219

Note: I considered including his fastball and curveball, but combined, those two pitches make up just a little more than 7 percent of his arsenal.

There’s isn’t much variation in the usage columns, but take a long look at the latter three columns, particularly the “Cutter Average” one. Yep, a 108 point difference will do wonders for a pitcher’s ERA. Add in a 46 point difference with his sinker and a 31 point difference with his splitter, and you’re looking at a new-and-improved Dan Haren.

Here’s where we start connecting the dots.

AT&T Park is what we call a “pitcher’s friendly park.” Per ESPN Park Factors, it was the fourth-most pitcher-friendly park for limiting runs in 2013 and third-most friendly for compressing home runs. Translation: It’s a pitcher’s heaven–even more so for fly-ball pitchers.

It could be heaven for Haren too. Of course, there’s evidence for this.

Haren’s splitter, cutter and sinker all yield fly balls–more than average. I went searching around on Baseball Prospectus’ PitchFX leaderboards and found that all three pitches had lofty FB/BIP percentages in 2013.

Instead of inserting another table, just words will do fine: His splitter had a FB/BIP percentage of 17 percent, 13th-highest in baseball. His cutter had a FB/BIP percentage of 28 percent, 20th-highest in baseball. And finally, his sinker had a FB/BIP of 34 percent, 11th-highest in baseball. Just for the heck of it: His curveball had baseball’s highest FB/BIP percentage in that department (50 percent).

Indeed, lots and lots of fly balls. And going off of the numbers above, it’s no wonder why Haren owned baseball’s 10th-highest HR/FB percentage and had a fly-ball percentage of 42 percent (both in 2013).

At this point, you should see where I’m going with this: Haren’s fly-ball prone repertoire would translate very well in AT&T Park. He could get away with more mistakes and with a bit more room for error, he could break out his curveball more frequently–it was a darn good weapon for him back in his prime.

Jul 22, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals starting pitcher Dan Haren (15) throws during the first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Final Thoughts

Is Haren a flashy pickup? Of course not. But he certainly fits the mold of a low-risk, high-reward addition.

MLB Trade Rumors projects Haren to score a one-year, $10 million deal. So again, that’s a short-term deal with a very reasonable annual salary, on top of the fact that the Giants wouldn’t have to cough up their first-round pick to sign him.

The “short-term” part of Haren’s projected deal should have plenty of appeal to a Giants team flush with lower-level pitching prospects, some of whom could make their way to the team’s rotation by 2015. Thus, having a couple vacant spots would be ideal.

The Giants wouldn’t be adding the Dan Haren who was baseball’s third-best starter from 2005 to 2011 (by WAR), but again, it’s all about value. Haren could potentially have a ton of that.

Tags: MLB Free Agency San Francisco Giants Washington Nationals

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