A look at Dan Haren’s resurgence
By Andrew Simon
WASHINGTON — It took four months and a stint on the disabled list, but the Nationals finally seem to have found the Dan Haren they thought they were getting for a one-year, $13 million contract this winter.
The veteran right-hander went 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA in his first 15 starts through June 22, a performance that he believes left him, “a bad start of two away from getting released.” Then he went on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder and returned July 8 as a new pitcher.
Haren held the Phillies to two runs on four hits over seven innings in Friday’s win over the Phillies, his third straight victory. In six starts since his DL stint, he has a 2.43 ERA.
“This is definitely more like it,” Haren said. “I felt really good out there today. Really comfortable. The ball was moving pretty good. And obviously getting all the runs made it pretty easy. It’s just kind of unfortunate that it didn’t start off like this, but at least I’m showing that’s in there.”
The question facing Haren and the Nats is, why the sudden turnaround? And can it continue for the rest of the season?
The obvious explanation is that Haren is healthier now. Manager Davey Johnson said Friday that he pitched through some arm problems during the first half of the season. But Haren continues to insist that he had no physical ailment before going on the DL, only that, “Mentally I was pretty messed up.” Having a couple of weeks off might have given Haren a needed opportunity to step back, regroup and catch his breath, but it wouldn’t seem to account for his massive jump in performance. If his arm is any stronger, it hasn’t been reflected in his velocity.
After Friday’s start, Haren gave a lot of the credit to his improved ability to keep the ball down, especially with his splitter. He had surrendered a whopping 19 home runs in his first 15 outings but only two since, and both of those came in his one poor post-DL start, July 22 against the Pirates.
Haren has worked on a new grip for the split, in an effort to slow down the pitch and gain greater separation from his fastball. It appears to have worked. According to data from brooksbaseball.net, Haren’s splitter velocity has dropped significantly over the past two months. He was throwing the pitch in the 84-86 mph range early in the season; on Friday, it averaged 82.3 mph. Along with that, the data shows that since Haren came off the DL, batters are swinging at the splitter at about the same rate but putting it in play much less.
According to Haren, the key has been both the pitch itself and his concerted effort to keep the ball down in crucial situations, to be, “a little more concerned with location, rather than just concerned with throwing strikes.”
“My split has been really good since coming off the DL, but really it’s just keeping the ball down,” Haren said. “I really focus on that, trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. I mean, the home runs really burned me all year.”
As Haren admitted, there probably is some good luck involved as well, just as there probably was some bad luck involved in his earlier struggles. His opponents’ batting average on balls in play was .333 before his DL stint and .267 since, which could indicate weaker contact, but also more batted balls finding their way to Nats fielders. Some fly balls that barely were clearing the fence before might be staying in the yard now.
There also is the issue of who Haren has faced. Since returning, he has seen the Phillies twice, plus the Brewers, Marlins, Mets and Pirates. All of those clubs rank in the bottom half of the Majors in runs scored, batting average and OPS.
Haren’s next scheduled start is Thursday against the Giants, another weaker offensive club, so he’ll have a good chance to continue his surge.