What Happened In 2014: Strong start and finish sandwiched an extended period of extremely poor pitching
When Dan Haren signed with the Dodgers last winter, I loved it. Haren had a strong second half after returning from injury in Washington, and was only guaranteed $10 million for one year. The contract had a vesting option after 180 innings worth another $10 million, but the thinking at the time was that if Haren pitched that long, he likely would have been worth the extra money. That ended up not being the case, but it’s important to remember how well-received the contract was at the time it was signed.
And, for awhile, it seemed like the right choice. On May 12th, Haren had a 2.68 ERA and the best FIP-based WAR (1.2) of any Dodger pitcher in Clayton Kershaw‘s absence. However, in his numbers, I noticed a pretty big red flag:
Despite the reduction in swinging strike rate, Haren’s strikeout rate hasn’t gone down by much. Haren has struck out 19.5% of the batters he has faced this year, down only slightly from his career rate of 20.5%. There’s a bit of a conflict here. Intuitively, Haren’s severe drop in swinging strike rate would cause a nearly equally severe drop in strikeout rate.
Haren’s point was all by itself outside of the otherwise extremely strong correlation. His velocity had dropped about 2mph from where it was in 2013, and was skating by on a 50% looking strikeout rate, compared to his career (and MLB average) rate which was about half that. In that post, I changed Haren’s looking strikeout rate to match his career averages and ended up with a FIP of 3.34 and an xFIP of 3.94 (at that point, his home run problems had not begun). He finished the season with a 7.0% swinging strike rate and an 18.7% strikeout rate, still on the left side of the correlation but into the main pack of points (his looking strikeout rate remained high, at 40% when the season ended).
That’s right about when Haren took an extreme turn for the worse. Including his May 7th start, he struck out two batters in six of eight outings (in one of the others, he struck out three). He also started allowing an alarming number of home runs, including one each by Jarrod Dyson (his only homer of 2014), Lorenzo Cain (five homers in 2014) and Alexi Amarista (also five homers in 2014). All of this was cause for extreme pessimism by Mike in the end of June:
Now I’ve been looking into what’s happened, and unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. His velocity is down from last year, but it’s not down within the confines of 2014. With the exception of using a splitter a little more, which he should probably stop doing, because it doesn’t work that well, he hasn’t suddenly changed his repertoire. I don’t see evidence that he’s suddenly throwing differently or in a different part of the zone.
That, really, is what worries me, because if you look at the last three years of his career… this might just be what he is.
While Haren was still able to get through innings at that point, even that started going away by July. After the Dodgers didn’t trade for another starter at the deadline, Chad started to ponder if there was anything the Dodgers could do internally:
Haren struggled yet again yesterday, surrendering seven runs (six earned) on eight hits and two walks in 4.1 innings. By the time the day was over, his ERA stood at 4.76, but his ERA may not even be the biggest problem. Haren now routinely labors to get through even five innings, thus taxing an already weak bullpen and affecting not only the game he pitches but subsequent ones as well.
Yikes. There weren’t any options to replace him, either (which, in a way, goes to show how important Joe Wieland can be and how he shouldn’t be an ignored piece of the Kemp trade). This was the low point of Haren’s season. At that moment, it seemed impossible that the Dodgers would let Haren’s option vest.
However, Haren finished the season almost as strongly as he started. In his final 10 starts, he pitched 59-1/3 innings (enough to get him to the option), kicked his strikeout rate back up to 7.58 per nine innings, stopped walking people, and stopped allowing home runs. During that stretch he had a 2.43 ERA, a 3.00 FIP, and a 3.59 xFIP. There were some pretty big luck indicators in there (.220 BABIP, 6.2% HR/FB, and he started doing the looking strikeout thing again), but the fact is that he helped the Dodgers finish strong. Haren did not pitch in the playoffs, but the stability down the stretch helped the Dodgers set up better for the NLDS.
When putting the sum of Haren’s 2014 numbers together, they ended up being pretty underwhelming. A 4.09 FIP isn’t anything special (about 16% worse than league average), but Haren’s 4.88 RA9 was below replacement level. Unearned runs matter, too, and Haren allowed 18 of them. The halfway point between Haren’s RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR in 2014 was 0.35, which is a pretty accurate description of what he was: a slightly better than replacement level innings-almost-eater.
After the season, Haren unsurprisingly picked up his player option, and at the time he hinted that he’d retire if he was traded. It felt like idle talk, since it was difficult to picture the Dodgers finding a taker for Haren after his mediocre performance. However, the Dodgers found a match and traded him to Miami with Dee Gordon and Miguel Rojas. They’re paying his salary to the Marlins either way, so Haren is being paid to not pitch for the Dodgers, if he even pitches at all. After the replacement-level season and the obvious corresponding upgrade in Brandon McCarthy, it’s not difficult to see why. Haren had his positive moments in 2014 but moving on was probably the right decision.
2015 status: Might play for the Marlins, might retire, or could potentially be flipped back to a west coast team.