Alright, this Aaron Harang thing beats the hell out of me. First, let’s talk about the game, and then let’s talk about him, because he’s basically the single biggest reason that this injury-ravaged team is in first place.
I know the score says 6-0, but it was a nailbiter for the first two hours until the offense woke up against the LOLMets bullpen. Jon Niese was on the bump, and he’s one of those semi-anonymous Mets pitchers who have a knack for keeping us off-balance. He’s got a career 3.48 ERA against us and Dillon Gee has a career 2.95 ERA against us. I hate those guys. Anyway, he killed us last night; 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 7 K. The Braves got two of those hits in the second inning, when a Jupton single and Gattis walk set up an RBI double by Chris Johnson. And then the offense took a power nap.
But in the end, Aaron Harang didn’t need the help. He currently leads the major leagues in ERA at 0.70 and is tied for the lead in wins with 3. His one loss of the year came on April 8, when he gave up two hits and one run in six innings to the Mets while the Mets shut out the Braves behind Bartolo Colon. Harang hasn’t pitched anything close to a bad start all year; he’s given up just nine hits in 25 2/3 innings, seven of singles and two doubles. Basically, he’s got a big box of smoke, mirrors, and 89-mile an hour fastballs, and he hasn’t given up much of anything even resembling hard contact all year. For example, last night was the second time in four starts, along with his first start on April 2, that he took a no-hit bid into the seventh inning.
That said, it probably shouldn’t have been a no-hit bid. In the second-inning, with two outs already on the board, Travis d’Arnaud was called out at first on a bang-bang play; the replays showed that he looked safe, but Lucas Duda foolishly tried to make it to third on the play and was tagged out on the attempt. Terry Collins decided not to challenge the call at first because the inning would have ended anyway, but as JJSchiller pointed out last night, that could have altered a lot of Fredi’s subsequent strategy with Harang.
In particular, the sixth inning. He needed just 72 pitches to get through the first five innings, with three strikeouts and two walks. Then, in the sixth inning, he threw 26 pitches and walked two men before striking out Curtis Granderson to preserve the one-run lead. He was at 98 pitches. The Braves had an extremely slim one-run lead and an apparently tiring starter who had just walked two men in the inning and four overall in the game. But he was credited with having allowed zero hits.
So in the very next half-inning, when the dreaded Niese was finally lifted for Carlos Torres, Chris Johnson immediately hit a double, Ryan Doumit productive-outed him to third, and the pitcher’s spot was up with a man on third and one out. And Fredi left Harang in to bat for himself. Harang feebly struck out, and Simmons grounded out, and the inning was over. Had D’Arnaud been credited with a single in the second, there’s almost no way that Harang bats for himself in the seventh, and the Braves likely would have ended the inning with a 2-0 lead instead of a 1-0 lead.
The bottom of the seventh was even more nervewracking, after Harang got two quick outs on his first three pitches. Then he walked D’Arnaud, and after that he managed to walk Ruben Tejada, a hitter so bad that the Mets spent most of the offseason trying to figure out who could play shortstop for the team other than him, and I had dread visions of Alex Wood walking Ryan Howard. Thankfully IWOTM, and Harang managed to strike out the next batter, and he departed with a corpulent line of 7 innings, no hits, 5 K, 6 BB, 121 pitches, only 70 of them for strikes.
Then the Braves scored five runs off the Mets pen in the 8th and 9th and Avilan and Walden struck out three guys in the next two innings and came within an 8th-inning David Wright single of a combined no-hitter and everything was pretty much moot.
Okay, so what the hell is going on here? He’s basically a three-pitch pitcher, throwing a ton of four-seamers and two-seamers and a lot of sliders, with the occasional show-me curveball or changeup. As Ryan noted, Harang has cut back on the curveballs and changes in favor of more fastballs — and pitch mix is one place where a pitching coach can have a definite effect on a pitcher. The stats suggest it was a good idea to junk the change, because the win value has been hugely negative. And it’s also very possible that he’ll do a better job of repeating his mechanics by focusing on three pitches than he did in previous years when he threw four or five pitches frequently.
I think that a lot of his success boils down to this: 1) he repeats his mechanics very well, as shown by the consistency in release point; 2) his mix of four-seamers and two- seamers, with similar velocity but different movement, keeps hitters off balance; and 3) he does a good job of hiding the ball until delivery, making it harder for the hitters to pick up his pitches. He also is playing in front of a better team than he has in a while.
That said, he also has a .143 BABIP and a 0.0 HR/FB% and a 90.5% strand rate, and those things typically won’t last. (Especially the home run rate: Harang has a 25.4% groundball rate this year, and a 37.9% groundball rate for his career. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, second in baseball so far this year. Fly ball pitchers give up the occasional tater.) Obviously, screaming “Regression” is neither all that fun nor all that interesting — nor, as we learned with Chris Johnson last year, necessarily all that accurate. Still, it is unlikely that Aaron Harang will end the season with Mariano Rivera’s career postseason ERA.
THAT SAID, Harang was signed to give us a bridge to the three rostered starters who weren’t ready for Opening Day, Ervin Santana, Mike Minor, and Gavin Floyd, and all he’s done is be the best pitcher in baseball. Aaron Harang’s 2014 season is the whole damn reason to be a baseball fan. Absolutely unbelievable.