Dan Haren, James Shields, Durability, and Faith
By Robbie Knopf
On Friday, in one of the craziest series of events that you’ll see in baseball, the Angels were about to trade starting pitcher Dan Haren to the Chicago Cubs for reliever Carlos Marmol– the trade was confirmed by sources and Marmol had even tweeted that he was heading to the Angels- when suddenly the trade was called off and the Angels’ declined Haren’s 15.5 million dollar option for 2013, instead paying him a 3.5 million dollar buyout, making him a free agent and letting him leave for nothing. It was the almost exact opposite of what the Rays had done just three days earlier, picking up James Shields‘ 10.25 million dollar option for 2013 with little suspense or drama. But the irony is just how similar Haren and Shields are as pitchers. Haren turned 32 in September- Shields turns 31 in December. Haren went to high school in Southern California just over an hour away from where Shields did. The first number Haren wore in the big leagues was #50-same for Shields. For his career, Haren has struck out 7.6 batters per 9 innings, walked 1.9, and allowed 1.1 home runs. Shields has struck out 7.7 per 9 innings, walked 2.1, and allowed 1.1 home runs. Since 2007, Haren has gone 85-62 while Shields has gone 81-65, with Haren starting 199 games and throwing 1318 innings while Shields started 196 and went 1330 innings. Haren once had a streak of 7 straight years of 200 innings- Shields has 6 straight. But the key difference: when Shields had a rough season in 2010, the Rays struck with him while after Haren had a tough year in 2012, the Angels are letting him leave for nothing.
After the July 27th game between the Angels and the Rays, Dan Haren’s ERA stood at 4.59. James Shields’ was at 4.52. Then for the rest of the season, Shields went 7-3 with a 1.99 ERA, an 8.9 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 12 starts and 90.1 IP. Haren went 4-5 with a 3.84 ERA, a 6.9 K/9, a 1.5 BB/9, and a 1.5 HR/9 in 11 starts and 61 IP. Haren certainly didn’t dominate the way Shields did, but it was an improvement over his performance from the first three months of the season. Haren’s overall homer rate in 2012 of 1.4 per 9 innings was the highest of his career and nearly double his 0.8 HR/9 from 2011, something vaguely reminiscent of Shields’ career-high 1.5 HR/9 from his frustrating 2010, and his 9.7 hits allowed per 9 innings ratio also represented a career-high. But also similar to Shields in 2010, bad luck was definitely a factor for Haren. A career-high 10.1% of the flyballs he allowed to the outfield in 2012 went for home runs, nearly identical to Shields’ 10.0% mark from 2010. However, while the Rays believed in Shields enough to give him another chance, the Angels had seen enough from Haren and have let him go.
Not all the circumstances are the same. Shields really struggled in 2010 but was still healthy the entire season and actually threw 203.2 innings while Haren threw dealt with a back injury and tossed just 176.2 IP, ending his streak of seven straight 200-inning seasons. Shield’s 92.3 MPH average fastball velocity in 2010 per Brooks Baseball was actually 1 MPH harder than his 92.3 MPH average from 2009 while Haren’s average fastball velocity experienced a precipitous drop from 90.6 MPH to 89.1 MPH. But how do you not trust a pitcher like Haren to rebound after the dependability he had shown everyone he had gone in the past?
The value of durability among major league starting pitchers is at an all-time low. Two of the most dependable pitchers in baseball, Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia, missed time with arm injuries in 2012, with Halladay breaking a streak of six straight years throwing 200 or more innings, and Sabathia barely extending his streak to seven years as he tossed exactly 200 innings. It’s important to have pitchers who can go 200 innings and it’s great to have pitchers who can do so consistently, but in baseball these days you’re willing to sacrifice innings from your starters if they are pitching more effectively. David Price is a great pitcher, but he threw just 211 innings in 2012 and very well may win the AL Cy Young. Chris Sale and Jered Weaver will also get Cy Young votes, and they managed just 192 and 188.2 innings respectively. The Washington Nationals didn’t have a single pitcher top 200 innings and were still considered to have one of the best rotations in baseball in 2012. Dependability from pitchers is still necessary- pitchers don’t do you much help if they’re not starting every fifth day. But when pitchers stop pitching as effectively as they had in the past, teams don’t care about how many innings they threw. Dan Haren was not that bad in 2012, not nearly as bad as A.J. Burnett with the Yankees in 2011 or his teammate Ervin Santana this season. But even if his poor 2012 had at least something to do with bad luck, if he isn’t the pitcher he used to be, he’s not worth keeping aboard. The Rays keeping Shields after 2010 was a major outlier. Of the 25 pitchers 28 years old or older to throw 180 or more innings with an ERA over 5.00 from 2005 to 2011, 18 of them were off the team where they pitched like that within two years.
Dan Haren might rebound next season to get back to his career norms and be a topflight starting pitcher. But after one season of injury and ineffectiveness, the Angels don’t want to take the risk even on a contract they can readily afford and even as letting Haren go gives the Angels just three pitchers guaranteed to return who made as many as 10 starts for them in 2012. If the Angels can’t re-sign Zack Greinke now, they will be in serious trouble. However, the Angels don’t have time to have faith in Haren despite his outstanding track record. They can’t bank on him rebounding and they can’t afford to miss the playoffs again next season. The Rays’ plan the past six years has been to do everything they can to win now but to keep their priority at winning as much as possible in the long-term. But in the current baseball world and in a major market like Los Angeles, the Angels need results fast, and for better or worse track record goes out the window and they have to do everything they can to get the players with the best chance to lead them to victory now.