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Hot Stove: Dan Haren Signs With the Nationals
Stuart Wallace | Tuesday December 4th, 2012
Can Dan Haren bounce back for the Nats in 2013? (US Presswire)
Can Dan Haren bounce back for the Nats in 2013? (US Presswire)
In one of the more surprising signings thus far in the 2012 baseball Winter Meetings, former Los Angeles Angels starter Dan Haren is headed east to the Washington Nationals on a one-year, $13 million deal.

Not only is it surprising from the perspective that he was signed before his Angel rotation counterpart Zack Greinke, but also due to Haren's recent past, which is checkered with questions about his durability and vanishing fastball. When you also consider that Edwin Jackson was signed by the Nationals last year for a similar role in the rotation for $11 million, it begs the question of whether Haren will provide a reasonable return from a sizable investment for essentially a 5th starter.

Yet, there is much to like about the signing from the Nationals perspective, even if the overall success of the deal hinges on some big 'if's; such as, if Haren is healthy. Pestered by both lower back and hip issues this past season, Haren went to the disabled list for the first time in his 10 year career. Add to this a potential deal this off-season to send Haren to the Chicago Cubs in return for Carlos Marmol was nixed due to the nagging issue of these nagging injuries, and the uncertainty revolving around Haren's medical history grows as he preps for his age 32 season.

While injuries are one 'if', Haren's iffy fastball velocity is another. While he has been on the slide for a couple of years, 2012 saw further decreases in Haren's fastball velocity and with it, a diminished ability to use it to set up hitters for his devastating split finger fastball. With his pitch repertoire and impeccable control (highlighted by a career 1.89 BB/9 rate), Haren uses the heater more as a show pitch, hitting the corners to get ahead, or using it to change a batter's plane of vision, or as a change of speeds in order to get batters out by either chasing the split or being out ahead of it. While he uses his cutter in a similar fashion, it is the extra gas on the fastball that has made the split the great out pitch that it's been for Haren, because of the disparity in velocities between the pitches.

Speaking of these velocities, let's have a closer look at Haren's pitch selection and velocities, starting from 2008, arguably the best of his career, to last season. I have added his FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and Win Probability Added (WPA) values for each of those years as well, to show how different of a pitcher Haren has become in the last year with regard to overall success and value, with injuries possibly costing him some velocity on his pitches.

Season

Team

FB%

SL%

CT%

CB%

SF%

WAR

WPA

2008

Diamondbacks

50.3% (91.1)

25.1% (80.9)

6.6% (87.8)

-

17.9% (85.1)

6.5

2.22

2009

Diamondbacks

45.7% (90.6)

-

23.3% (86.7)

18.0% (78.2)

13.0% (85.1)

6.1

2.95

2010

2 Teams

42.3% (90.6)

-

27.2% (86.4)

12.5% (79.0)

18.1% (85.3)

4.4

1.12

2011

Angels

34.5% (90.0)

-

47.7% (85.3)

5.3% (78.2)

12.5% (85.3)

6.1

3.65

2012

Angels

40.1% (88.5)

-

35.6% (84.6)

6.0% (76.0)

18.3% (83.5)

1.8

-0.57

*stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com

As we can see, reductions in fastball velocity have brought reductions in velocity differential between his fastball and splitter. These subtle trends allow a hitter to be able to sit one speed, and adjust to pitch location; there is not much difference between 2012 Dan Haren's fastball, cutter, or split finger, except movement. With no real threat of having Haren throw a fastball past them, hitters now have an advantage, as now hitting becomes a matter of looking for a pitch in a particular spot, versus finding a pitch to hit in a particular spot after determining its speed. For Haren, it is all coming out of his hand at essentially the same speed.

These slight deviations from his historical norms had a marked effect on his value to his team. A precipitous drop in WAR, and a negative WPA in 2012 all point to Haren not being the pitcher he is accustomed to being. For further WPA comparisons, 2012 Dan Haren had a similar WPA to such luminaries as Jake Westbrook, Barry Zito, and Aaron Harang, while Haren's 2011 WPA would have placed him second in the MLB in 2012 in the category, behind Justin Verlander's 4.04.

So which Haren toes the rubber for the 2013 Nats? 2012 or 2008 Haren? 

Can the success of 2008 be rekindled while wearing the curly W of DC? There is hope for a return to 2008 pitching prowess for the three-time All Star, independent of a clean bill of health. While his fastball velocity can't be counted on returning, Haren can return to using his breaking ball more frequently, which could help in keeping hitters honest by adding the additional dimension of change of speed when setting up hitters for his split. With a roughly 8 miles per hour difference between his curve ball and split, and 12 miles per hour between the curve and fastball, these large differentials in pitch velocities could be enough to keep hitters from sitting on the cutter/split combo. Add to it the curve breaking in a different plane than his cutter, and the potential for Haren to have a bounce back year for the Nationals, fastball velocity be damned, is high.

Overall, the prospect of Haren having a successful season with the Nationals is ripe, as all of the questions surrounding Haren have answers that can be reasonably achieved. If Haren can stay healthy, if he finds his fastball again, or if uses his curveball more frequently in an effort to set up his splitter and cutter, he has the potential to turn in a 200+ IP, 13-15 win season, with K/9 totals pushing 10, similar to what we saw when Gio Gonzalez came over to the Nats from the American League.

For Haren and the Nationals, these 'if's need to become 'when's, now.

Stuart WallaceStuart Wallace is a writer for Baseball Press. A native of Las Vegas, NV, gave up 4 home runs in his college career, 3 to Johnny Estrada. Proprietor of the obtuse baseball musings at How Do I Baseball?. You can also catch him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.