Dan Haren: 2010′s Ricky Nolasco, Only Better

2010′s Major League leaders in K/BB rate, minimum 50 innings pitched.
Carl Pavano 5.13
James Shields 5.07
Dan Haren 5.07
Roy Halladay 4.92
Zack Greinke 4.64
Looking at strikeouts compared to walks, Dan Haren is about as dominating a pitcher as there is in the Major Leagues right now. He ranks eighth in the league in K/9 (9.24 K/9) and is tied for tenth best in the league in limiting bases on balls (1.82 BB/9). If we want to go even deeper, we can look at the fact that Haren has the third best whiff rate in the majors, getting hitters to swing and miss almost 26 percent of the time. He ranks only behind Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw and Ricky Romero in that category and is right in front of Josh Johnson. How about another one of my favorite advanced pitching stats? Haren LEADS ALL MLB STARTERS in getting hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone (35.8 percent).
Dan Haren is still a dominant pitcher…except for one thing.

Last season, Ricky Nolasco struck out almost 9.5 per nine innings and only allowed 2.14 walks per nine innings. Unlike Haren, Nolasco wasn’t quite as hard to make contact off of and hitters weren’t chasing as many pitches outside the strike zone. However, the one glaring similarity between the two is the amount of home runs surrendered early in the season.

To this point, Haren has allowed an amazingly high 16 home runs, which is only eleven fewer than he allowed all of last season and only three fewer than he allowed total in 2008. Through May of last season, Ricky Nolasco was bad, but not quite as bad, allowing eight home runs in the season’s first two months.
Why is Dan Haren, of a career 1.24 GB/FB rate, giving up so many home runs? It is plain and simple: location (command of his pitches).
These great pitch f/x graphs from BrooksBaseball.net show us much of what we need to know…
Haren’s last two starts of May 2010
Haren’s last two starts of May 2009
Two things stick out to me. One, the difference in how many pitches are up in the strike zone or up out of the strike zone and two, the lack of changeups and sliders thrown.
According to pitch f/x data, Haren has consistently thrown changeups 10-11 percent of the time over the past three seasons. So far this season, however, Haren has only used his changeup 3.3 percent of the time and his slider…zero percent. The slider stats could be defined differently as cut-fastballs as sliders act in much the same fashion and Haren’s pitch f/x on the two are similar (Haren says he has been using a cutter lately). But the Changeups are another story. In his last outing Haren threw one changeup and five splitters, the pitch most similar in movement to a changeup. However, what differentiates the two pitches in that a change typically moves more horizontally than vertically while a splitter moves less horizontally and more vertically. In the data from yesterday and the two pitch types were recorded separately.
For whatever reason, Haren seems to have lost a feel for his changeup. Pitch f/x data shows a loss in vertical movement and the fact that he is simply not throwing the pitch as often speaks volumes.
Haren hasn’t lost control of his pitches, but rather confidence and, subsequently, command within the strike zone.
The bottom line is that Haren is still dominating hitters at a high level, but he has been crushed often when he has made a mistake. Pitchers of all ability levels get hurt on mistake pitches, but pitchers with Haren’s stuff seem to get away with it more often. To this point in the season, Haren has not received many breaks. His BABIP against is a high .345, which does not even include his home runs allowed.
One look at yesterday’s stat line says it all. 6.1 innings and six strikeouts to zero walks, but ten hits including four home runs. Again, the problem is location and confidence, not control or ineffective “stuff”. Confidence and location are much easier to fix than a lack of pure stuff or control of one’s pitches.
The chance to buy low, rock bottom low, on Haren is now. While there is a scenario in which he struggles to find all of his pitches again, the is also a good chance that he makes the correction and adds confidence and command to what is an already stellar K/BB rate. In this case, with a pitcher of this quality and with this track record, the reward greatly outweighs the risk.