Braves find fortune with Harang's improbable start
Veteran right-hander first considered rotation fill-in, now boasts Majors' best ERA
ATLANTA -- Like any other sane member of the baseball world, Aaron Harang went through this most recent offseason without once thinking he would enter the final days of April with possession of Major League Baseball's best ERA.
"I was more worried about where I was going to be," Harang said. "I wasn't thinking about what my numbers might be. I was worried about having a job."
Less than two months after finally landing an audition with the first of the two organizations that he has been a part of this year, Harang finds himself in the midst of a stretch that seemed highly improbable as he spent time with four different clubs during a disappointing 2013 season. Through his first five starts with the Braves, the rejuvenated 35-year-old right-hander has posted a Major League-best 0.85 ERA.
"Did we expect what we have gotten? No, but we did expect him to be [effective]," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.
Harang was not anticipating this level of early season success back on Feb. 15, when he landed a Minor League deal with the Indians, partly because of a relationship he had developed more than a decade ago with Cleveland manager Terry Francona. Francona said Harang provided nothing more than Spring Training depth and then proved this on March 23, when he told the veteran pitcher he would not be on Cleveland's Opening Day roster.
Wren took some heat on March 24, when he made the unpopular decision to get rid of Freddy Garcia to make room for Harang, who had been released by the Indians just a few hours earlier. Garcia had not necessarily created much reason for confidence as he went through Spring Training attempting to get by with an 85-mph fastball and an array of junk pitches.
But Garcia was the guy who had gone toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of last year's National League Division Series against the Dodgers. And Harang was the guy whose ability to throw harder than Garcia had not prevented him from posting a 5.40 ERA in the 26 starts he combined to make for the Mariners and Mets after being traded for cash by both the Dodgers and Rockies last year.
Fortunately for the Braves, Wren and his scouts possessed a different opinion after watching both pitchers during Spring Training. They viewed Garcia as a guy who they could only hope would last five innings in a start. Harang was considered the more dependable option to eat innings and stabilize an injury-depleted starting rotation for at least a few weeks.
While Harang has spent this past month exceeding any and all expectations, Garcia is now trying to keep his career alive while pitching for Taiwan's EDA Rhinos.
"[Harang] won 16 games twice and was a pretty dominant pitcher [in Cincinnati] for several years," Wren said. "Once they have a track record like that, when you start to see signs of that old guy, whether it's velocity, arm angle or results, then you feel pretty good. That was what encouraged some of our scouts. They were seeing some of those old signs."
When the Braves lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to season-ending elbow injuries that were suffered less than 24 hours apart during March's second week, they took care of the front end of their rotation by signing Ervin Santana. But given that Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd were also going to start the season on the disabled list, Wren instructed his scouts to attempt to strengthen the back end of the rotation by evaluating veteran starting pitchers who were in danger of not gaining a roster spot out of Spring Training.
Harang landed on the Braves' radar as he posted 3.52 ERA in the four September starts he made for the Mets after he was released by the Mariners last year. Atlanta's veteran scout, Rick Williams, submitted some positive feedback, but Wren and his staff were not necessarily sold until Brad Sloan, another of the club's top scouts, offered some of the same positive opinions after seeing Harang pitch for the Indians in March.
"[Williams] thought his arm angle and stuff was similar to what he had seen a few years back," Wren said. "That was similar to what Brad Sloan reported as well."
Harang might no longer be as durable as he was when he logged 677 2/3 innings for the Reds during a three-year span (2005-07). But through the early stages of his 14th Major League season, his arm strength has been on par with what he has shown throughout most of his career.
According to Fangraphs, the average velocity of his four-seam fastball this year (89.5 mph) is identical to what he produced in 2008, which stands as the only other season during which he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in April.
While Harang's velocity has remained consistent throughout his career, he believes he is now benefitting from what he experienced last year when he was cast off by the Dodgers and Rockies before finally getting a chance to make his regular season debut for the Mariners on April 16. His only previous experience in the American League had come courtesy of the 21 starts he totaled for the A's during the 2002 and '03 seasons.
After spending four months attempting to navigate his way through the AL's potent lineups, Harang regained some of his confidence via the four starts he made for the Mets during last year's final month. His success in New York reminded him that he was not too far removed from posting a 3.62 ERA in the 59 starts he combined to make for the Padres and Dodgers during the 2011 and '12 seasons.
"It was good for me mentally to go out and pitch well because the confidence gets a little depleted," Harang said. "I struggled with Seattle. So your confidence level gets changed. You can have a false perception of yourself as a pitcher. I think it was really good for me to go experience that and pitch well when I got over there."
Harang's confidence has been further strengthened as his career has been resurrected over the past month. He has carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning twice this year and surrendered one run or fewer in each of his first five starts.
It is unrealistic to believe Harang will extend this dominance over the remainder of the season. But it also might be unwise to continue assuming that he will prove to be nothing more than a temporary band aid for the once suspect Atlanta rotation that has flourished with his presence.
"What he has been doing this year has just been spectacular," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "Frank and his guys knew what they were doing when they got him."