Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Underrated Rotation: The #4 Starter
By Ben Valentine

This is the second part in a five part series on the pitchers I consider to be the most underrated in baseball. You can find the first segment, on Brewers’ left Chris Capuano, here.

I was trying to think of a good way to introduce my starter for today’s segment of the “underrated rotation” when I realized I should abide by the old phrase, “let the numbers do the talking.” So here are two pitching lines for the 2005 season:

Pitcher #1: 211.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, 6.93 K/9, 3.20 K/BB, 2.19 BB/9, .95 GB/FB

Pitcher #2: 236.1 IP, 2.63 ERA, 6.47 K/9, 3.09 K/BB, 2.09 BB/9, 1.40 GB/FB

Pretty close huh? Pitcher #2 might be slightly better because of his ground ball/fly ball ratio, but with peripherals like that it’s hard not to like either guy. Both have front of the rotation peripherals with high strike outs and pretty good control. The ERAs are very different, but we’ll get to that later.

Pitcher #2 is the 2005 NL Cy Young runner up Dontrelle Willis; universally recognized as one of the games’ premier starters. Pitcher #1 is Cincinnati Reds starter Aaron Harang, who is universally never talked about as one of baseball’s better pitchers.

I mentioned Harang a couple of weeks back in my column on why the Reds might be better than people think. I said he was guy who had flown under the radar for the most part. A big reason for this is probably the perception of the Reds’ home field, Great American Ballpark. Since it’s known as Coors Field lite, there’s a feeling pitchers can’t be successful there. Bronson Arroyo’s success has shocked many because it seems strange a mediocre starter could go to that park and succeed. But the field can’t be all of it; after all, people are talking about Arroyo but few are talking about Harang, despite the fact he’s 5-1 so far this season with a 3.78 ERA.

Maybe it has to do with the fact he wasn’t a big time prospect when he was in the A’s system. At a time when the Beane factory was churning out Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, Harang moved into the backend of that rotation without much fuss and was solid, though not spectacular. In the A’s minor league system, the righty never struck out fewer than 6.00 batters per nine. When he first came up the bigs in 2002, that continued as he K’d 7.35 per nine. However, with only a 1.43 K/BB ratio, Harang struggled at times, pitching to a 4.83 ERA in 78.1 innings. His next season he regressed as his K/9 dropped to only 4.75 while his K/BB improved only slightly to 1.78. His ERA followed suit, rising to 5.34.

Harang was shipped out at the trade deadline that season to the Reds in a package for Jose Guillen. There things started to improve, as Harang saw his K’s raise slightly to 5.09 and his K/BB ratio increase greatly, up to 2.60. It appeared he had traded strike outs for better control. But with a K rate around the 5.00 Harang didn’t look like anything more than a fourth or fifth starter and his 5.28 ERA seemed to indicate that.

However, in 2004 things started to turn around. While his K/BB continued its increase to 2.36, his strike outs went back to more of his career norm at 6.99 batters per nine. His ERA dropped back to close to what it was in his rookie season in Oakland, 4.86. With improving control and only 26 years old, the Reds had a solid pitcher on their hands, though few noticed it. Coming into 2005, people talked about their new signee Eric Milton. Paul Wilson was their opening day starter. But in the end, their best pitcher was unquestionably Harang.

The righty would post a near identical K/9 as 2004 at 6.93. But the real improvement was his walks; Harang walked had 2.96 batters per nine in 2004. In 2005, that figure dropped to 2.17 per nine (a K/BB of 3.20). Walking nearly a batter less per game had a dramatic effect on Harang’s ERA, as it fell to 3.78 for the season. Though he only won one more game than he did in 2004 (11-13 overall in 2005), Harang in fact had a breakthrough season. Despite being a fly ball pitcher in a homer happy ball park, he had posted an ERA sub 4.00 and was one of the best pitchers in the NL.

Before anyone scoffs at that statement, remember the comparison from the beginning. Yes, the D-Train’s ERA was a full 1.20 points better partially because he was better at getting the ground ball out. But it was also largely due to his home ball park. Willis pitches in one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball, Harang in one of the worst. If Willis truly was the NL’s second best pitcher last year, then Harang wasn’t far behind.

This year, after a rocky opening day start, Harang has picked up where he left off. He has been every bit as good as the aforementioned Arroyo; not only is he 5-1 but has a 8.50 K/9 and a 4.09 K/BB ratio. He also has induced more ground ball outs than normal; 1.64. His last start was an 8.1 inning victory over the Rockies at Coors field where he struck out 12 and allowed just a single run. Of course if he can pitch at Coors Lite, why should he be afraid of Coors itself?

One would figure all of those numbers will come down, but an improvement on last year’s numbers is not out of the question. He is just 28 years old and has gotten better every season he has been in Cincinnati. Of course it’s true to form that even as Harang continues to show himself as one of the game’s best, he’s overshadowed by what Arroyo has done.

But mark it down; by the end of the year, once again the Reds' best starter will be none other than Aaron Harang. And this year, he might just get more wins than the D-Train.

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