Aaron Harang may or may not have thrown his last pitch. The 37-year-old right-hander is a free agent, and as of last report was unsure of his future. He spent this past season – his 14th in the big leagues – with the Philadelphia Phillies. A hulking 6-foot-7, Harang has 128 career wins and a pitching style similar to that of Chris Young.
Harang’s four-seamer averaged 89 mph this year, and it hasn’t been as high as 90 since 2010. It’s not a normal slow fastball. Like Young’s, it induces a plethora of in-the-air outs when thrown up in the zone. Unlike Young’s, its effectiveness has little to due to spin rate. Per StatCast, Harang’s four-seam spin rate is 2,319 rpm, which ranked him 396th out of 500 pitchers who threw at least 100 four-seamers. Young ranked 53rd.
Harang talked about his approach to pitching when the Phillies visited Fenway Park in September.
Harang on location and command: “I’ve always been good at locating pitches. As a kid, I’d go outside and duct tape a strike zone on a wall, and learn to hit that box. I’d play catch with it. I’d pitch little games to it. I’ve always been able to throw strikes.
“Once I got up to the higher levels of the minor leagues, they moved me on the mound. I’d always been a third base guy, but I moved to the first base side. When I was on the third base side, I could throw to the outside corner, but I started pulling a lot of balls. The philosophy over in Oakland was to be on the glove side, so you could get to that corner. Then, when you throw a two-seamer, it runs to the other corner and it’s not straight. Curt Young got me into that in Double-A. Now I’m actually in the middle.”
“As I got older, I started working on a two-seamer. I started learning the front hip to lefties and the back foot to righties, with the sinker. A few veteran guys I played with in Cincinnati helped me learn that. I’d mix it in on occasion to keep hitters off my four-seamer. Now I’m more two-seamer and will throw the four-seamer to keep them off my two-seamer.
“I’m smarter now about being down in the zone. Over the last four or five years, I’ve focused more on down, and I’ll go up for effect. It’s about reading swings more than anything. I’ll watch half the game (in the dugout) and half the game in the clubhouse. In there, I’m seeing the pitches from center, which is my view.”
On working up in the zone: “The top of the zone is (under-utilized) now – it totally is – but at the same time, that pitch doesn’t get called a strike as much, either. You go up there trying for a swing and miss. You get an aggressive young guy who swings at everything around the zone – he doesn’t really have a plan – and it’s a situation where he wants to drive a runner in. You can go up there and get him to pop something up to the infield.
“Chris Young and I are very similar that way. It’s our thing. Our size and our deception is a big thing for us. My delivery is short and compact. Hitters tell me it’s tough to pick up my ball, because everything is quick and short, and right on them. Earlier this year, I hurt my foot and tried to pitch through it, and I picked up some bad habits. I got a little long on the back side, and that hurt that my deception.
“With me, I think it’s more deception than spin rate. Chris and I talk about this in the offseason. We work out together – we throw with each other – and we talk about the lost art of working up in the zone. Our fly ball rates are going to be higher doing that, but we can get also a lot of shallow fly ball outs.”
On the strike zone: “You get histories with umpires. I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve pretty much had all of them at point or another. Some will have a tendency to call more of a down zone. Some will call the inside pitch more, or they’ll call the away pitch – but not as much as they used to, with all the Trak stuff that’s out there. They’re trying to be as fair as possible, and the job they do is hard.
“The early 90s, mid 90s-era ball-and-strike ratio was different. It’s a lot more precise now. There isn’t as much veteran status to the strike zone any more. That used to be a big thing. You simply have to adjust to the way things are.”
On his breaking pitches: “When I get long in my stride, and long in my arm, my breaking ball flattens out. When I stay short and compact, I get a tighter downward angle. I’m throwing a cutter, a slider, and a curveball right now.
“I took time away from throwing my curveball as much, but I went back to it, because I found that I could get more free strikes on early curveballs. Guys weren’t looking for it. A few years back, I started tinkering with the cutter again. I got comfortable with that and added it to my repertoire.
“My cutter is a couple of mph slower than my four-seamer. Everybody says my velocity is down, but the last couple of years I’ve been throwing a lot more cutters, and some of those are probably getting read as fastballs.”
On velocity: “I threw a little harder when I was younger, but I’ve always been able to vary the speeds on my fastball. I could drop down to 87, and run it up to 94 or so.
“When I first came up, I tried to throw the ball by everybody. It took a couple of years, and getting beat up a little bit, before I learned, ‘Hey, you can take a little bit off, and that’s going to speed the hitter up just enough that instead of squaring it up, he’s going to roll over to third.’ Once I figured that out, it was, ‘OK, I don’t have to go full tilt all the time.’ But I still have that in my back pocket. If I need to pump things up and blow a pitch by someone up in the zone – or get a pop-up – I can still do that.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.