Dan Haren Throwing 88 Down the Middle

The list of athletes who are simultaneously good at their sport and social media is a short one. I don’t know much about the other sports, but in baseball, it’s pretty much limited to Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Glen Perkins and the recently-retired Dan Haren.

In Haren’s case, it starts with the handle, @ithrow88, a reference to the 13-year veteran’s diminished late-career velocity. Haren was never a hard-thrower, but by age 27 the decline had already begun, dropping from 92 mph to 91. By his age-30 season, Haren no longer averaged 90 mph on his fastball. The following year, the reality of throwing 88 was realized, and by his final season, last year, Haren’s fastball averaged just 86 mph, the second-slowest by a qualified non-knuckleballing starter.

The self-deprecating moniker serves as a refreshing departure from the false bravado we expect so many of our athletes to project. Coming to terms with our own physical decline is a near-unanimous realization among non-athletes at various ages, and so Haren’s ability to take his own deterioration in stride is something that resonates with the general public.

We like to be able to resonate with our favorite athletes, but we also enjoy being granted the opportunity to peek behind the curtain a bit. On Monday, an early afternoon session on the exercise bike led to an entertaining string of brutally honest tweets from Haren about his career. The topics range from plane crashes to Coors Field dread to pitcher-batter matchups and pitcher-pitcher matchups to the absurdity of the pitcher win to wine-drinking habits to poop, the latter of which is almost always funny if you’re a man-child like myself. It’s a fun stream-of-consciousness that’s worth a minute of your day. At the very least, you’ll get a chuckle out of it.

But one tweet struck me in particular, and I wasn’t the only one; it was the most popular tweet from the 14-message long rant. As soon as I read the tweet in question, I knew it required a follow up, and also that it would provide me an excuse to write a sendoff post to Haren, who had a remarkable career that hopefully won’t be overshadowed by it’s underwhelming conclusion.

The tweet read as such:

There’s that honesty and self-deprecation we love so much, not to mention the peek behind the curtain.

Haren mentioned in an earlier tweet that he “gave up so many homers.” Yes, yes you did, Dan. Not an extreme fly ball pitcher, but never to be mistaken for a ground baller, Haren allowed 305 homers over the course of his career, and averaged over a homer allowed per nine innings in nearly 2,500 frames. Over his final four years, beginning in 2012 and coinciding with the first season in which his average velocity dipped to 88, Haren’s propensity for serving up the long ball ballooned to an exorbitant rate of 1.43 HR/9. Nobody gave up more dingers than the 114 allowed by Haren in that four-year period.

Haren’s also right about another thing: when he got to 3-1, he sure did like to pipe it down the middle. Examining just the four-year window from 2012-15 when Haren experienced diminished velocity, we’ll call this “The 88 Era,” Haren reached a 3-1 count 201 times, and threw it down the middle 28 times, according to the strike zone quadrants provided by BaseballSavant. That is to say, in roughly 14% of Haren’s 3-1 counts near the end of his career, he just piped one down the middle. The league average, over that same stretch, was 7%. Haren was twice as likely as the average pitcher to put one down broadway at 3-1; that was his alternative to issuing a walk, and Haren was great at limiting walks.

And so you’d think, given what we know about Haren (tons of dingers, brutally slow, diminished velocity, plenty of meatballs in 3-1 counts) that he’d get bombed when he “threw it down the middle and hoped for the best” in the most hitter-friendly count that generates a reasonable amount of swings. “Hoping for the best” isn’t typically a strategy that inspires much confidence. Yet, here’s the great part: the league’s average OPS in a 3-1 count nearly doubles. Pitchers allowed a .721 OPS overall in 2015, and a 1.335 OPS in 3-1 counts. Haren, from 2012-15, allowed a .746 OPS overall, but just a 1.094 OPS in 3-1 counts. Despite throwing twice as many meatballs down the middle once he got to 3-1 than the average pitcher, Haren actually suffered one of the smallest performance drops by count in the league; of 158 qualified pitchers, only 22 of them were better in 3-1 counts, relative to their usual performance.

What you’d expect to see a lot of is this:

But what you actually got, more often than not, was something like this:

Like he said, batters pop up in batting practice. Hitting is hard. It’s basically impossible. Of the 28 pitches Haren threw down the middle in a 3-1 count from 2012-15, batters swung at 26 of them. Ten of those 26 swings resulted in foul balls. Twelve went in play, for outs, including two pop-ups and a double play. Of those 26 swings at 88-mph meatballs from Dan Haren right down the middle of the plate in a 3-1 count, only three of them actually resulted in a positive outcome for the batter: a single by Jeff Francoeur, a triple by Charlie Culberson, and the home run by Ryan Ludwick pictured above. All that hoping for the best actually worked out alright for Mr. Haren.

Thing is, for most of his career, Haren didn’t need to hope. He just did. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, for more than half a decade, Haren was one of the best and most durable pitchers in baseball.

From 2005 — Haren’s first full season, in Oakland — to 2011, Haren took the mound more times than any starter in the game, never starting fewer than 33 games in a season for seven consecutive years. During that run, Haren logged a 3.49 ERA and a 3.52 FIP in more than 1,500 innings pitched, throwing 15 complete games with five shutouts. Haren’s trademark was his excellent command — he walked fewer than five percent of all batters faced during those seven years, giving him one of the best walk rates in the league. The only pitchers more valuable than Haren in that near-decade-long run were Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia, both potential Hall of Famers.

At his best, Haren was elite. With the way things ended, he won’t garner any Hall of Fame consideration, but he had the same career WAR by age 30 as Halladay, and a higher WAR by the same age than Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine. His best five-year run, from 2007-11, was one of the 50 best peaks we’ve seen by a pitcher since the expansion era began more than 60 years ago.

In fact, Haren’s best five years are nearly indiscernible from the best five years of Glavine, a first-ballot Hall of Famer:

Glavine vs. Haren, Best Five Years
Name Years IP ERA FIP ERA- FIP- E-/F- tWAR
Tom Glavine 1996-00 1179 3.19 3.81 73 86 80 27.2
Dan Haren 2007-11 1141 3.33 3.33 76 79 78 26.8
tWAR = 50/50 split of RA9-WAR and FIP-WAR

In the end, though, Haren’s legacy will simply fall in the “Hall of Very Good,” where so many great careers go to rest. But let it not be forgotten, no matter how hard his self-deprecating humor might sway you to believe the contrary, that Dan Haren had a hell of a career. And that sometimes, throwing 88 down the middle works out just fine.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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@e3Laroche is another excellent self-deprecating Twitter handle.