Coming into the season, the Angels picking up Dan Haren’s $15.5M option for the 2013 was a foregone conclusion. He had been a workhorse in recent years, throwing 1581.1 innings between 2005 and 2011 and compiling an 81 ERA- and 82 FIP- over that stretch. A $15.5M option was a no-brainer for a five-or-six win player.
Now, sitting with a disappointing 4.82 ERA in late August and concerns lingering about his health, Angels GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff must determine whether Haren is a smart investment for the organization.
The questions about his health started in early July, when Haren spent 19 days on the disabled list with a back injury — one that has reportedly been an issue since spring training. It marked his first stint on the disabled list as a professional. It also helped explain his uncharacteristic struggles on the mound.
More specifically, the injury accounted for his significant velocity decrease from 2011 to 2012. Our own Wendy Thurm examined the effects of less velocity on every one of his pitches this year. The real problem, however, reared its head when Haren’s velocity didn’t improve after his stint on the disabled list. If anything, his velocity decreased even more:
(click to view larger image)
The results improved immediately after his return from the disabled list in terms of runs allowed, but the continued decline in velocity should have raised even more red flags. Either the injury was not fully healed, or something else was behind the issues.
Sure enough, after back-to-back dreadful outings in the middle of August against the Mariners and Rays, manager Mike Scioscia opted to skip Haren in the rotation in an attempt to reset his mechanics. The right-hander felt that his arm slot had changed while trying to pitch through his back woes, and he needed extra time to work with pitching coach Mike Butcher to rediscover his release point.
To determine whether his release point really had changed over the past two or three months, I laid a plot of his release point in most recent start against Detroit over another plot of his release point during his complete-game shutout against Seattle on May 24.
As you can see, Haren’s release point was slightly higher and more over the top in his most recent start than it was earlier this season. That higher release point is not inherently bad — as he only surrendered two runs over 5.2 innings and struck out seven in that start — but it does speak to the point that Haren is experiencing a different release point than he was earlier this season.
One reason why the 31-year-old is seeking to regain his old release point: his average fastball velocity on May 24 against Seattle was 89 mph, while his average fastball velocity on August 25 was 87.9 mph. Although that one mile per hour is simply random variation from start to start, it’s tough to accept that because the anecdotal and Pitch F/x data coincide rather nicely.
For the Angels, it’s important to ascertain whether Haren’s struggles in 2012 are due to his lingering back injury, aging, or mechanics. More than likely, it’s somewhat a combination of all three, but asking if the injury problems will persist due to his aging body and his 1700+ innings over the past eight seasons also helps determine the risk of exercising the contract.
The decision on Haren’s option will not be made in a vacuum, though. It’s important to recognize that the Angels have surprisingly little depth in their starting rotation. With Zack Greinke set to test the free agent waters and Ervin Santana unlikely to see his option exercised due to his 5.69 FIP and -0.6 WAR, the Angels would be left with the following rotation without Haren:
Richards has been disappointing this season, compiling numbers only slightly above replacement level, and Williams is a 30-year-old journeyman who ideally should be nothing more than a fifth starter. For the Angels to compete for an AL West crown against the Rangers and the surprising Athletics next season, their starting rotation needs to improve upon it’s 4.35 FIP, and relying upon arms such as Richards and Williams will not accomplish that.
When it comes down to it, the Angels are making a $12M decision because Haren has a $3.5M buyout. Assuming teams are paying roughly $5M per win on the open market, they don’t even need Haren to fully bounce back to his elite status in 2011 for the option to be worth it. If the organization believes the right-hander can be at least a three-win player, they should exercise the option, which would then allow the team to focus on the free agent and trade markets for another pitcher to further bolster the starting rotation for 2013.
And too much track record exists to believe Haren truly lost it on the mound. He may not be a five-or-six win player any longer, but he still misses bats at an above-average rate and limits the walks. Considering Mark Buehrle signed a four-year, $58M deal for his age 33 through 36 seasons a year ago to be a three-win pitcher, investing an additional $12M in a 32-year-old Dan Haren may be the best deal the free agent market has to offer for the Angels.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).