Why MLB Teams Aren’t Big Dan Haren Fans

When I was putting together my Trade Value series, my preliminary version included Dan Haren. A good pitcher on a good contract, not yet 30, and durable as can be, I figured he would draw a lot of interest if the D’Backs put him on the market. Then, while hanging out in Anaheim, I started talking to friends in the game about the list, and a consensus quickly emerged – they were not nearly as high on Haren as I was.

After a series of conversations that all went the same way – “He’s okay, but I wouldn’t give up any of those guys for him, or a bunch of other guys you didn’t include” – I dropped him from the list. It just became obvious that Haren’s trade value wasn’t as high as I thought it would be, given his performances the last few years. Regardless of where his xFIP ranks, he wasn’t seen as any kind of ace by the people who actually were putting rosters together.

Now, a day after he’s been traded for about the same amount of value as Philadelphia gave up to acquire Joe Blanton two years ago, it’s probably time to ask why. Why is there a massive divide between the teams and the online baseball community when it comes to how good Haren is and what he’s actually worth?

As best as I can tell, it comes down to two issues – velocity and home runs. While Haren’s walk rate and strikeout rates are excellent, his home run rates have always been a bit of a problem. Of the 56 qualified starting pitchers over the last three calendar years, Haren’s 1.11 HR/9 ranks just 40th. He has done a good enough job at limiting baserunners that his longball issues haven’t been a huge problem, but giving up bombs is one of the easiest ways to look bad in front of scouts.

To us, a home run is simply -1.4 runs in the ledger, a mistake that may or may not be predictive of future success. To a lot of scouts, allowing a home run is a sign that there’s a problem with what you’re throwing. Some pitchers, such as Josh Beckett, can overcome this stigma by impressing with raw stuff – a 95 MPH fastball, a big 12-6 curve that buckles knees.

Haren, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of repertoire. His fastball is more 88-92, and he relies heavily on a 86-ish MPH cut fastball to keep hitters off balance. So, when he centers one of his average velocity fastballs and it gets blasted over the fence, it’s easy for scouts to assume that Haren is always going to give up a lot of dingers. It’s hard to be impressed when the radar gun says 89 and the ball went 450 feet.

So, Haren gets lumped into a group of pitchers that includes James Shields, Cole Hamels, Javier Vazquez, and Ricky Nolasco – guys who some teams believe throw too many strikes. Several of these teams believe that these guys are too willing to throw one down the middle in order to keep their walk rates down, and it leads to too many home runs and a package that is viewed as more of a good pitcher than a great one.

There may be some truth to those feelings. Perhaps Haren would be better off walking a guy here and there rather than pounding the zone no matter the situation. Since he doesn’t throw 95, maybe putting a 3-1 fastball in the strike zone isn’t always such a great idea. I think they make an interesting argument.

I don’t agree with their assessment of Haren’s overall value, but as we saw yesterday, the actual price for Haren was far lower than the expected price. If you’re wondering why, this is the best explanation I can get. To MLB teams, limiting walks and striking out hitters are nice, but you can’t be an ace if you give up a lot of home runs.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

Still, you’d think some MLB team would recognize that a guy whose K/9 has risen every year in the bigs (at a well-documented 9.00 right now) and whose xFIP has been under 4.00 every season since 2004 is an elite pitcher, especially given that he pitches in a home-run haven.

12 years ago
Reply to  Nathan

Well, the Yankees certainly seemed interested in acquiring him, after acquiring Javy Vazquez in the offseason.