Ailing Back Hurts Haren’s Velocity, Effectiveness

We’ve seen Dan Haren‘s results this season, and we’ve been wondering what’s going on. His walks are up. He’s giving up more hits. And his FIP is the highest of his career. Granted, his poor first half hasn’t been as alarming as, say, Tim Lincecum‘s, but Haren’s been off his game for the first three months of the season.

After Tuesday’s latest disappointing outing, in which he lasted only 4.1 innings, giving up nine hits and six earned runs, Haren revealed that he’s been dealing with a lingering back issue. According to the Orange County Register, “Haren said this year’s problem began when he ‘tweaked’ his back during his final spring training start and has never really gone away.”  [Haren's last spring training start was on April 2 against the Dodgers. It was a relief to learn that Haren's back injury arose after the FanGraphs staff saw him at the In-N-Out in Tempe, Arizona on March 11. We were starting to feel a bit responsible.]

Haren will have his back examined by doctors today, now that the Angels have returned from a long road trip. He is scheduled to start on Sunday, but that is very much up in the air. A trip to the disabled list is possible, and would be a first for Haren in his career. He’s pitched more than 215 innings every season dating to 2005, his first full season with the A’s.

An ailing back might explain the noticeable drop in Haren’s velocity. He has four principal pitches: four-seam fastball, split-finger fastball, cutter, and curve ball. According to PITCHf/x, the average speed on his four main pitches is down compared to last season. Haren’s velocity is also down when compared to the average speeds for the same four pitches by American League starters this season.

Haren 2011 Velocity Haren 2012 Velocity Average AL Starter 2012 Velocity
Four-seam 89.8 88.8 91.5
Split-finger 85.5 84.0 84.9
Cutter 85.3 84.6 88.1
Curveball 78.4 76.3 77.4

Okay, so velocity is down. What does that mean?

We don’t know precisely what it means, but the drop in velocity appears to have been made Haren more hittable this season. While his first-pitch-strike rate (65.3) is higher than it was last season (64.6) and higher than his career average (62.4), his swinging-strike rate (9.3) is at the lowest point since 2006 (9.2) and below his career average (9.7).

Indeed, batters are swinging less frequently at Haren’s pitches, particularly those outside the strike zone. His swing rate has dropped from 48.8 to 46.3 last year to this, with the biggest drop coming in swings on pitches outside the strike. His O-Swing rate is down considerably, from 36.2 to 32.3. Not surprisingly, then, Haren’s walk rate has climbed 1.25/9 last season to 2.08/9 this year. On the other hand, when batters are swinging at Haren’s pitches outside the zone, they are making contact at a greater rate (68.0) than at any time in his career.

The results?

Batters are hitting .288 off Haren, the highest of his career. Granted, his BABIP is also at a career high at .329 suggesting some bad luck or defensive inefficiency. Indeed, Haren’s giving up infield hits and bunts for hits at a greater rate than at any time in his career. He’s also, however, yielding more line drives than in any season since his rookie year of 2003. Haren’s also been the victim of the long ball. His fly ball rate (39.6) is up from last year (37.9) and more of those fly balls are leaving the yard. His 12.4 HR/FB is his highest since 2006.

We’re likely to hear news later today or tomorrow on what, exactly, is wrong with Haren’s back and whether he’ll need time on the disabled list. If so, the Angels will be hard pressed to find a replacement starter for Sunday, with Jerome Williams still on the DL with respiratory issues. Indeed, if Haren is out for a while after the All-Star break, the Angels’ rotation depth will be challenged. But better to get Haren fixed and back on track because his reduced velocity has made him more hittable — and less effective — in 2012.

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Wendy is also a contributing writer for Sports on Earth. Her writing has appeared on, Baseball Nation, Bay Area Sports Guy, The Score, The Classical and San Francisco Magazine. Wendy practiced law for 18 years before beginning her writing career. You can find her work at and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

8 Responses to “Ailing Back Hurts Haren’s Velocity, Effectiveness”

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  1. steex says:

    Dan, does your back hurt? Because it’s killing me – err, I mean, my fantasy team.

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  2. Polka says:

    I was thinking about offering Corey Hart of Fowler for Haren while is stock is down?
    I already have CarGo, Choo, Adam Jones and Holliday in my 4 OF spots, with Berkman and Ellsbury on the mend, and recommendations?

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  3. MikeM says:

    Why do players/teams keep doing this? Player hurts self, continues to “play through it”, player sucks balls, team finally announces injury and decides to deal with it months later.

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    • jfree says:

      Because players constantly lie about their health (fear of losing their job, big contract, arrogance of any competitor, ignorance of themselves, high pain threshold, etc). Unless the team has random mandatory spot-physicals, the team can’t spot the problem.

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      • MikeM says:

        I understand where you’re coming from, but wouldn’t the results of playing with significant injury (reduced effectiveness, poor stats) make it more likely to lose one’s job and less likely to be rewarded with a big contract?

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    • steex says:

      I think the blame often falls both ways on this, it just depends on the situation. Sometimes the players try to cover up their injury, but other times players are misdiagnosed or a known minor injury is improperly handled to the point that the condition never improves or it becomes a major injury.

      Often times, a team knows a player is injured, but is in favor of letting him try to play through it because the thought is an injured superstar is still better than what replaces him. Sometimes it’s true, and sometimes you get this situation – Haren is probably no better than his replacement would’ve been for three months, and now is STILL injured and will miss time. In these cases, it could be argued that the better route would’ve been to suffer through the replacement earlier to get good Haren back sooner. But we never really know who knew what and when, so it’s hard to ever pin down blame.

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    • 39Bailey says:

      By your standards, Mickey Mantle should have retired after Game Two of the 1951 World Series, when he tore his ACL and MCL in his right knee. He had to play while tolerating a lot of pain from that day forward.

      Every athlete plays his sport with some level of pain or discomfort. And when a player who is enduring pain is forced to sit out a few games or go on the 15-day DL, the fans, sportswriters, and even his teammates and management may accuse him of being a pussy. The athlete can’t win.

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