Arizona’s Amazing New Bullpen And Dan Haren

The Arizona Diamondbacks entered 2010 as one of the most intriguing teams in the majors. Showcasing a rotation led by Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson (and with Brandon Webb potentially waiting in the wings) and a fantastically talented young offense including Justin Upton, Chris Young, and Mark Reynolds, there was reason to believe the Diamondbacks could compete with the beasts of the West. Instead, the bullpen failed them, as such names as Juan Gutierrez, Chad Qualls, and Esmerling Vasquez combined to post a 5.47 ERA along with a historically bad -10 WPA (Win Probability Added) and sink any dreams Arizona had of respectability, much less competition.

Diamondbacks ownership, then, when faced with the prospect of paying Haren eight figures yearly to play for a team that was struggling to break 65 wins, decided to ship their ace out. It’s hard to figure out what exactly the thought process was behind this deal. It’s possible that ownership was pressing interim GM Jerry DiPoto; it’s also possibe that there was just a very, very good reason for the “interim” specification. Regardless, the haul for Haren, a pitcher who, although in a bit of a slump, was still coming off of three consecutive sub-3.33 ERA seasons (with similar peripherals), was shockingly low: the perennially mediocre Joe Saunders and a group of rather unremarkable minor leaguers.

Fast forward to May of 2011, and the Diamondbacks are looking remarkably competent. They sit only three-and-a-half games behind the reigning World Champions and the division co-leaders in Colorado. According to Third Order Wins, which adjust for context and schedule, the Diamondbacks have only been a game-and-a-half worse than the division leaders. Nearly all of this improvement can be attributed to a bullpen that is no longer the worst ever but instead has turned itself into an above-average unit in just one year’s time. Thursday night’s victory included three innings with only one unearned run allowed by the Arizona bullpen.

For a variety of reasons, it isn’t nearly as difficult to rebuild a bullpen as it is a starting rotation or a lineup. This concept has certainly manifested itself in Arizona, as the Diamondbacks bullpen now ranks seventh in the majors in ERA and 12th in WPA after ranking dead last in both categories by a wide margin in 2010. The most high-profile move the new Kevin Towers regime employed in this turnaround was the Mark Reynolds trade, which brought back setup man David Hernandez and his 233 ERA+ in return (as well as Kam Mickolio, but his contributions have been, well, not contributions yet). J.J. Putz was also added on a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal, but at 34 and only two years removed from major surgery, the competition for his services may have been limited.

The rest of the bullpen was either on hand or to be had for cheap. Juan Gutierrez posted a 5.08 ERA and a -0.18 WPA for the Diamondbacks in 2010, par for the course for Kirk Gibson‘s debut squad. Aaron Heilman and Esmerling Vasquez were therefore bogeys even by these low standards, posting WPAs under -1.00 to go along with 4.50 and 5.20 respective ERAs. Sam Demel was only in Arizona for a limited time after the club acquired him for Conor Jackson, but he was unimpressive in limited action as well.

Here we see the fickle nature of the relief pitcher unleashed. In 2011, Heilman has remained an unmitigated disaster, with a 7.11 ERA, but the worst of the rest of the group has been Gutierrez’s 3.50 ERA, an acceptable mark to be sure. Surely, this remarkable improvement from the bullpen has been a primary factor behind Arizona’s push towards competency.

However, for the three steps the bullpen has taken forward, the rotation has taken a step back. Daniel Hudson and his 2.54 FIP look good, even if the results aren’t there yet, and Ian Kennedy is finally stepping into the shoes vacated by Max Scherzer in the three-way deal headlined by Curtis Granderson‘s movement to the Yankees. On the down side, Joe Saunders has been precisely what one would expect Joe Saunders to be in a homer-heavy environment: bad. He sports a 5.02 ERA and a 5.17 FIP, and there’s little reason to expect improvement. Barry Enright has discovered the concept of regression the hard way, as the consequences of pitching to contact with less-than-impressive stuff in Chase Field are making themselves known in the form of a 6.49 ERA. Armando Galarraga was released so this guy could be moved into the rotation. Enough said.

(Full disclosure: Josh Collmenter has actually looked solid this year and may be able to sustain a respectable level of production. He still looks funny, though.).

What if Dan Haren remained, instead of Joe Saunders? Haren immediately rediscovered his form on his move to Anaheim and is once again on pace to post six or more wins above replacement, as he did in both 2008 and 2009 with Arizona. Although there’s no guarantee that Haren would pitch so well in Arizona as well, there were no warning signs of anything other than random variation (not necessarily luck, but also nothing predictive of more poor performance in the future). Perhaps a Diamondbacks team with Haren instead of Saunders is two, maybe three games closer to the division lead. Almost certainly, a Diamondbacks team with Haren in tow is five or six games better (perhaps even seven or eight, with the way Saunders has looked so far) over the course of a full season.

Looking at Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds, despite the relatively close race in the West, Arizona has a less than one percent chance of playing into October. I don’t think it’s terribly outlandish to suggest that Dan Haren’s presence could add 10, maybe even 20 percent to that total. And I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that even the chance at postseason ball this year and the next two years for which Haren are under contract would be worth more than the questionable prospect package now toiling in the Arizona farm system.

The easiest thing in analysis is to suggest that a team made a mistake in selling low. However, in the case of Dan Haren, it is simply too obvious to ignore. The organization had the easiest problem in the game to fix, and had a promising team surrounding the questionable bullpen. If the Haren-led core were still in place with the improved bullpen, the Diamondbacks could be a dark-horse team on the level of the San Diego Padres last season. Instead, the starting pitching will inevitably prove too weak, and the Diamondbacks will watch Joe Saunders pitching in August as the team trails the Rockies or Giants, likely by a double-digit games total instead of Dan Haren in the midst of a playoff race.




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28 Responses to “Arizona’s Amazing New Bullpen And Dan Haren”

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  1. theonemephisto says:

    Though, I understand your point, and for the most part I agree, this sentence is ridiculous: “as the team trails the Rockies or Giants, likely by a double-digit games total instead of Dan Haren in the midst of a playoff race.”

    Haren’s a good pitcher and all, but you really think that one move is worth double-digit wins? Otherwise, wildly hyperbolizing at the end isn’t really necessary is it?

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    • Jack Moore says:

      Might be a bit much, I guess, but as they’re 3.5 back right now, I wouldn’t be shocked if they end up 10-12 back. But like you said, it was probably too much.

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  2. SenSurround says:

    I’m not sure I’d say Tyler Skaggs is an “unimpressive minor leager,” but you’re still probably right that the D’Backs could have gotten a better haul.

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  3. Robert D says:

    Yes. To this day, I do not understand how the Dbacks landed a better haul for Edwin Jackson than they did Dan Haren. Not only was Haren under better financial control, but Jackson has never posted a WAR season better than 4! Mind boggling. So glad Jerry DiPoto and AJ Hinch are out of the picture now.

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    • James says:

      Just wait til Kenny starts pulling the trigger again soon… The 6-man rotation isn’t going to last, so someone is going to get John Danks on the cheap.

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  4. chuckb says:

    It’s a good point that the difference between Haren and Saunders is at least 4 or 5 wins. Surprisingly, those wins could be the difference between making the playoffs and not this year. I wonder if D-backs fans will be wringing their hands about this trade if they finish 2nd or 3rd by 3 or 4 games at the end of the season.

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  5. Jim Lahey says:

    I’ve been wondering if they thought it was financially necessary to trade Haren/Reynolds to be able to put more money into the bullpen/position players that don’t K 200+ times in a year.

    I feel like they’ve been operating under a tight budget for the last year or 3. But I don’t get much DBacks coverage out here in Boston.. so what do I know.

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  6. Andrew says:

    The Dbacks traded Haren because they were trying to shed as much salary as possible. As the article mentions, the Dbacks were going to struggle to win 70 games last year and there was no way they were going to contend in 2011, so shed salary, pay off the Colangelo debt, and try to compete in 2012, but more likley 2013.

    I can’t agree that the Dbacks got a better haul for Jackson than Haren. Granted it was limited time, but Daniel Hudson did not pitch well with the White Sox after being called up, and even now is more suited to be a #3 pitcher in the NL. Tyler Skaggs has legitimate #2 upside and is a lefty and Patrick Corbin is a much better prospect than Holmberg.

    For me, Saunders is dead weight and will be happy when the Dbacks are rid of him after this year.

    As a fan, I’m just hoping that the Dbacks are somewhat competitive this year, hopefully win more than 75 games. 2012 should bring hope with a rotation of Hudson, Kennedy, and Parker and improved play of Upton. However, 2013 is where I believe the Dbacks will finally contend with all the dead money paid off and the promotion of the prospects and the draft picks from this years draft.

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    • BB says:

      There are very few people who will say Skaggs is a better prospect than Hudson at the time either trade happened. And to say Skaggs is better than Hudson now, having had an extra half season worth of information to digest, is also ridiculous. And I love Skaggs. To say a guy who is at least two years away from the majors is better than a guy who has posted a career 3.30 FIP and 3.84 xFIP in the majors so far, you have to be extremely confident that Skaggs will pan out.

      Also not sure why you think Corbin is a better prospect than Holmberg.

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  7. TE says:

    I understand that everyone is looking at what Haren is doing now, but let’s go back to 2008. Haren (and Webb) were winless in August and we lost the division by two games. Three wins out of 9-10 starts between the two gets us in. Pathetic.

    Haren also tailed off at the tend of 2009 as he tends to do. He pitched relatively well after the trade last year as he had some poor run support. But let’s not act like Haren was pitching well for an entire season any of the years he was here.

    Agree with the above about Skaggs and Corbin. Skaggs has been lights out in his last three starts, haven’t checked his most recent. Saying they got nothing and completely glossing over Hudson for Jackson is ridiculous. DiPoto, in an odd position did well. He’s also stll with the organization learning under Towers and I guarantee you he’ll be a GM someday.

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    • BB says:

      You say this like wins at the beginning of the year don’t count in the same way that wins at the end of the year count. Sure games at the end of the season may be higher leverage, but if you don’t win in the beginning you aren’t going to be in a position to have those high leverage games at the end.

      Haren is an amazing pitcher. Consistently underrated by GM’s and fans alike. And when the market undervalues your commodity, the smart thing to do is to not trade it away.

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  8. TE says:

    My bad, he didn’t go winless in ’08, but he and Webb did lose six games combined end of August, beginning of September.

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  9. Jason says:

    Haren is overrated by Fangraphs and other advanced statistics sites. He isn’t very good in the 2nd half and is arguably terrible in high-pressure games. Even when asked for post-trade reaction, GMs clearly weren’t as high on him as fangraphs and others were.

    Also, calling Skaggs unremarkable has to be a mistake.

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    • hk says:

      Do you have any links to GM’s clearly commenting that they weren’t high on Haren? I’m not trying to be a douche, I just don’t remember reading anything of the sort at the time. I do remember a few writers – I believe Law from ESPN and Sheehan from SI – thinking it was a great deal for the Angels.

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      • Jason says:

        http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/why-mlb-teams-arent-big-dan-haren-fans/

        So it wasn’t GMs, but “friends in the game”. Here’s another excerpt from the article,
        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.

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    • Xenophanes says:

      Since 2005, Haren has only ever had two months where both his FIP and xFIP were above 4: June and September of 2006. Haren in high leverage situations, for his career: 3.29 FIP, 3.94 xFIP. His second half numbers are comparable to his first half numbers. So, yeah…there you go.

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      • Jason says:

        2007: Pre all-star, 2.30 ERA in 129.1 Innings with a .205 Opponent’s average, 97 hits and 11 HRs given up. Post all-star, 4.15 ERA in 93.1 innings with a .298 Opponent’s average, 117 hits and 13 HRs given up.

        2008: Pre all-star, 2.73 ERA in 125.2 Innings with a .211 Opponent’s average, 98 hits and 10 HRs given up. Post all-star, 4.18 ERA in 90.1 Innings with a .294 Opponent’s average, 106 hits and 9 HRs given up.

        2009: Pre all-star, 2.01 ERA in 130 Innings with a .189 Opponent’s average, 89 hits and 12 HRs given up. Post all-star, 4.62 ERA in 99.1 Innings with a .267 Opponent’s average, 103 hits and 15 HRs given up.

        I didn’t include 2010 because it involved a league switch. The facts are the facts, Haren is a 1st half pitcher who is very mediocre in the 2nd half. Deny it all you want and talk about FIP xFIP, it doesn’t change the fact that his pitching becomes much worse in the 2nd half.

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      • Xenophanes says:

        “I didn’t include 2010 because it involved a league switch.” The fact that he actually “pitched” (read: had a better ERA) didn’t influence your decision at all?

        Haren, career K/BB, HR/9, and BABIP by month:
        Mar/April: 3.95/1.01/.247
        May: 4.37/1.15/.285
        June: 3.98/1.01/.252
        July: 3.72/1.26/.310
        Aug: 4.31/1.31/.318
        Sept/Oct: 3.34/1.31/.320

        So his K and BB numbers, which he definitely controls, stay more or less the same while his BABIP and HR/9 rise. HR/9 he definitely has a good amount of control over, but not total, and everyone here knows how to treat BABIP. Squads’ citing LD% and IFFB% are far more interesting to me than ERA and opponent’s average, but still, those K/BB numbers are telling a lot. I’d say, at the very most, Haren is better in the first half than in the second half, but not a large amount moreso and definitely not “much worse” as you, Jason, would like to declare.

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      • Xenophanes says:

        That little quip at the beginning was supposed to read “(read: had a better second half ERA).” WHY DO I ATTEMPT SARCASM AND ONLY EVER FAIL, WAHHHH.

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    • Jason says:

      I won’t lie, the 2nd half of 2010 influenced my decision not to put it in there. That said, when i’ve watched the guy get lit up like a Christmas tree every year i’ve watched him, i’m inclined to believe that it’s not a fluke.

      Maybe 2010 is a turning point for Haren, but i can’t believe that yet because i’ve seen him melt down before.

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  10. Zavada's Moustache says:

    No mention of Joe Paterson? Left-handed relief has been a huge hole for the D-Backs’ bullpen for several years, but Towers was able to find a LOOGY in the Rule 5 draft who has yet to give up a run and has an FIP of 2.25.

    I’d say that’s at least as savvy of a move as getting Hernandez in a trade and paying market value for Putz.

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  11. Squads says:

    Just looked up his contract…12.75mil for this year and next seems like a pretty good rate. Definitely a good value.

    That said I also have to agree with the comments that he is overrated to a degree. Saber’s will tell you a win is a win whether early in the season or late, but its very frustrating when you know a guy is going to falter down the stretch.

    Thought this was an interesting stat…BABIP against by month for Haren:
    Apr/Mar: .249
    May: .288
    June: .255
    July: .311
    Aug: .321
    Sep/Oct: .323

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    • hk says:

      How about Haren’s monthly xFIP’s:

      Mar/Apr: 3.52
      May: 3.54
      Jun: 3.65
      Jul: 3.46
      Aug: 3.50
      Sep/Oct: 3.67

      Looks pretty consistent to me unless you consider a 3.67 xFIP in Sep/Oct faltering for a pitcher with a 3.56 career xFIP.

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      • Squads says:

        His peripheral numbers look pretty consistent, so his FIP stats stay pretty steady over the course of the season. Those metrics fail to capture the trend that batters seem to square the ball up better off of Haren in the 2nd half. To wit:

        LD%/IFFB% by month
        Mar/Apr: 17.3/11.2
        May: 17.8/9.7
        Jun: 19.6/10.0
        Jul: 21.5/9.1
        Aug: 21.0/7.8
        Sep/Oct: 20.1/9.8

        xFIP isn’t the be all, end all of pitching metrics. It is a valuable tool, but as with all measures, there are times when it fails to capture the reality of the situation.

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      • Jason says:

        Squads, some guys will never understand that though, despite it being a good point.

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  12. Dan says:

    Yeah, this year’s back-end has been bad (at least prior to the recent Enright and Galarraga dumpings), but remember who this team threw out there on a con@ostentation basis in ’10. Illustrious names like Kris Benson, Rodrigo Lopez, Billy Buckner, Cesar Valdez, and Dontrelle Willis. None of those guys are big-league pitchers.

    If we can get a serviceable #4 year out of Collmenter (looking likely at the moment), Zach Duke (completely unmentioned?) can do his typical 4.30 xFIP thing with a good D behind him, and Saunders’ ERA winds up around the 4.70 region, that’s a back-end improvement on the ’10 group of EJ/Saunders/RodLo/Awful-#5-Du-Jour. Not to mention that Hudson’s rates look Haren-esque and Kennedy is dealing.

    In other words, it sucks that Haren got moved, but I like Skaggs a ton, Corbin a good deal, and don’t see the huge step back in this team’s starting pitching going forward.

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  13. Augie says:

    It isn’t perfect, but they are my DBACKS!

    I’m really hoping for Gutuerrez and Vasquez to find some consistency like Hernandez and Patterson.

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  14. Matt says:

    I honestly do not remember off the top of my head, but didn’t Haren have a no trade clause? It is possible Haren refused to be traded to any team not on the west coast where he seems to like to play and D-backs were stuck with Angels as the best option. Ya, they probably could have gotten a little more for Haren, but if the guy isn’t willing to be traded to certain teams (I remember the Phillies seemed to be interested before they got Oswalt), then you are stuck with one team and whatever they were willing to give you. Basically, it was a salary dump. Though, I like Skaggs and think he can be a pretty good pitcher once he gets to the big leagues.

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