While it’s certainly not the biggest news coming out of San Diego this weekend, the Padres are close to signing free agent right-hander Aaron Harang to a one-year deal. The San Diego native and San Diego State University alumnus is expected to earn about $3 million in 2011.
The 32-year-old was quietly one of the better pitchers in the National League from 2005-2007, averaging about 226 innings, a 3.78 expected FIP (xFIP) and 4.9 Wins Above Replacement per season. Harang remained relatively effective in 2008 and 2009, with a collective 7.51 K/9, 2.42 BB/9 and a 4.12 xFIP. But he missed a month with a right forearm strain in ’08, limiting him to 184.1 innings pitched, and an appendectomy that shelved him at the end of the ’09 season brought his inning total down to 162.1.
In 2010, the 6-foot-7, 260 pound behemoth turned in his worst season in the majors since he was just breaking in with the A’s back in 2002 and 2003. With a lower back injury taking him out of action for two months, Harang tossed just 111.2 innings. His 4.62 xFIP wasn’t as ghastly as his actual 5.32 ERA — Harang’s .348 BABIP was nearly 30 points above his career average, and his 69.4% rate of stranding runners was 3-4 percentage points below normal — but didn’t have much to boast about regardless.
Harang’s swinging strike rate fell for a fifth straight season, down to 8.1% (8.5% MLB average). And his control, while not terrible, wasn’t as good as usual. He typically pounds the strike zone, putting many more pitches over the plate than most hurlers. That wasn’t the case in 2010. Here are Harang’s Zone% figures over the past three years, relative to the big league average during each season.
Harang hasn’t lost velocity on his fastball, but the whiff and strike rates on his heater have gradually declined. According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Harang’s fastball got a whiff 7.2% of the time in 2008, 6.9% in 2009 and 5.1% in 2010 (5-6% MLB average). The pitch was thrown for a strike 67.2% in ’08, 66.8% in ’09 and 63.8% this past year (60-64% MLB average). On a per-pitch basis, that fastball got smoked: Harang’s gas was about a run below average per 100 pitches thrown.
With fewer whiffs and more out-of-zone pitches, Harang had 6.61 K/9 and 3.06 BB/9. As an extreme fly ball pitcher (36.8 GB% in 2010, 37.9% career) who gives up lots of long balls (1.29 HR/9 last year, 1.22 HR/9 career), Harang needs more than so-so control and a below-average K rate to succeed as a starter.
So, a banged-up Harang clearly hasn’t been the same caliber of pitcher he was a few years back. But, while these trends are discouraging, this deal should actually work out quite nicely for both Harang and the Padres.
He doesn’t have to be anywhere near that 2005-2007 model to be worth his salary, even if the contract ends up including incentives. And without question, moving to PETCO Park will help his cause: according to StatCorner, PETCO decreased offense for lefties by 10 percent this past season, and eight percent for righties. Lefty HR production was sapped by 41 percent, and righty taters were tamed by five percent. The fly ball pitcher will see some long drives die at the warning track, and he will be backed by a rangy outfield including Will Venable, Cameron Maybin and Ryan Ludwick.
Durability concerns and declining peripherals limited Harang’s market, but it’s entirely possible that he rebounds to the 2.5-3 win level if healthy. There are no guarantees here, but San Diego added a starter who should provide a nice return on investment.