We've got a week left until the MLB waiver deadline expires, and that means tons of speculation on what the Yankees may or may not do. I was a proponent of signing Mark Reynolds, and the recent rumors of interest in Justin Morneau inspired me to write this. Of course, Buster Olney is now saying that the Yankees aren't interested in the left-handed slugger. While I'm sure there will be a number of other players available on waivers in the coming week, many Yankee fans have started chiming for Dan Haren.
Not so long ago, acquiring another starting pitcher would have been redundant, but with setbacks to David Phelps and Michael Pineda, as well as an ongoing groin injury with Vidal Nuno, the Yankees are left to their starting five and Adam Warren. As the team looks to maximize their potential in every game over the next month, it's possible that they could make an upgrade in their rotation. The Yankees currently rank 5th in pitching (according to fWAR), so it's not as if they're desperate, but what if they could improve their fifth starter and bullpen at the same time?
That's what many Yankee fans are thinking with Dan Haren. If the organization was able to make a deal with the Nationals for the right-handed starter, the Yankees could move Hughes to the bullpen and replace him with a more consistent starter. Unfortunately, it's far from a guarantee that Haren represents an upgrade.
Once upon a time, Dan Haren was a dominant pitcher, and arguably an ace for the Athletics and Diamondbacks. As a slider/four-seam guy, Haren drew his fair share of strike outs and ground balls, accumulating 5 consecutive years of top-of-the-rotation production. Somewhere between his last year with the Diamondbacks and his trade to the Angels, Haren lost a considerable amount of velocity, falling from a 90.6 mph fastball to an 88.2 mph fastball in 2012. Haren's slider also turned into a cutter, and by 2011 he was throwing a combination of his fastball and cutter 81% of the time. Though his era remained low at 3.17 ERA that season, his ground ball rates began to drop, which was hardly a significant problem for a pitcher in Angel Stadium.
The warning signs were certainly there for the Nationals, and that's why they only signed Haren to a one year deal worth $13 million. This season, his ground ball rate decreased from a career 42.6% to 33.9%, his home run rate jumped to 12.9%, and his fastball velocity is sitting at just 89.0 mph.
Over the years, Haren has dealt with back injuries, and more recently shoulder inflammation in late June. Many blame his recent velocity drop and batted ball trends on these problems, but the change in repertoire is also hard to ignore. Previous to his June/July DL stint, Haren pitched to a 6.15 ERA in 15 starts, and allowed a 34.7% ground ball rate during that time. Since coming back, Haren has been excellent, posting a 2.16 ERA in 50 IP. The difference in the second half of this season is hard to pinpoint. Looking at the two different periods, Haren's movement doesn't seem change, and his velocity hasn't improved in the slightest. The only different is a decreased dependence on the four-seam fastball in favor of the sinker. So I guess that means Haren is getting more ground balls, right?
The answer is again the opposite of what we'd expect. Haren is actually drawing less ground balls than the first half of the season, posting a 31.7% ground ball rate to a 48.1% fly ball rate. But he's somehow found a way to make this work, and even if you don't believe that it's luck, you have to wonder how it'll play into Yankee Stadium and the other AL East ballparks.
For Phil Hughes, the pitcher that Haren would replace, being a fly ball pitcher obviously hasn't worked. Hughes has posted similar rates to Haren's 2013 season for his entire career, hosting a 33.6% ground ball rate and 46.1% fly ball rate. Their home run/fly ball rates, their ERA's, their FIP's, everything is extremely similar in 2013, except that Dan Haren would cost a couple million dollars extra for the final month of the season.
In the end, a lot of fans are seeing Dan Haren's last two months of baseball as a sign that he's become the same old ace Haren, but in reality he's remaining in uncharted territory as a fly ball pitcher. Moving him to the AL East and Yankee Stadium would be a mistake, and you'd be gambling against a number of statistics at this point.
I'm not necessarily against moving Hughes to the bullpen or acquiring a fifth starter, but Haren is not the guy. He's far too similar to Hughes in batted ball rates, and with the velocity decline and injury questions there's a case to be made that he's a worse gamble than Hughes. I would much rather see the Yankees take a risk on a number of other pitchers, Roy Halladay for example, who could even re-sign with the team if they manage to catch lightning in a bottle in September.