The Situation: A couple years ago, Aaron Harang(notes) was quietly one of the best pitchers in the National League. He had back-to-back seasons of 16 wins in 2006 and '07, logging more than 230 innings, 215 strikeouts, and ERAs under 3.80 while pitching in a bandbox of a home stadium. Yet Harang hasn't been the same since those salad days. His ERA in 2008 was 4.78, and it was 4.21 last year before an emergency appendectomy ended his season in August. Over the last two years, he's 12-31, and while we all know that wins and losses aren't everything, that's one ugly record.
Only one pitcher threw more innings over that two-year span than Harang and that was Brandon Webb(notes), who missed nearly all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. Is the old Harang gone? Or has he just been, as Bill James suggests, "phenomenally unlucky for two straight years"?
The Question: Will Aaron Harang return to form in 2010?
The Analysis: A further analysis of the last couple years reveals that even if Harang isn't as bad as he's looked the last two years, he's also probably not as good as he was in 2006 and 2007. Still, Harang has surely been unlucky the last two seasons, particularly in his won-loss record, because the hapless Reds gave him such crummy run support. His 2008 ERA was probably fairly unlucky too — his home run rate spiked to a level higher than it had ever been, and his ERA rose a full run. His xFIP in (a homer-neutralized version of FIP) bears out the suggestion that he was unlucky in 2008 when it was 4.18, only a modest increase over what he posted in 2006 and 2007 rather than a full-blown meltdown. Moreover, that's right in line with his 4.21 ERA in 2009.
Harang's fastball had a dip in velocity in 2008, but recovered its regular speed last year. Indeed, 2009 really wasn't that bad. His homer rate and walk rate went down while his strikeout rate went up. His ERA+ was 102, which is right around league average, but considering that his BABIP was .339, it probably deserved to be lower. And he's still a great control pitcher. His K/BB last year was 3.30, which is legitimately excellent, and was actually ninth in the league. He, Ricky Nolasco(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) were the only pitchers on that list with an ERA over 3.50, and Nolasco and Hamels are both regarded among the league's best young pitchers. Harang is 31, and isn't too far off that status himself.
Still, the fact remains: Harang isn't who he used to be, one of the NL's better meal tickets. He'll be the Reds' opening day starter again despite a 9.88 spring ERA, and many Reds fans understand that for all the hype surrounding Aroldis Chapman(notes), Harang may be the key to the Reds' chances in 2010. Adam Bernacchio writes, "The Reds are a trendy pick this year as a sleeper team, but if that is going to happen, then they need Aaron Harang to be the 2007 version of Aaron Harang." Meanwhile, Exile on Clark Street blames all his problems on the manager: "It seems like ever since Dusty brought him in to pitch four innings of relief on two days rest, he's gone from a 'potential ace' to a 'not too shabby pitcher.'"
The Forecast for 2010: Harang's 2010 projections look a lot like his 2009 results (and his 2008 xFIP). ZiPS, Bill James, and CHONE project an ERA between 3.96 and 4.30, with between 9 and 11 wins. ZiPS and CHONE both predict 28 or 29 starts, with between 180 and 190 innings; Bill James sees three more starts and 30 more inning, which is harder to believe. They all see his K/9, BB/9, and K/BB falling somewhere between 2008 and 2009, and closer to 2009.
Aaron Harang is no longer a great pitcher, or even a very good one. Depending on how many balls go over the fence in his tiny park, and how many runs his team scores for him, he might have an ERA close to 4.00 and between 12-15 wins. But that's the optimistic end of the spectrum, and a little pessimism might be wise. He certainly could stand to have a little more luck than he's had recently. I wouldn't bet on it, though.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• What can we reasonably expect from Jason Heyward?
• Does Derrek Lee have another great season left?
• Can Chad Billingsley return to last season's first-half form
• How long can Derek Jeter defy the effects of aging?
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
- Aaron Harang