As the 2014 season began, there weren’t many pundits out there willing to pick the Atlanta Braves to repeat as National League East Division champions. Not with all their injuries, and not with the media darling Washington Nationals poised to rebound under new leadership.
But here we are, just a few weeks beyond Opening Day, and many of those skeptics have already changed their tunes.
Much of this renewed optimism — which had been severely diminished when starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were lost for the year — can be attributed to the unexpected and somewhat ridiculous success of starting pitcher Aaron Harang. The 6-foot-7 righty has been so good, it’s hard not to shake your head and laugh about it.
After failing to earn a spot on the Cleveland Indians’ staff — a group that finished 2013 20th in the MLB in earned run average — Harang came to Atlanta on the cheap and has been nothing short of stellar. Through five starts he possesses a microscopic 0.85 ERA, surrendering just nine hits in 31 2/3 innings. Oh, and he’s also tallied 33 strikeouts, good for a 9.4 K/9 ratio.
Harang continued his hot streak last week by giving up just one run in six innings of work against the Marlins, an effort that actually inflated his ERA. That was good for a quality start (defined as six innings of work or more with less than three earned runs allowed) — a feat he’s accomplished in all of his appearances in a Braves uniform.
These numbers should earn him NL Pitcher of the Month Honors for April, which is crazy because he’s Aaron Harang, not Jose Fernandez or Jordan Zimmerman or Adam Wainwright. We’re talking about a guy who was cut by the Mariners last August, a guy who couldn’t hold a job with the Mets or Indians.
I suppose the old saying rings true yet again for this club: you can’t predict baseball.
“You don’t expect a pitcher to go up and give one run up or no runs,” shortstop Andrelton Simmons told MLB.com. “I’m impressed and I’m happy (Harang) has been doing it. Hopefully, he keeps doing it the whole year. Hopefully, he’s that guy. You don’t expect that day in and day out. But it’s nice to see.”
One thing we know for sure is that the book is out on Harang. He’s not a newcomer from across the Pacific or an enigmatic, long-time minor leaguer. Every team that’s faced him thus far in 2014 has an extensive scouting report on the 13-year veteran, and all of them know what he brings to the table.
Thing is, he’s probably looked extremely close at what those reports say.
Harang’s fastball sits in the high-80s and low-90s, occasionally touching 93 and 94. His slider doesn’t have a particularly sharp cut, though it does serve as an out pitch. He rarely gets his fastball low in the zone, which could be a product of his rigid follow-through.
Not exactly intimidating stuff. So how has he been effective?
When asked what has made Harang so good in the early going, manager Fredi Gonzalez shrugged said he has no explanation. And there is no singular reason for this renaissance; rather, it’s a combination of many factors.
One such factor is his control, which has drastically improved since 2013. While Harang doesn’t live low in the zone, he’s done a tremendous job keeping the ball away from the center of the plate. His outing last week is a perfect example of this: eight of his 11 strikeouts were executed on pitches both in the strike zone and around belt-high, and most of them were on the corners.
Some of those pitches were right down the middle, though, but he got away with them because of his ability to keep hitters off balance by changing speeds.
In an age dominated by flamethrowers, Harang is living proof that you don’t need overpowering stuff to thrive. As long as you can locate, keep hitters off balance and avoid throwing the ball on an even plane, good things can happen.
“The one thing about Aaron, he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes on the plate,” Mets manager Terry Collins said in a press conference after Harang threw seven innings of no-hit ball at Citi Field. “He misses off the sides, and that’s why he’s pitched so well so far.”
Harang’s current pace is unsustainable, of course. It doesn’t take a Sabermatrician or professional scout to understand this. The question is, just how much will he fall off? Will his regression be moderate, allowing him to continue as a worthy member of Atlanta’s deep and talented rotation, or will it be steep and cost him a spot among the starting five?
That’s all hard to tell at this point. He could be a changed man, and he could be lucky. If he’s the latter, Atlanta has other options in Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd, both of whom should come off the disabled list in the coming weeks.
And even if Harang crashes back down to Earth, he’s given the Braves more than they could have reasonably expected. Heading into Thursday’s action Atlanta has a 3 ½ game lead on the Mets and 4 on Washington. If not for Harang, that lead may not even exist.
Many, including myself, questioned the initial move to release Freddy Garcia to make room for Harang. Their numbers were fairly similar over the last few years, and the major difference between the two was recent playoff success: Garcia went punch-for-punch with Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of last fall’s NLDS, proving he can perform under pressure.
Harang, on the other hand, has never appeared in the postseason.
Of course, Harang is now throwing like an ace, and Garcia, a former All-Star, is in Taiwan playing for the EDA Rhinos.
You just can’t predict this stuff. That’s what makes baseball so great.
Hirsh is a sportswriter at Forysth County News.