Thursday, June 16, 2011
The myth of Dan HarenPosted by Jeffrey Gross at 5:11am
All stats are current through June 14.
There are many popular memes about "partial-season" players in baseball. Adam LaRoche and Mark Teixeira can't hit in the first half. Kosuke Fukudome can only hit in April, while CC Sabathia can't pitch in April. And, of course, the one that inspired this writing, the notion, largely perpetuated by Matthew Berry and the folks at ESPN, that Dan Haren can't pitch after the All-Star break.
Some of these myths have some result-based credence to them (Teixeira, for instance, has a career slash line of .237/.348/.427 in April (.775 OPS), whereas his career OPS marks in May, June, July, August and September are all above .900), but do they, particularly the Haren one, have "predictive" substance behind them?
First, let's look at the pitcher Haren has been for his career. In short, he has been about as consistent and elite a pitcher as there is. Over the course of his eight-plus years in the major leagues (2011 is his ninth), Haren has proven to be very durable—pitching 216 or more innings each of the past six years, and on pace to do so again this year—and has compiled a 3.59 ERA and 1.18 WHIP along with 1338 strikeouts to only 339 walks over 1561 major league innings.
On the peripheral level, the surface checks out, as validated by a 3.60 FIP, a 3.55 xFIP, a 3.84 tERA (this tends to be a higher figure than FIP, though scaled to look like ERA), and a strong strikeout rate (20.7 percent K rate versus an 18.0 percent MLB average) that comes from the ability to induce a good number of swings-and-misses (career 9.7 percent swinging strike percentage, MLB average is 8.4 percent).
Even his batted-ball normalized numbers check out, as Haren's expected WHIP and eFIP check in at superior rates of 1.23 and 3.69, respectively.
Haren is also a relatively neutral batted ball-type pitcher (career 1.20 GB/FB ratio, 0.78 GB/AO ratio) who has played in relatively neutral home run-inflating parks (Angel Stadium, with a home run-per-outfield fly ball (HR/OFFB) park index of 102, is the most home run-inflating park of his career), though he has never experienced any type of home run luck (career 11.5 percent HR/OFFB percentage, 11.3 percent MLB average).
As a flyball-neutral pitcher with good strikeout rates and low walk rates, there are very few, if any, holes in Haren's game. More inspiring, however, is Haren's consistency. Since his breakout year in 2007, Haren's relative ERA indicies have been as follow: 138, 139, 142, 106*, 148.
*Though Haren's BABIP-inflated first half ERA+ was 93, his second-half ERA index was 139.
All in all, with Haren, what you see is what you get, and you tend to get what you paid for.
In Roto leagues, full-season expectations are everything, but in H2H leagues, or micromanaged Rotisserie leagues, splits are important. As any Alex Rios owners last year can tell you, as much value as a player puts for in the first half, irrespective of his end-of-season line, if his second half is nerve-wrecking, not only can he make you forget all the good he did for you, but a front-loaded player can cause you to nose-dive from the top of your league's standings.
Noting how great Haren's end-of-season statistics have been over the past half-decade of baseball, let's investigate whether or not he truly is one of these "front-loaded" players you need to deal rather than hold.
First, the results. Per Baseball Reference, Haren's second-half results have not been up to par with his first-half surface stats. Though Haren is the owner of a robust 3.21 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 751 strikeouts to 181 walks (4.15 K/BB ratio) over 880 innings pitched in the first half for his career, his career second-half numbers clock in at a 4.07 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP with an equally good 7.8 K/9 ratio (587 strikeouts over 680.1 innings pitched), but more walks (158, for a 3.72 K/BB ratio).
Now, a 4.07 ERA and 3.72 K/BB is not horrible (keep in mind the league-average ERA and K/BB over this period were approximately 4.40 and 2.00, respectively) nor something to sneeze at, but in light of his career end-of-season numbers and stellar first-half numbers, you can understand why owners generally want to sell Haren by July.
But is this "sell, sell, sell" attitude particularly warranted, despite the results? Or does it breed a market inefficiency that you can exploit to your advantage? Because we at The Hardball Times are bigger fans of inner, rather than outer, beauty, let's dig a little deeper into Haren's first- and second-half splits; beyond the results, and into the process.
Based on the FIP formula, Haren's first- and second-half splits are a lot less extreme than they seem by ERA standards (0.86 points). Though Haren tends to walk a few more batters in the second half (4.4 percent uBB versus 3.9 percent), his second-half FIP (3.70) is only 0.40 points above his first-half FIP (3.30). This split is less than half as severe as his ERA split, and relative to his career FIP (3.60), it is not too far apart from what you are paying for.
Digging further, we also find that Haren's second-half batted ball profile indicates that he tends to give up fewer fly balls and more ground balls in the second half compared to the first half. Whereas Haren's career first-half flyball rate is 38.8 percent, his second half rate is 34.4 percent.
In fact, if we calculate Haren's "exFIP" (exFIP is xFIP calculated with HR/OFFB in place of HR/FB, done because a popup can never be a home run) we find the split even tinier, with a 3.35 first-half exFIP and 3.63 second-half exFIP. Haren's expected WHIP splits between his first and second half are even smaller.
So, while it is clear that Haren has been a better pitcher in the first half for his career, his peripherals say that the talent splits between the first and second half for Haren are relatively marginal. Pitchers tend to wear down over the course of a 162-game season, and the cold April weather warms up by July, so I was not be shocked to find that second-half league ERAs tend to be higher than first-half ERAs.
In 2009, for example, the first-half league ERA was 4.09, while the MLB average ERA was 4.57 in the second half. The same was true in 2008 (4.19 versus 4.52) and 2007 (4.36 versus 4.61). 2010 was a different story (4.16 versus 3.98), but the second half of last season marked the beginning of the "new era of the pitcher" everyone loves to write about. In 2010, in fact (and ironically), Haren's first-half ERA (4.60) was higher than his second-half mark (2.87).
So why the major ERA split for Haren?
For one thing, Haren has always been a bit lucky with balls in play during the first half, while the opposite can be said of his second halves. For his career, Haren's first-half BABIP is .274, while his second-half BABIP is .318. His cumulative career BABIP is .291.
In addition to BABIP, Haren has seen more of his fly balls leave the yard in the second half than in the first half. Whereas Haren has a HR/FB rate in the high-nines for his first-half career, that number is close to 11 percent in the second half (10.5 percent MLB average). That is not too surprising, as every 10 degree increase in temperature tends to boost flyball distance by a couple percent.
So what does this mean?
If you currently own Haren, it means do not panic. You own one of baseball's most elite pitchers, and there is no real reason to sell him, especially at a discount, to try to poach a pitcher who is not a "second half dud."
Haren currently owns a 2.54 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. His peripherals says that, as always, he's earned those numbers. Though Haren is no longer pitching in the NL and, as could be expected, striking out about a half-batter fewer per nine innings, he is currently inducing ground balls and popups at career-best or second-best rates.
He owns a 2.51 FIP, and a 2.99 xFIP that is 35 percent better than the rest of the league. Even xWHIP's more-inflated numbers love Haren, claiming his performance to date to be worth a 3.26 eFIP (4.00 MLB mean, compared to a 3.80 MLB mean for xFIP) and a 1.12 WHIP (top 15 among all major league pitchers, including relievers, with at least one game started).
Haren is not someone to trade away unless you get someone just as good in return, and that's not an easy standard to meet, even in the rekindled era of the pitcher.
If you do not currently own Haren, it means you should exploit the myth that Haren can't pitch in the second half. The myth does not mean you can get Haren for Zach Britton, but it does mean you might be able to trade away a "lesser" pitcher like Matt Garza, Josh Beckett, Mat Latos, or Anibal Sanchez as the substantial majority piece (if not a one-for-one deal) in a deal to get him.
You also might be able to swap out ceiling and risk for reliability, moving Josh Johnson as the All-Star break (and his alleged return from the disabled list) approaches. You might also be able to get Haren plus a useable fantasy piece for your team in what should otherwise be a one-for-one deal (e.g., trading Sabathia for Haren plus something).
Either way, you want Dan Haren on your team in the second half.
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in the suburbs of Chicago. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also writes about craft beer as part of a side project blog titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.