Can Dan Haren Fully Return to Dominant Form in Dodgers Uniform?

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2013

USA Today

The Los Angeles Dodgers have made headlines the last two years for going out of their way to spend money, but it is their latest move that actually has the potential to be a great bargain. 

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported the Dodgers agreed to a one-year contract with right-handed pitcher Dan Haren. 

Bargains and free agency are not two things that usually go hand in hand. Major League Baseball's offseason process is designed to ensure that players get paid more money than they will ultimately be worth. 

On occasion, usually due to an injury or poor performance by a player in his walk year, you will see one move that gets lauded for its potential to be both impactful and a steal based on the market. 

Haren fell on hard times in 2012 and the first half of 2013, but there are reasons to be optimistic he can find his footing in Los Angeles. 

For starters, take a look at the difference between Haren's performance before and after the All-Star break with Washington in 2013. 

Dan Haren 2013 Splits
First Half93.0115195.6181-171.419
Second Half76.26493.5270-141.017
Baseball Reference

Normally a 33-year-old pitcher with a history of back problems coming off just one-half season of production would raise red flags, but a team like the Dodgers can afford to take the risk because their rotation is a strength and the park they play in favors a high fly-ball pitcher. 

Park factors play a huge role in the value a pitcher can add. Josh Johnson probably chose to play for San Diego instead of another team with a shot at contending in 2014 to pitch in Petco Park.

Last year, Dodger Stadium was one of the worst parks for offense. It ranked 28th in runs (0.868), ahead of Citi Field and Petco Park, and 15th in home runs (0.963), via ESPN.

Considering Haren's fly-ball rate has increased significantly over the last two years, he needs to pitch in a bigger park to succeed.

Dan Haren Flyball and HR Rates, 2011-13
SeasonFB%HR/9 IPHR/FB%

This was a calculated move by Haren, to rebuild his value and see if he can pitch effectively to make that vesting option for 2015 kick in and possibly get one more multiyear deal after that. 

However, as good as Haren was in the second half of 2013 and as much as Dodger Stadium can help him, does this mean we should automatically expect him to become a top-tier starting pitcher once again?

A pitcher with Haren's control and strong strikeout-to-walk ratio last year would normally get the benefit of the doubt from me. After all, despite problems keeping the ball in the park, his 4.87 strikeout-to-walk ratio was sixth in baseball, ahead of Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. 

His strong second half in 2013 could have been a positive development, except we have seen this story before. 

Dan Haren 2012 Splits
First Half103.2122164.8686-241.408
Second Half73.068123.5856-141.123
Baseball Reference

It should also come as no surprise that Haren's numbers have taken a hit the last two years because of the decrease in his velocity. His fastball averaged 90.0 mph in 2011 but hasn't been higher than 88.9 since. 

Haren's innings pitched have also decreased from 238.1 in 2011 to 176.2 in 2012 to 169.2 last year. He went from 6.2 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in 2011 to combining for 3.3 in 2012 and 2013. 

Mark Simon of ESPN pointed out the difference in Haren's pre- and post-All Star success with Washington was his slider. 

That Haren was able to figure something out with the slider that allowed him to get hitters out does paint a very positive picture heading into 2014. 

Even though there will always be concerns about Haren's back, that doesn't concern me as much as the general decline in quality of his stuff. He's still made 30 starts in each of the last two seasons. 

You don't like to see once-great players fall off the way Haren has. He finished in the top 10 of AL Cy Young voting in 2009 and 2011.

The beauty of Haren's deal with the Dodgers, though, is it doesn't put any pressure on him to pitch like a superstar. He will get rewarded for staying healthy, but there is no harm if things fall apart. 

You don't root for something bad to happen, especially for a pitcher clearly trying to prove he can still be an asset in a good rotation, but you also have to be realistic. 

Unless Haren can magically find the missing velocity from his fastball and/or decrease the insane fly-ball and homer rates that have plagued him the last two years, another season with a below-average ERA and more than 9.5 hits per nine innings is going to be in the cards. 

Credit the Dodgers for taking a risk on a pitcher who still does a lot of things well. Credit Haren for understanding what kind of pitcher he has become. The pieces aren't likely to result in a great bargain, but one year and $10 million for him offers more upside with less risk than most deals we will see this winter. 


Note: All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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