With one day of games left in April, the odds-on favorite to be the National League Pitcher of the Month is none other than Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Aaron Harang. He's possibly the most improbable pitcher in baseball to have the best first month of the season.
Is there something different about what Harang is doing on the mound? Is he a more confident pitcher, or are his first five starts just a product of freakishly good luck? What has gotten into him?
Harang's great start this April is a far cry from the April he had last season, when he was traded twice and didn't even get a chance to pitch for two of the three teams he was a member of. The trading finally stopped in Seattle, but he posted the highest ERA of his career (5.76) and was released at the end of August.
Harang finished out the final month of the season with the Mets, who didn't see enough left in him to keep him. He went unsigned all offseason before finally signing a minor league deal with the Indians on the day pitchers and catchers reported.
He had a good spring for the Indians but was once again given the indignity of a release. When he signed with the Braves at the end of March, it marked his sixth team in the past calendar year. Everyone assumed that Harang was just keeping a spot warm in the starting rotation until Mike Minor was ready to return.
But here we are with one start left for Harang in the season's first month, and if all goes the same as it's gone for him so far this season, he will be the National League Pitcher of the Month. No one could have predicted that.
Harang recently told MLB.com Braves beat writer Mark Bowman that his good pitching this season is a result of renewed confidence. Seattle was the first time Harang had pitched in the American League in 10 years, and he believes that his poor numbers there were because of a lack of confidence.
That confidence was apparently restored during the last month of the 2013 season he spent with the Mets when he posted a 3.52 ERA. That’s where a Braves scout saw him.
After another Braves scout saw him with the Indians in spring training this year, Atlanta general manager Frank Wren said that the team determined Harang's "arm angle and stuff was similar to what [the scouts] had seen a few years back." Their conclusion was that Harang had returned to the pitcher he was when he was posting respectable ERAs in the mid-threes for Cincinnati, San Diego and Los Angeles.
To Harang, his resurgence is about confidence. The Braves believe it's "arm angle and stuff." Clearly, neither Harang nor the Braves are giving away any secrets. Is there anything in the stats that points to a difference?
The best piece of statistical evidence I can find for what has changed this year is in Harang's use of his pitching repertoire. He seems to have mostly abandoned his changeup and curve, and he is now throwing fastballs, sinkers and sliders 92 percent of the time. The lack of use of his changeup and curve has been consistent from one game to the next and represents a drop in usage of 50 percent from his career norms.
The pitch that has picked up the slack is his sinker, which he's throwing at a higher rate than he has during any other year of his career. But it's too early to declare him reborn as a sinkerballer, as he's posted a ground-ball/fly-ball ratio that represents more fly balls allowed than in any other year of his career. So for Harang, more sinkers equals more fly balls.
Instead of trying to become a different kind of pitcher by throwing a particular pitch more often, the result of this different mix of pitches for Harang is an increase in effectiveness in all pitches.
Last season, the Braves got great production from an unexpected source. Chris Johnson was the "other player" in the Justin Upton trade. He was once a prospect for Houston but had failed to live up to his promise and was discarded, first to Arizona and then to Atlanta.
What started out as a platoon at third base for Atlanta between Johnson and Juan Francisco took barely two months to turn into a full-time role for Johnson. He spent the remainder of the season challenging for the National League batting title and making Atlanta fans forget about the C.J. who used to play third base.
Johnson posted the second-best batting average in the NL, fueled in large part by the best BABIP in baseball (.394). While he has always had high BABIPs, for a while there was talk of a historic season in the making. If not for a September swoon, his BABIP might have been the highest since 1946, according to the blog Beyond The Box Score.
This year, Johnson is back to normal. His BABIP is in line with his career numbers, and his batting average is regrettably back down there, too. In 2013, the Braves got an extremely lucky year out of Johnson.
Is Harang just the most recent player to have a lucky season after putting on a Braves jersey?
Last year, Johnson might have been trying to prove the Astros and Diamondbacks wrong for trading him away. In that same way, perhaps Harang wants to send a message to the five other teams that passed him around last year.
Whether it's luck, a different mix of pitches confusing batters, a more consistent release point in his delivery or just good, old-fashioned confidence, the results so far make Aaron Harang the best bargain of the offseason.
*Pitch data courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.