Most things that happen in sports, especially baseball, aren't particularly interesting. A ground ball hit to the shortstop typically results in an out; the better team usually wins the game; as players reach their mid-30s, their production falls off. These phenomena fail to draw our interest mostly because they are what we expect to happen. "Hey did you go to that game where Hamels pitched 7 innings and gave up 2 runs?" and "Were you there when Howard hit a hard grounder into the heart of the shift?" are both lines of inquiry no one pursues. Why? Because these events aren't unique or special in any way; they happen all the time.
What attracts us to sports, rather, is the occurrence of unusual or seemingly unique events. I'll always remember when I saw Doug Glanville, without the help of a defensive error, score from second base on a Scott Rolen sacrifice fly in 1998 because it was the first time I had ever seen that happen. This play usually only happens once or twice a season, so when you see it happen, you remember. Inside the park home runs, players stealing home, and position players pitching are all fun because they defy our expectations.
The fascination with novelty, or pseudo-novelty, is also what makes Aaron Harang an interesting player. Pitchers aren't supposed to match their age-29 production when they're 36, but that's what Aaron Harang did for the Braves last year. In 2014, Harang had the lowest ERA and FIP of his career while pitching the most innings he has since he was 29 in 2007.
Harang attributes his recent late-career success to experience. "I'm just getting wiser with age, I guess," he said Tuesday. "Once you get a history with guys, you can start using that to your advantage. Going out and knowing when to be overly aggressive and when to lay back. Just be smart about what pitches you're throwing in situations."
Having watched Jamie Moyer pitch through his mid-40s, this explanation is compelling. Maybe as a player gains experience not only against a specific player, but in preparing and scouting for games, he gains some advantage over his competition. But that doesn't seem to be the case with Harang, who struggled for a number of years before having success with the Braves last year. In fact, were it not for a rash of injuries to Braves pitchers last spring, Harang might not have even pitched in the majors.
"Two years ago I was playing catch-up a lot because... right at the end [of spring training] I got moved to the [bull]pen [by the Dodgers] and didn't pitch for a week" Harang explained. "I got traded [to the Rockies], designated, traded again [to the Mariners], so it was almost a three week period before I pitched again. When you miss three weeks, you're trying to play catch-up, you've gotta get that feel back."
As a result of those temporary inconsistencies of role and team, 2013 was a disaster for Harang who, over 143.1 innings with the Mariners and Mets put up the worst ERA and FIP of his career. When a 35 year old pitcher has the worst season of his career, there is usually no coming back. Harang, however, says he used that season as a learning experience.
"The biggest thing is you learn from your mistakes," Harang said. "I started working on [a cutter]. [I] threw it a little bit in 2012 and started throwing it [in games in 2013]. When I went over to the American League, we started messing with more changeups and I think that didn't work out as well. Then last year [I] felt really good with [the cutter], felt good mechanically all year and was able to repeat everything."
That cutter became a major part of his repertoire over the course of 2014. After the All-Star break, Harang threw it on over 12% of his pitches. Over that same stretch, FanGraphs rated it as his most effective pitch. According to Brooks Baseball, opponents only hit for a .237 average and slugged a utility infielder-esque .290 off Harang's cutter after the break. It's a small sample of 143 cutters, but if you expand the sample to the entire 2014 season (231 cutters), the numbers only get slightly worse.
As of this writing, however, Harang has only pitched in one game this Spring Training due to a back injury (He's scheduled to start this evening). When asked about the severity of the injury that has caused him to miss multiple appearances, he said it was nothing to worry about. "It's just being cautious for now and talking with the trainers and pitching coach [Bob McClure] and it's Spring Training. You don't want to push yourself too much and set yourself back. It's just being safe and cautious with what we're doing and not worrying about it. We're not worried about it. I'm not worried about it."
From the sound of things, Harang really doesn't want us to worry about it. He's admitted that missed time has hurt him before when he was jostled around in 2013, first to the bullpen and then to different teams. This situation, he says, is different. "It wasn't that long stretch. It was just a couple days here off. And I was playing catch on days I was supposed to start."
"If I'm a younger guy still trying to learn myself and learn what I need to do to be ready [it would be a] different story. But I know what it takes and know what I need to do. Obviously I'm going to get every opportunity. If I'm not throwing here, I can throw backfield games and control the situation. I'm not worried about it."
Entering his age 37 season, Harang is certainly not one of the younger guys he refers to, which makes it easy for onlookers to worry, at least a little bit, about his back. But if he truly is becoming more savvy with age and his back is no cause for concern, 2015 could be another good season for Harang and, given the recent news regarding notable Phillies pitchers, that could really stabilize the rotation.