After yet another solid outing Tuesday night in which he lowered his 2015 ERA to a miraculous 1.82, Aaron Harang's mysterious and supremely captivating season is finally getting the level of national attention it deserves:
The @baseball_ref MLB WAR leaders Bryce Harper 3.6 Lorenzo Cain 2.8 Dee Gordon 2.7 Harang(!), Keuchel, Rizzo 2.6 Fascinating names!— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) May 20, 2015
As we all know, early season WAR totals are extremely meaningful and, as such, should deeply inform our opinions of players. That made clear, we can safely pencil in Aaron Harang as our projected NL Cy Young winner.
Coming back to reality, we of course know better than to project this to continue and for Harang to provide the Phillies with a 9-to-10 win season. As recently as last season, Harang got off to an amazingly hot start, carrying a 0.85 ERA through 5 starts with the Braves. While he came back down to earth a bit--finishing 2014 with a 3.57 ERA--it was still an impressive season for a 36 year old pitcher.
As I've detailed elsewhere, Harang's 2014 success is at least partially attributable to his introduction of a cut fastball to his repertoire.
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.
While that pitch hasn't been as effective this year as it was in 2014--opponents are hitting .280 and slugging .480 against it--Harang has continued to throw the cutter even more as the following graph of his yearly usage shows clearly.
The cutter has clearly become a big part of his arsenal and, even though it hasn't generated the same befuddlement from hitters that it did in 2014, it is certainly possible that simply having six pitches he can throw confidently keeps hitters a bit more uncomfortable overall.
It's still relatively early in the season, but we are at the point, with 231 batters faced for Harang, where K% and BB% stabilize. While his K% is only trivially better than last year (19.1% vs. 18.4%), his BB% is significantly lower (down to 5.4% from 8.1% last year). It is possible that some of what we have seen through 9 starts is real. It's obviously silly to expect him to post a sub-2.00 ERA and ~10 bWAR over the course of a season, but that doesn't mean the impending regression will be necessarily painful either.
What's amazing about Harang is that just over a year ago, Harang was coming off a rough season and a 35 year-old free agent in the middle of spring training. It is very possible that he would have been forced into retirement had the entire Braves pitching staff not gotten injured. It's likely he would have never been given an opportunity to pitch professionally again.
He is well on his way to having his best season since he finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting as a 29 year-old for Cincinnati. This isn't supposed to happen, but it is and it's amazing.
@CF_Larue We are all visitors to the Harangutang's Habitat. Wait a minute....— NEYER SMASHER (@dj_mosfett) May 20, 2015