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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is Aaron Harang Really This Good?

The 36 year old Atlanta Braves pitcher currently has an ERA under 3.00, is tied for 16th in the majors in strike outs (tied with James Shields and Madison Bumgarner), has a WHIP under 1.20, and, as of the writing of this post, is the 25th best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball (according to Yahoo!). At the very beginning of the season, Yahoo! barely had Harang ranked as a top 150 pitcher. How can a pitcher ranked so low do so well now? And can he keep up this pace?

Let's start by looking at Aaron Harang's career numbers. He has a career 4.24 ERA. His ERA was 5.40 last year and around 3.60 in 2012 and 2011 when he also played for an NL team in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. Harang has a career 7.35 K/9 and he's never had a K/9 above 8.50 in his career. His K/9 in 2014 is 9.77- 14th best in the majors right now. So he clearly can't keep up this pace, right? RIGHT?

The first thing I always do to double check if a pitcher's ERA is "correct" is by looking at his BABIP and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching aka how good a pitcher truly is). Aaron Harang currently has the 5th best FIP in all of baseball (2.37) and a BABIP of .308. Generally speaking, the norm for BABIP for pitcher is .300. Next, I like to look at a player's strand rate or LOB% (left on base percentage) to see if a pitcher is allowing runners to get on base, but is just getting lucky by not having them score. Aaron Harang's LOB% is 70.3% so far this year. The average for players is 72%.

So what do these numbers tell me? For starters, Aaron Harang is neither getting lucky nor unlucky. The players he puts on base are scoring at the rate they should be and the balls he puts into play are being converted into outs at the normal rate they should be. And that low FIP? That tells me that Aaron Harang is just really good this year.

There is however one statistic that does jump out at me when I look at Aaron Harang's numbers in 2014. Harang has a 0.33% HR/9 and his HR/FB is at a minuscule 3.4%. What these numbers mean is that Aaron Harang is not giving up any home runs at all. On average, about 9.5% of all fly balls that are hit by a batter will be converted into a home run. According to Fangraphs's chart, the lowest HR/FB% they go to is 5.0% and that's considered "excellent". So the fact that Harang's HR/FB is at a crazy low 3.4% means that Aaron Harang is about to start giving up a crazy amount of home runs. Well, sort of.

Sure, Harang's 3.4 HR/FB is absolutely not sustainable and a greater percentage of his fly balls are going to be converted into home runs from this point forward. However, that doesn't mean that Harang's HR/FB is going to revert to average or higher. For starters, 15 pitchers had a HR/FB under 8.0 last year and 29 pitchers had a HR/FB under 9.0. 16 pitchers has a HR/FB under 9.0 in 2012, including Aaron Harang himself who was second in the league with a 6.3 HR/FB percentage. Harang's HR/FB will rise, but it probably won't rise as much as you'd think.

Another reason his HR/FB won't rise so dramatically is because Aaron Harang's outfield defense on the Braves is pretty darn good. B.J. Upton is a good defender, Justin Upton is solid, and Jason Heyward is great. In fact, the entire Braves defense is pretty darn good. The Braves ranked 10th in defense last year and was #1 in 2012. We can look at defensive independent numbers all we want, but the actual game of baseball is played with a defense that can hurt or help you.

Lastly, Aaron Harang plays his home games in a pitcher friendly ball park, Turner Field, that's really good at suppressing home runs according to ESPN's ball park factors.

But even on top of everything, one just needs to look at Aaron Harang's xFIP to theoretically determine what Harang's ERA should be. Generally speaking, xFIP is similar to FIP, except that it normalizes what a player's HR/FB should be. In Harang's case, he's 28th in the league with a 3.33 xFIP. That neither terrible, nor that far off from what he's pitching at right now. Again, you still have to take into account his home ball park and actual defense, because Aaron Harang doesn't theoretically pitch. When you take those factors into account, it doesn't seem that implausible for Harang to have an ERA around 3.00.

Now that we've looked at Harang's ERA, it's time to look at his crazy outlier of a K/9. However, that can easily be explained by Harang's pitch selection. Harang added a cutter in 2013 and is now actually using it. The cutter has started to gain prominence in the MLB over the past few years and it is the magic elixir that can cure all woes. Aaron Harang has thrown his cutter about 12.8% of the time in 2014. He drastically cut back his change up and his curve ball and and seemingly replaced it with his cutter. Outliers aren't necessarily unsustainable, you just need to be able to point to a reason for the outlier. In Aaron Harang's case, it's easy to point out why he has an increase in his K/9.

So can is Aaron Harang really this good? I'd like to believe that he is.


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