The Indians released veteran pitcher Aaron Harang a week before spring training ended, giving the fifth starter job to Carlos Carrasco. Harang immediately signed with the Atlanta Braves, who had just lost two of their best starters to season-ending Tommy John surgery.
If someone were to look at the two starters’ early-season statistics, it would certainly seem like the Braves made the better decision. Harang turned in a Cy Young-worthy pitching performance through his first five starts. Through 31.2 innings, he had a 0.85 ERA, giving up just 15 hits and three runs. He didn’t allow a single home run, and had struck out 27.3 percent of the batters he faced.
Of course, Harang made up for all of this on Wednesday night, when he gave up nine earned runs during a start against the Miami Marlins. He allowed two home runs and ten hits in three innings, helping his team to a 9-3 loss. His ERA came out relatively unscathed – it’s still a respectable 2.97 – but this outing more closely resembled the Aaron Harang that everyone expected to see.
The fact that Harang has been so successful in the early part of this season has been at least partially attributed to the fact that his fastball velocity was significantly higher than his career average. In his first two starts, Harang averaged over 91 mph and seemed to be throwing harder than he had in recent seasons. However, his velocity has declined at a steady rate in each of his six appearances. His fastballs are now averaging 89.5 mph, and aren’t topping out in the mid-nineties as they did in his earlier games. Those speeds are on par with his averages during the last three seasons.
Before his nine-run debacle on Wednesday night, Harang’s 3.78 xFIP was considerably higher than his 0.85 ERA, and he had an unsustainable .200 BABIP, considering that his career average is over 100 points higher. The right-hander has been good this season, but also lucky, and the strong defense that Atlanta features plays a major role in his success. Atlanta pitchers have all benefited from great plays made by both the infield and outfield defense.
According to FanGraphs, the Braves’ 23 defensive runs saved leads all of major league baseball. Harang would not have enjoyed this luxury had he played for the Indians. By contrast, the Indians are ranked 30th out of the 30 teams, with -24 defensive runs saved. If he were playing in front of Cleveland’s fielders, his ERA would almost certainly skyrocket.
Harang is 35, and has established a firm track record of mediocrity in the big leagues during his 12 years as a starter. Established pitchers almost always regress to the mean, and his career 4.22 ERA and 4.16 xFIP were not impressive enough to warrant giving up on Carrasco’s potential as a starter.
The Indians demonstrated last year with Scott Kazmir that they are not reluctant to give veteran pitchers an opportunity after they have been written off by most other teams. They sent both Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber to the minor leagues in order to give Kazmir a place with the team, and that decision worked out well for them. But Harang does not have the upside that Kazmir had, and his addition to the team would not have made a major impact on the rotation.
It might not seem that way when Harang is throwing seven innings of no-hit baseball for Atlanta, but the Indians made the correct decision. In fact, the Braves might even replace him this weekend, when starter Gavin Floyd returns from his disabled list stint. Harang might be the odd man out if they decided to put Floyd in the rotation rather than using him out of the bullpen. His early success this season is not something that will last, and it’s only a matter of time before he proves that.