Dan Haren‘s significant struggles this season have been a major Nats storyline. At 6.15, he has the worst ERA of any starter with at least 80 innings pitched, and has been worth -1.5 wins above replacement, meaning that your run-of-the-mill Triple A callup would have performed significantly better. In fact, the Double A callup the Nats tapped, Taylor Jordan, allowed just three earned runs over ten innings in his two starts. Haren’s $13 million contract has been nothing short of a disaster, though the Nats are fortunate that it expires after this season. To his credit, he has been frank and accountable regarding his issues. His response to the heavy boos he elicited in his final start before going on the DL was “I’d probably boo myself too.” Haren is a professional veteran, with the potential to be the same pitcher that finished seventh in the AL Cy Young race just two years ago, but is just as frustrated with his perplexing lack of performance as everyone else.
Somewhat surprisingly, the source of his struggles is clearly evident with a little digging. A common refrain on MASN and by commentators when Haren gets hit hard is a simple phrase: “The cutter didn’t cut.” He has had his cutter since 2008, and attributes it to his success as his velocity has decreased later in his career according to the Washington Post. Despite its past success, the cutter has been far and away his worst pitch this season according to Fangraphs’ PITCH f/x. (Note: Fangraphs categorizes his cutter as a cut fastball, so its abbreviation is FC.)
A few things jump out on that page: The cutter is by far his most used pitch this season, accounting for 40.7% of all his pitches. This is relatively consistent with past seasons, as he used it 35.4% of the time in 2012 and 48.2% of the time in 2011. However, the pitch has been significantly less successful this year, giving opponents a shockingly high .401 batting average off of it, in sharp contrast to their .308 average in 2012, when he struggled, and their .217 average in his extremely successful 2011. Opponents have hit 12 of the 19 homers he has been tagged for this season on his cutter.
Why has this formerly effective pitch been so bad? Perhaps it’s health, which would explain why the cutter was somewhat less effective in 2012 and a disaster this year. He was considered a big risk to sign in free agency due to his back’s health, and it may be nagging him yet. He has denied any health problems, however, and seems to think his problems are mechanical. In the aforementioned Washington Post article, he speculates that he may be throwing the cutter too hard, resulting in it not cutting enough. It is significantly faster than in 2012, 85.7 MPH to 84.5, but only slightly faster than it was when it was at its most effective, at 85.3 MPH, in 2011.
Fortunately, the solution to his problem does not depend on fixing the clearly broken cutter. Instead, I propose he eliminate it entirely.
Obviously, removing a pitch from a pitcher’s repertoire is a drastic step, but it seems to be a clear and easy solution. If we extrapolate the stats hitters have had against his other pitches to see what his full-season stats would be like if he never threw the cutter, we see a drastic improvement. He would have allowed twelve home runs, still not great but much better than his current nineteen allowed, second-worst in baseball when he went on the DL. Hitters would hit .242 against him, not their current .306. For comparison, that is the same opponent batting average as Adam Wainwright. Of course, his pitch selection would change drastically without the cutter, so these numbers are likely an optimistic estimate, but the fact that his numbers would improve is undeniable. Additionally, Haren would still have a full starter’s repertoire without the cutter. He would still use his four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, splitter, and curveball.
Haren will return from the disabled list on July 9th. All reports, including this one from the Washington Post, indicate that he feels mentally and physically better for having taken the break, and has made multiple adjustments to his pitches, including slowing down his splitter to further vary his pitch speeds. Davey Johnson said in this MASN article that he saw an improved “sharpness” to Haren’s cutter in his recent simulated game, indicating his problems may well have been solved by taking the time to get healthy. But if, upon his return, he and his cutter get lit up just like before, he should strongly consider eliminating it entirely. Hitters seem to have it figured out, and his other pitchers are more than good enough to make him an effective starter.