Revisiting Aaron Harang and his new 'no-hit' style

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

For both pitchers and writers, sometimes things don't work out the way you plan -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

It's fair to say that this year's trip to spring training didn't exactly go as I envisioned it might. Any day with baseball is better than a day without it, sure, but spending six days bouncing from new ballpark to new ballpark bred constant first-day-of-school anxiety.

Even parking is something of a test. The typical media lot is marked with a tiny cardboard placard that reads "media" or something more ambiguous like, "authorized personnel only." At worst, you have to stop and ask for directions four times before you find the correct lot. At Royals and Rangers games, media members park at a nearby swimming pool, which is owned by the city of Surprise. You're still not sure it's the correct lot, but figure that if the rental car gets towed that's Enterprise's problem. Once parked, the hunt to find someone who knows where your credential is being held begins.

At one stadium, credential in hand, I entered the press box, only to find that much as an airline would do, the teams had given out too many credentials and so every seat was taken. Knowing that I didn't have the status to bump Ken Rosenthal, my options were to work on a counter in the back that didn't face the field or try to find a seat in the stands. Some days there were seats, but the clubhouse was the problem. I had interviewed players before, so there was no trepidation from that standpoint, but around 70 percent of the time, I arrived to find that the clubhouses were closed for various reasons (team meetings, split squads, general apathy), even though I had been told that they would be open. The lowest point of the trip? Having a notebook full of questions to ask a particular player (who I won't name), only to be told that he didn't want to talk because it was taco night. I'm used to rejection, but being dumped for slow-roasted pork was a new one.

At a Giants/Indians split squad game, where I had hoped to talk to Michael Bourn and Terry Francona, I was told that the clubhouse wouldn't be open at all because none of the Indians' media traveled for the game. I pushed to talk to Bourn, but after he left the game in the first inning with an injury, that possibility was no longer on the table. The best the media relations team could offer me was Aaron Harang, a 35-year-old pitcher who signed on a minor-league deal during the winter and was then fighting for a spot in the Indians' rotation.

It wasn't glamorous, but at least it was something.

I waited in the hallway for Harang, jotted down a couple of questions in my notebook to ask a guy who seemed to have a 50-50 chance at best of beating out Carlos Carrasco, a 27-year-old entering the season with a career 5.29 ERA. Making the Indians' rotation didn't seem like that great of a story either, though, so I decided to focus on his perception of older pitchers finding their second wind and bringing value to staffs that didn't have much depth or experience.

At the time, that described the Indians (who eventually decided to go with Carrasco), but that also turned out to be the case for the Braves, who signed Harang to a one-year, $1 million deal not because they had been waiting to snatch him up, but because they were suddenly short pitchers after losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, Mike Minor to shoulder tendinitis, and Freddy Garcia -- to that point seemingly their choice for the "Voice of Experience" spot -- purposely, to the unemployment line.

After four starts, Atlanta's decision to sign Harang looks like genius. Harang has been one of the best pitchers in the majors so far this year, with a 0.70 ERA in 25.2 innings pitched, has taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning twice this season, and might have gone the distance on Friday night against the Mets had his pitch count (121) not forced manager Fredi Gonzalez to take him out of the game. All of his outings have been quality starts. While some of his success has undoubtedly been fueled by good luck on balls in play -- his BABIP is .150 for the year, versus a career average of .307 -- even if you grant him some regression, the Braves might have found a serviceable stopgap until Minor and Gavin Floyd are ready to return.

If you ask Harang himself, though, he'd probably suggest that at least some of his success isn't a fluke. In our conversation in March he was confident he could succeed in the majors again. All he needed was the opportunity:

It's been a long road for Harang, who debuted in 2002 with the Athletics. He never became a household name, or even a top of the rotation pitcher, but he's worked hard, has an immaculate bill of health, and has pitched almost 1,950 major league innings over 12 seasons. He's never been an All-Star and he's never pitched in the postseason. The closest he's come to accolades was an honorable mention in the 2007 Cy Young voting, when he finished fourth. While there have been plenty of good nuggets throughout his career, his performance has been inconsistent at times, which makes it easy to forget his success. In 2006, he led the National League in wins, and in 2007 he ranked in the Cy Young voting, but the following season, he led the league in losses and that's what people seem to remember.

You can break down Harang's career into two halves. Through 2007, his pinnacle Cy Young-sorta year, he was 63-49 with a 107 ERA+. Since then, he's gone 47-67 with a 90 ERA+, and went from being a fixture in the Reds' rotation (his 213 starts ranks him 20th all-time for their organization) to a roaming pitcher that has been on seven different teams in four years, including the Padres, Dodgers, Rockies (for less than a week), Mariners, Mets, and now the Indians.

"The adjustment from Cincinnati to San Diego was good," Harang said on Sunday after his spring training start against the Giants in Scottsdale, in which he pitched four innings and allowed just one run. His adjustment to the Dodgers went fine in 2012 (3.61 ERA in 179.2 innings), but last year he was the odd man out of the rotation when they added Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu. The switch set off a chain of events that made 2013 the worst of his career.

"In Los Angeles, they were building me up as a starter, then they tell me I have to go to the bullpen. There was a lot of choppiness and movement last year that really threw things off."

Aaron_harang_mediumAaron Harang in his second blue period. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

Harang never made it into a game with the Dodgers in 2013 and was traded just six days into the season. After that, he was traded two more times and released once, and even though he looked a little better in the final month of the season after the Mets picked him up (posting a 3.52 ERA despite allowing five home runs in just 23 innings), it wasn't enough to convince a team to offer him even a major-league deal this winter. All told, Harang pitched 143.1 innings with a 5.40 ERA last season and gave up 26 home runs.

Harang thinks the biggest culprit was that all of the bouncing around didn't allow him to find his rhythm. "There was a lot of time off between appearances. In the spring, I had about five days off before the season started and then six days off before I got traded and another five days off before I even got into a game. So it ended up being about two or two-and-a-half weeks before I got into a game at the end of the spring for my first outing. You lose a little bit of what you've built up and so I was playing catch up to try to get back up to where I could be. Ultimately, I can't use the trades as a definitive excuse. I was just being really inconsistent."

Harang reiterated, however, that even though last season was difficult, he feels ready to pitch and so far this spring, he's allowed just two earned runs (none of them homers) in nine innings. There's a chance that last season was just one that's better forgotten and that Harang will bounce back this year, but he also feels he can give something to an Indians team that is short on veteran pitching by just being himself.

"The biggest thing I bring is just having experience ...and being able to watch guys and talk to them about situations I've been in if I see them in similar situations on the field. If they are out there and the game starts to speed up a little bit, maybe I can help them step back and slow the game down a little bit and stay under control and focus."

One thing that jumps out about Harang when you look at his career, is that even though he should hit the 2,000 innings pitched mark this season, he's never suffered a significant injury, being sidelined only for minor ailments and an appendectomy. "You can't explain it, "Harang said. "You look at some of the guys who have phenomenal mechanics or supposed phenomenal mechanics and they end up blowing out. The biggest thing is learning myself and trying to maintain every season as it goes on while knowing my limitations when I do get out there."

"If they are out there and the game starts to speed up a little bit, maybe I can help them step back and slow the game down a little bit and stay under control and focus."

While he acknowledged that injuries are somewhat of a crapshoot, there's still things that young pitchers need to learn.  "You have to know when to push through something and when to back off. You do have aches and pains throughout the season, but knowing what the pains are and knowing what the aches are and knowing what you can go through and what you shouldn't go through."

It has been three incredible weeks for Harang thus far. While it would be nice to think a pitcher can suddenly be reborn an ace, it seems more likely that BABIP will adjust for Harang and he'll settle somewhere between this season's brilliance and last season's disaster. The best-case scenario is that Harang continues to pitch well into May, thus making decisions about the rotation more difficult when Floyd returns from his Tommy John recovery -- an envious position of strength for a team that, just before the start of the season, didn't have enough rotational depth to start the season.

Maybe it will all be short lived, but for now it's nice to have a pitcher who was nearly chased out of the game by poor command and low demand have his moment in the spotlight; at the very least, it's  a reminder that sometimes things don't go as we envision they might, but that's not inevitably a bad thing.

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