Usually when a 35-year-old MLB pitcher goes 5-12 with a 5.40 ERA, that man never becomes a 36-year-old MLB pitcher. After being released by the Indians before the season, it looks like that was going to hold true for Aaron Harang. But thanks to a series of unfortunately injuries to the Braves, Harang got a call a week before opening day and signed for a measly $1 million to be Atlanta’s fifth starter.
One month later, and it’s nearly unfathomable that the 6’7″ hurler was almost watching this season from his couch.
Through four starts, Harang has an incredible 0.85 ERA which has led to a 3-1 record. He’s taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning twice, and he might have gone the distance with one if it didn’t take him 121 pitches to get that far. He’s thrown 31.2 innings and only given up 15 hits. Opponents have mustered a measly .237 OBP, but even more impressive is the minuscule .171 slugging percentage. That’s right, Harang has only given up 3 extra base hits, with all of them being doubles.
I could break down every stat detailing strikeout to walk ratios, the percentage of ground balls he’s getting or first pitch strikes he’s thrown, but there’s really one stat that sums up his season better than any other: Until this season, no pitcher has given up 1 or less runs in their first 5 starts of a season while going more than six innings in each start1. The last guy to do it? Three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez. Guess who did it this season? That’s right, a guy who was previously 110-116 in his career – Aaron Harang.
The biggest reason for Harang’s success may be the fact that he’s dominated the best hitters in every matchup so far. The cleanup hitters he’s faced are only batting 0.77 with no extra base hits and no RBIs. Batters in the #3 slot have been just as bad, with only one hit and one walk all season (though that hit did result in an RBI). Leadoff hitters have only managed a .214 OBP and have scored zero runs. When a pitcher is that good against those three slots, there’s little hope for the rest of the order to do much of anything.
It isn’t just Harang who’s dominating hitters, but really the entire Atlanta rotation, which is a major reason why they’re leading the NL East. This is a rotation that was supposed to struggle due to injuries to three projected starters (Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy). Instead, in 22 games, only two of the starting pitchers have given up more than two earned runs. The team is leading the league in ERA (2.19), quality starts (18) and is second in WHIP (1.11). Granted, the pitchers are helped along by the Braves’ top-notch defense (only one position player has more than two errors), but there’s still something special happening on the mound.
I’d say there’s little chance that Harang’s season keeps going as well as it has so far (if he does end up with a 0.85 ERA, something’s gone drastically wrong with MLB hitters), but it’s still been remarkable to watch so far and I certainly don’t see his numbers inflating to the +5 ERA that he finished last season with. He’ll face a challenge in his next start against the Miami Marlins, who are 8th in the league in runs scored, but there’s really no reason why he can’t mow his way through that lineup as well. Regardless of how long he’s able to keep this dominant pitching up, Frank Wren’s got to be glad he Harang.