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Exploring Aaron Harang's strong start

Aaron Harang has gotten off to an excellent start with the Phillies so far in 2015, and while his performance might not be entirely sustainable, it bodes well for the rebuilding Phillies, who will likely be looking to trade him at the deadline this summer.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Harang is supposed to be a known quantity at this point. He just turned 37 on Saturday, and it feels like it has been a decade since he was dominating hitters and contending for the Cy Young Award as a pitcher for the Reds. This past offseason, Harang ended up settling for a one-year, $5 million contract with the Phillies, despite putting up a solid year (3.57 FIP in 204 1/3 innings) with the Braves in 2014. This contract seems to say a lot about what teams think of Harang at this point in his career. After all, we are in an era where Rick Porcello, whose 2014 performance was remarkably similar to Harang's, is getting paid $20 million a year from the Red Sox, despite never putting up a three-win season at any point in his career.

Needless to say, I was as surprised as anyone to see Harang's name in the top ten on the pitching fWAR leaderboard, sandwiched between Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta. Yes, it's early, but any pitcher who rates this highly in FIP-based WAR has to be doing something right, since FIP adjusts for defense, batted-ball luck, and sequencing.

Here's a look at Harang's early season stat line.

7 45.1 17.3% 5.0% 3.1% .255 76.4% 2.38 2.97 4.35

A few things stand out:

His strikeout rate is very low, which is to be expected for a pitcher in his late 30s who doesn't throw very hard, but it is offset by an extremely low walk rate. In fact, the only time Harang has finished the season with a walk rate below six percent was during his dominant 2005-2007 stretch, when he did it three seasons in a row.

His BABIP and LOB% are lower than league average, but they aren't completely unreasonable. His FIP is still very good, suggesting that he would still be getting solid results this year if his sequencing and batted ball luck were closer to league average.

His HR/FB is insanely low, as it is currently less than one-third the league rate (10.6 percent). Harang's career rate is 10.0 percent, so we shouldn't expect him to keep preventing home runs at the rate he is, especially with him pitching half his games at Citizens Bank Park, one of the best ballparks for home runs. It will be interesting to see how effective Harang can be once he starts allowing home runs at a higher rate. If we trust his xFIP, which adjusts his HR/FB rate to league average, we should expect to see his effectiveness drop considerably.

With that being said, Harang also had an uncharacteristically low HR/FB rate of 6.4 percent in 2014, which was 8th in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. Given his batted ball profile, he will need to continue suppressing home runs at a similar rate to maintain his recent level of success.

Season LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
Career 21.1% 38.0% 40.9% 10.6%
2015 21.5% 31.1% 47.4% 17.2%

So far this season, he has had a noticeable shift in his batted ball profile, as he is allowing more fly balls than ever. This increase is matched by a decrease in his ground ball rate, with his line drive rate remaining steady. Normally, this is a shift that pitchers don't want to see, since fly balls are typically more harmful to a pitcher than ground balls. In Harang's case, though, this shift has been extremely helpful, because the only fly balls he is allowing more of this year than in the past are infield fly balls, which are almost always outs. His non-infield fly ball percentage in 2015 is nearly identical to his career rate.

It should be noted that Harang actually allowed more ground balls than fly balls last season, which makes his 2015 shift to being an extreme fly ball pitcher all the more noticeable. With that being said, I was not able to find any dramatic change in approach which would explain such a shift.

His pitch usage remains mostly unchanged from 2014 to 2015. He uses his four-seam fastball and sinker at nearly identical rates (It actually looks like one line on the graph), and his primary secondary pitch is his slider. He'll also mix in a cutter, curveball, and changeup on occasion. In 2015, it appears that he has slightly increased the use of his secondary pitches while slightly decreasing the use of his two fastballs.

This could explain some of the increase in fly balls in 2015. According to Brooks Baseball, his cutter has been his best pitch for inducing fly balls, and he has increased his use of it from 6.9% in 2014 to 11.7% in 2015. His sinker, not surprisingly, is his worst pitch at inducing fly balls, and Harang has decreased his use of it slightly in 2015 (27.4%, down from 29.4%). These changes are extremely small, though, and they likely do not entirely explain why Harang has been an extreme infield fly ball pitcher so far in 2015.

It's still very early in the season, and we will probably see some regression in Harang's performance, mostly because of his unsustainable home run and infield fly ball rates. Harang's excellent start to the season is a good sign for the Phillies, though, who so far haven't had much to be happy about. According to Fangraphs, the Phillies' playoff odds currently stand at 0.0% (you probably already knew this), which means that the Phillies are looking to rebuild. The longer Harang keeps pitching the way he is, the more likely it is that the Phillies can get a decent return for him in a trade.

According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, teams are already calling the Phillies about Harang and scouting his starts. One scout opined that Harang would be worth a second-tier prospect for a contending team. Given his contract, Harang is a virtual lock to get traded to a contending team this summer. While there was little attention given to Harang's signing back in January, it could end up being beneficial for the Phillies in their efforts to rebuild.

The Cubs were able to effectively speed up their rebuilding process by signing bounce-back starting pitchers and trading them midseason, when contending teams are typically willing to give up more in a trade for a starting pitcher. The two notable examples in the Cubs' case are Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, who were both signed to one-year $6 million deals before the 2013 and 2014 seasons respectively. The Cubs got Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop in return for Feldman, and Hammel's inclusion in the Jeff Samardzija deal netted them Addison Russell, among others.

While it is unlikely that the Phillies will get a high level prospect in return for Harang, he will still have some value if he keeps pitching well. With recent injuries to Adam Wainwright, Brandon McCarthy, and Alex Cobb, more and more teams are looking for ways to fill a huge innings gap in their rotation. Harang has always been a steady pitcher capable of shouldering a lot of innings, and if he keeps up what he's been doing so far, he might end up being more than just an innings eater. It has been easy to criticize many of Ruben Amaro's moves in recent years, but his decision to sign Aaron Harang might go down as one of the better moves of this past offseason.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Nick Lampe is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Viva el Birdos. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickLampe1.