It was another rough night for the Nationals last night. They hoped to build momentum off of a walk-off win, but it wasn’t to be. Last night’s loss wasn’t the fault of a single player, but Dan Haren was certainly a significant part of the trouble. As Erin wrote, he went just four innings, giving up five runs on seven hits, three of which were home runs. This isn’t anywhere near the first time Haren has struggled mightily this season.
Haren has gone five or fewer innings in half of his 12 starts so far this season, and he’s given up a National League-leading 15 home runs. He’s thrown just 67.2 innings, so he averages 2 HR/9, the worst in baseball and by far the worst in the NL. In four of Haren’s starts, he’s given up multiple home runs, and he’s avoided giving up a long ball in just four starts.
Haren has been able to keep just 32.7% of contact against him on the ground, well-below league average, which contributes to 15% of all fly balls hit against him ending up out of the ballpark. Part of that is some unlucky contact as evidenced by a .315 BABIP, but it could also simply be a regression in talent. A .315 BABIP is not that far above league average of .290 to .300.
Over the course of the season, Haren just hasn’t been able to prevent runners from crossing the plate. He strands just 68% of base runners he allows, which is, like most of his stats, below league average. That high LOB%, combined with the home run rate, contributes to the fourth-worst ERA in the NL (5.45) and the second-worst FIP in the NL (4.95).
So what does this all mean for Haren? Quite simply, despite showing some signs of progress every few games, he just doesn’t look very good in a larger sample. The sample size is now large enough to show that inconsistency very well may be a problem all season. Good teams can typically deal with a bottom of the rotation starter who struggles a bit, but when that starter has put up some of the worst numbers in the league, and the rest of the team is also playing well-below expectations, that’s when you have serious problems.
Early in the season, I was among those people who felt that Haren needed to get the benefit of the doubt for a while. He was coming off his worst season and moved to a new league, but 12 starts into his career in a Nationals uniform, there has been only a few glimpses of the former All-Star version of Haren. This team may not be able to deal with this kind of struggles from a starter every five days if they want to keep their postseason hopes alive.
The problem for the Nats is simple. Even if they wanted to, they have no one to replace Haren at the moment. With Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler both still on the disabled list and a farm system without a lot of MLB-ready options, the team is stuck until one, or both, of those pitchers return. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but it may be possible that Detwiler could replace Haren, not Nate Karns, in the rotation if Karns continues to show improvement in his start this weekend.
To be clear, and to conclude, Dan Haren is not the sole reason the Nationals have so vastly underperformed their preseason expectations. The offense has been among the league’s worst in almost every category, and injuries just absolutely have decimated what should have been a potent lineup. But as Mike Rizzo apparently tried to do earlier this week, sometimes moving one or two guys can make all the difference in the world.