ATLANTA — There is a line that Aaron Harang would prefer not to cross again. He’s perfectly content on this side.
Last season, for just the second time in his 13-year career, Harang moved to the American League when he was traded from Colorado to Seattle in an April deal. Without a spring training adjustment period, he struggled immediately. Everything was just … different. Harang came up through the Oakland As farm system during the early-2000s, even starting 21 games for the AL club in 2002 and 2003, but after 10 seasons of earning his keep in the strategy-oriented National League, it was a lot to take in.
"I had been in the National League so long and I got over there and the first couple starts it was like, ‘Wow. Why would that guy hit that in that count?’ I definitely had to make some changes and learn some stuff last year, which kinda threw me off," said Harang, who made his second start in a Braves uniform on Tuesday night, a 4-0 loss to the New York Mets. "They talk about that switch over from anybody that goes from the National League to the American League, there’s like a learning process. It’s jarring when you’re going out there throwing pitches, facing guys in spring training, and you’re getting good results and pitching well and then you switch leagues and throw the same pitches and you get hammered. It’s kind of confusing."
His numbers hit career lows with the Mariners, which is not exactly a rarity for 35-year-old pitchers with more than 1,800 career innings under their belt, but it was not satisfactory for Harang. He still felt like he had more in the tank, more to offer.
He just wasn’t offering it against AL hitters — for reasons he seems to have a better grasp of now.
"That’s the thing: in the National League, you pitch to situations based on the time in the game — when the pitcher’s coming up; are they gonna have their pinch-hitter?; are they gonna have the catcher bunt to get the pinch-hitter up there? — there’s so many more scenarios," Harang said. "Then you go to the American League and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll just hit a homer.’ Just try to go up and blast something. And it’s frustrating when you’re facing teams like that because it’s almost like you have to pitch everybody backwards. You don’t pitch to the scenario."
He’s pitching to the scenario just fine right now.
Atlanta’s Aaron Harang Experiment is two starts in. And it’s working.
If the journeyman starter, who joined the Braves roster near the tail end of spring training as a then-alleged upgrade to fellow veteran Freddy Garcia, was only intended to bridge the gap between Opening Day and the return of Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd, then he’s been about as good of a bridge as Frank Wren & Co. could ask for. He’s 12 2/3 innings into the 2014 campaign and he’s only allowed one earned run, and it came against the Mets best offensive player, David Wright. At the very least, it’s a distinct departure from the consensus expectation entering the season — which was very little.
Harang landed a spot in Atlanta after failing to make the Indians rotation during spring training, and given his recent track record — he hasn’t put up a 2.0 WAR or better since 2009 and his two-stop ’13 campaign included a 5.40 ERA and 4.79 FIP — expecting him to jump out of the gate with better-than-quality outings against the Brewers and Mets was far-fetched.
Yet there he stood in the Braves clubhouse Tuesday night, a loss on his resume thanks to a fruitless offense that was befuddled by 40-year-old Bartolo Colon but he’s holding onto a 0.71 ERA and 2.51 FIP after two starts. He’s consistently hitting 91-92 miles per hour on his four- and two-seam fastballs, both of which he is locating well, he’s striking out nearly a batter per inning and opposing batters are not getting solid contact off him (17.2 line drive percentage).
The National League is treating him well once again.
"I can’t tell you the reason why. I think — yeah, I’ve had a couple people tell me, ‘The velocity, it looks like it’s kicked back up.’ But you know there were some games I had last year where I threw that hard as well, so I can’t tell you why or what," said Harang, who pitched well for the Mets as a September free agent addition last season, posting a 3.52 ERA in four NL starts. "I know when I got over to the American League last year, I had to make some changes, and I wasn’t as aggressive with my fastball because I was still trying to learn the difference between the leagues. American League guys, they hunt fastballs. National League guys, you can move it around and triple up on fastballs. I don’t know what it is."
Added his manager, Fredi Gonzalez: "I thought he was very, very good (against New York). Second outing in a row where he gave us a great opportunity to win the game. He gave up, what? Two hits? Punch out nine and give up one run, you can’t ask for much more than that."
The Braves did not receive a single bad start from their four-man rotation — Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and David Hale combined to allow just seven earned runs in 32 innings — and now that expensive free agent pickup Ervin Santana is entering the equation on Wednesday, the first leg of the Braves’ early-season, rotation-related crisis management agenda can only be considered a wild success.
The team is just one game over .500, but the starters have kept them in every single game. A Braves starter has not given up more than two runs in a game so far this season.
Harang might be the biggest surprise of the bunch, given that he was such a late addition and an unknown commodity relative to the Braves’ homegrown arms, not to mention the extra work he had to put in with catchers Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit to get on the same page. But he’s been around this block before, twice over. He will pass the 2,000-inning plateau this season if he can stay in the rotation, and now that he’s back to his familiar stomping grounds with an above-average defense behind him, he’s cruising. There’s still room for skepticism (small sample size) and there’s the to-be-determined aspect of what Wren, Gonzalez and the front office will opt to do once Minor and Floyd return.
Still, the Harang-for-Garcia swap has been a positive move for this team, production-wise. It has helped get the rotation from Point A to Point B without missing a single turn.
Two starts into his Atlanta career, Harang looks right at home.