ATLANTA — By the time Aaron Harang donned a big league uniform for the first time, hours before making his major league debut, the Oakland Athletics were stuck in neutral and facing an uphill battle.
The 24-year-old was called up in May, the second month of the season, but his team was already 10 games back in AL West, the manager and general manager were on famously frigid terms and the franchise’s new calling card — value, particularly value of the sabermetic variety — was drawing very little public support.
Harang’s rookie season came in 2002, the Athletics’ dramatic "Moneyball" campaign popularized by a New York Times bestseller and an Oscar-nominated film, and things were just starting to get turned around when the 6-foot-7 former sixth-round pick debuted against Tampa Bay on May 25.
The previous afternoon, fellow starting pitcher and new teammate Tim Hudson took the mound for the Athletics and, despite an uncharacteristically poor outing, helped the team snap a streak in which it had lost 15 of its previous 19 games. Harang was next in line. He won, too. More wins — many, many more wins — would come later, but the timing of this particular call-up was rather fitting, in retrospect.
Harang and Hudson share a host of career intersections over the course of two long, productive MLB careers, not the least of which is taking place this season: two veteran pitchers doubted for various reasons and nearing the twilight of their careers still finding success at the highest level. Harang is finding it with Hudson’s former team in Atlanta. Hudson’s finding it back on the West Coast.
It has been 12 seasons since that Athletics team broke the American League record for consecutive wins and signified the statistical revolution taking place in front offices around the league, but Harang can still harken back to those first few months on the job watching a Cy Young finalist go about his business.
"Just getting to watch (Hudson) day in and day out and be around him and the work that he put in before every start and in between starts, work in the bullpens, it was really cool to get to be a part of that and get to watch him do that every day. It was special," Harang said. "And the fact that he’s still getting it done? Man, it’s 12-13 years later. That’s kinda crazy to think about."
If a young pitching prospect could choose a scenario where he could learn from his peers while also relating to them, Harang landed in an ideal spot in Oakland. The staff was young and extremely talented, featuring four 30-and-under starters in the prime of their careers — one of the elite rotations in baseball that would wind up producing that season’s AL Cy Young Award winner (Barry Zito), who Harang knew from high school baseball in Southern California, two other choice candidates (Hudson, Mark Mulder) and one of the better No. 4 pitchers in the league at the time (Cory Lidle). The unit just needed to find a reliable fifth starter.
General manager Billy Beane found it — just like he found a few of those other valuable parts — in his minor-league system.
Harang has now logged nearly 2,000 innings and win 113 games in seven different cities, most notably in Cincinnati, where he became a 200-plus inning workhorse and one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2005 to 2007 — a substantial amount of big league tenure, enough that his former teammate and exemplar can no longer look at him as that young guy walking around the clubhouse. Now that both have passed the age-35 threshold, there’s only one way to look at the two former A’s pitchers.
"I consider him a veteran just like me. At the time (in Oakland) he was a bit of a young guy coming up, but yeah we’re one of the last few from that rotation and he’s still been able to go out and be successful for a lot of years," Hudson said last weekend while sitting in Turner Field’s visitor’s dugout. "I’m glad that he’s had the opportunity to come here (to Atlanta) and pitch. When Cleveland released him, I wondered what was going to happen."
In fact, Hudson and Harang are the final two active pitchers remaining to have started a game for that vaunted rotation. Mulder officially retired in 2010 due to chronic shoulder problems. Spot starters Erik Hiljus and Mike Fyhrie played their final MLB games in 2002. Lidle’s life and baseball career were tragically cut short when a small plane he was flying crashed into an apartment building in New York City’s Upper East Side, killing both him and his flight instructor. Zito and veteran Ted Lilly pitched last season, but Lilly retired after a winter-ball return attempt and Zito, though he is not officially retired, is not playing this season.
That leaves two 35-and-up arms on opposite coasts, piecing together pitch after pitch with diminishing repertoires, battling for survival at the major league level — and still getting some of the best hitters in the world out.
Before Hudson walked into Turner Field in Giants gear for the first time last weekend, he and Harang last saw one another in Scottsdale, Ariz. Between the two of them, there was plenty of doubt to go around in that spring training matchup between the Giants and Indians, as neither veteran knew just what exactly the upcoming 2014 season would hold.
For Harang, who competed for a spot in Cleveland’s rotation during the spring, a starting job would have sufficed. After bouncing around the majors — from Cincinnati to San Diego to Los Angeles to Seattle to New York, with a brief pitstop in Colorado in between — for four lackluster seasons (by his standards), he felt his stuff was as good as it had been in quite some time, but his recent success rate against American League lineups was erratic at best. Especially at this point in his career, he’s a self-proclaimed National League starter, faring far better in the strategy-inclined NL than in its free-swinging counterpart. So when the Indians could not guarantee him a spot on the roster, Harang was granted his release and signed immediately with the Braves, whose scouts had been keeping an eye on his improved stuff.
When Atlanta came calling, the old friends reached out to one another pretty early on. Hudson gave him the "it’s a good organization" seal of approval and the keys to his Peachtree City home, where the Harangs are now living.
Hudson, on the other hand, was facing his own personal doubts.
Coming off his 15th consecutive season with a winning record, one that was cut short by a gruesome ankle fracture when Mets outfielder Eric Young Jr. unintentionally landed awkwardly on Hudson’s foot on a bang-bang play at first base, Hudson was hoping to stick around Atlanta. The Braves made him an incentive-laden offer believed to be around one year, $7 million. But with a loaded farm system and arms to spare — especially before Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were forced to undergo their second Tommy John surgeries — it’s clear that general manager Frank Wren, who went on an long-term extension spending spree for younger talent this offseason, could not commit substantial money toward a veteran coming off ankle surgery. Or, as Hudson put it, bank on a guy who is "no spring chicken anymore."
Wren especially could not match the Giants’ offer: a two-year deal worth approximately $23 million. So Hudson packed his bags and moved back West — but not without some additional motivation, as well as some trepidation concerning what he still had left in the tank. He’d made it through the arduous, year-long process of Tommy John rehab before, but ankle surgery was an entirely different animal.
"I think anybody that’s ever known me, I’ve been a guy that’s always had to prove himself everywhere. And I think that’s just one of those things that makes me tick. When somebody doubts something that I can do or feels like (I) can or can’t do it, it just gives me a little extra drive to prove to people that I can," said Hudson, whose career resume boasts 209 wins and three All-Star appearances. "Obviously there were a lot of question marks coming into this offseason after last year, just from a physical standpoint, and honestly I didn’t really know what was gonna happen until the process started happening. It was a timing thing that was kinda crazy.
"San Francisco took a bit of a leap of faith and gave me an opportunity. For me, I feel like there’s a lot I need to show to (the Giants) that I can do it, and just for them obviously giving me an opportunity to come back and pitch again, but also to show that I’m worth every dollar that they’re committing to me."
It appears that both the Braves and Giants are receiving acceptable returns on their investments.
After his most recent outing, Hudson now owns a 1.99 ERA (10th-best among qualified pitchers) through 54 1/3 innings pitched. That has been good enough for a 4-2 record for the NL West-leading Giants. On the flip side, the Braves are receiving even more value, dollar for dollar. Harang holds a 2.98 ERA and 2.75 FIP through 42 1/3 innings, posting a 3-3 record despite unimpressive run support.
Harang and Hudson are two of only six MLB pitchers ages 35 or older to post a 0.9 wins above replacement or better to this point in the season, according to FanGraphs, joining a formidable group (2014 WAR):
Harang was a part of that exclusive one-win club before Wednesday’s games shifted the replacement-level line, too. The only other pitchers in that vicinity are Kyle Lohse, who has helped lead the Brewers to the NL’s best record, R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays) and A.J. Burnett (Phillies).
Looking at the whole picture, 43 pitchers ages 35 and older have stepped on a major league mound this season, the majority of whom are working an inning at a time in the bullpen. As Harang pointed out: "You get to 10 years (of service time), it’s a rarity anymore. Unless you’re like an elite superstar guy."
Very few veterans are cutting it on a starting staff (17) and even fewer are pitching any better than replacement level.
"You gotta want to still compete," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of veteran pitchers’ keys to success. "Some of these guys, when they’re getting to the later stages of their careers, they’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? I’ve made all the money in the world, I have all the accolades.’ And they go about it for the wrong reasons. But I think both (Hudson and Harang) still want to compete. So for me, that’s No. 1. They’ve got great work ethics and they take care of their bodies. And they learn, the know how to pitch. They figure it out.
"Huddy’s probably dropped 3-4 miles per hour on his fastball, probably Harang the same way. But they figure it out. … I mean, Huddy’s done it all. Harang’s done it all. And they’re still out there winning games."
There is a surprise factor — or even shock value — to the types of numbers two Moneyball-era pitchers, one coming off ankle surgery and another freshly released by an Indians team that ranks dead last in the AL Central, are putting up at this stage of their careers. Their production doesn’t exactly match the preseason projections.
Well, at least most people around baseball are surprised. Not all.
"Nothing surprises me coming out of Huddy. He works his tail off. So nothing surprises me," Gonzalez said of his former player. "He’s a competitor, one of the best ones I’ve ever been around. He’d go out there with half a leg and put up the numbers he’s putting up right now and it wouldn’t surprise me. He’d be one of the first pitchers that had a prosthetic leg and pitch and win, because he competes."
It’s the same Hudson qualities that a young Aaron Harang was looking up to back when Michael Lewis was roaming around Networks Associates Coliseum in Oakland. Plenty can change in 12 years. Apparently, Tim Hudson’s competitive nature hasn’t budged an inch.
There is some small chapter of baseball history that gets glossed over when looking at the Athletics’ 2002 season through Moneyball lenses, a relatively minor fact that the book and the movie did not focus on, for obvious and understandable reasons: The team was really, really good.
Beane and his staff did an admirable job of acquiring some talented pieces through trades and undervalued free agent acquisitions, but it was Oakland’s farm system that was their greatest asset. And the pitching staff was their greatest weapon. This tends to get lost in a flurry of Scott Hattebergs and Chad Bradfords.
In three consecutive amateur drafts from 1997 to 1999, Beane, along with previous GM Sandy Alderson, laid the ’02 foundation, partially due to choice draft picks each year: Hudson (6th round, 185th overall), Mulder (1st round, 2nd overall) and Zito (1st round, 9th overall). And with that, the minor leagues would soon start churning out pitching gold for the small-market club.
In terms of overall effectiveness, the 2002 Oakland rotation finished fourth in all of baseball in wins above replacement (18.5), trailing the Diamondbacks, who featured two Cy Young finalists in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the Red Sox (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe) and a deep Yankees rotation of Mike Mussina, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and Orlanda Hernandez. It’s still one of the greatest rotations of the Billy Beane era — with each of his top four fall within that 2001-04 window. And during that four-year stretch, baseball’s financial superpowers at the time, the Red Sox and Yankees, were the only teams to receive more value via pitching.
Aside from the 2003 season, one in which Hudson, Zito and Mulder each posted four-plus WAR seasons, the 2002 rotation stands alone in Beane’s tenure in terms of value, but then again, plenty of that team’s accolades get lost in the sabermetric shuffle.
"That’s the one thing about that book and movie, everybody forgets you had your MVP at short (Miguel Tejada), you had a Cy Young Award winner in the rotation (Zito), you had other (pitchers) that were just as good and every night they were keeping the team in the game. And when they did have a rough night, the offense was there to pick it up," said Harang, who posted a 1.2 WAR in 15 starts that season. "And I think everybody just kinda looks at the — and obviously the story is about the sabermetric stuff, but the team that we had … man. I mean, you had a Gold Glove third baseman (Eric Chavez), you had Jermaine Dye and Terrance Long in the outfield, Billy Koch coming in to close.
"It was a strung-together team, but it was a strung-together team that was really, really good."
The one thing the pop-culture version of the season did nail was the emotional high of that historic winning streak, which basically set the modern-day record for consecutive wins, falling behind only the 1935 Cubs, 1880 White Stockings and 1916 Giants.
Twenty straight wins. Yes, it is still remarkable to those who were a part of it right up until Hatteberg’s home run sealed No. 20.
"It was amazing. Literally, think about three weeks straight. You’re shaking hands every single night for three weeks," Harang said. "We got to 10, and I was like, ‘Ten? That’s good.’ Then it was 15, and we were like, ‘What’s going on?’ Then it was 17. And then 18. And then 19, we tied the record, and on 20 we were losing and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be it.’ We still knew it was freaking special, it’s unbelievable. And then all of a sudden, BOOM. Hatteberg pinch-hit. I remember watching the actual clip of us running down to mob him at home and I did see myself, I was in the bullpen at the time, sprinting down from the bullpen."
Harang and Hudson combined for 25 percent of the wins during The Streak, and they’ve been piecing together more and more ever since. They may not be putting the same velocity behind their fastballs or sprinting to home plate as fast for game-winning home runs, but they’re still going every fifth day, at least for the time being. More than a decade after a career highlight that made it to Hollywood, retirement is still a distant concept.
When asked to put his career in perspective when looking at it through that rookie experience, Harang sat back in his chair in the Braves’ clubhouse, his fifth clubhouse in five seasons, and considered the journey. As of today, he and Hudson are the only two starters remaining from that oft-overlooked rotation, and there’s something to be said for longevity when pitching at this level. By the time Harang arrived at his answer, he ended up back at Hudson, echoing Gonzalez in his praise: mechanics, work ethic, competitor. Any surprises, though, that it’s just him and Hudson left standing?
"Not on his part, no," Harang said with a laugh. "On mine? I mean, it’s cool to think that I’m one of those last few guys that were there that’s still playing. I must have been doing something right over my career."