Haren eager to show injuries, drop in velocity won’t hold him back

VIERA, Fla. - Assuming Mother Nature doesn’t play a factor, we should have plenty going on around Nationals camp today.

Pitchers and catchers will take to the fields again this morning, with the hurlers who did not take part in bullpen sessions yesterday doing so today. We’ll also see a host of guys trickle in throughout the morning and afternoon, as today is the report date for all position players.

While three members of the Nationals’ rotation got in a bullpen session yesterday, Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren did not, instead joining a group of pitchers taking part in various fielding and bunting drills. Those two will throw today, however, giving us our first look at Haren on a mound in a Nats jersey.

Haren’s offseason was an interesting one. Despite having won 119 games in his big league career, throwing at least 215 innings in all but one of the last eight seasons and establishing himself as one of the more durable, consistent pitchers in the game, Haren suddenly heard plenty of people question whether he could still be an effective major leaguer.

Those questions came about largely for two reasons: Haren’s health and his decreased velocity. He’s not the same pitcher at 32 that he was at 26. (Few are, of course.) Haren landed on the disabled list last season for the first time in his career with a back injury, and he has a hip issue which reportedly scared off a few teams, as well.

He was set to be traded from the Angels to the Cubs early in the offseason before Chicago nixed that deal due to concerns over Haren’s health. The Angels then declined Haren’s option for this season, allowing him to become a free agent and sign a one-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals.

“It was a little bit frustrating (this offseason) just because of what I have accomplished in my career, you know, not being on the DL for more than I think it was like three weeks or so,” Haren said. “But you never know nowadays. I think teams are getting smarter with physicals. We’ve seen this year with (Mike) Napoli, even (John) Lackey, he blew out, he’s got to throw one year, make the minimum over there. I think the game is changing. Doctors are taking a bigger part in analyzing people’s bodies.”

Haren insists that he’s completely healthy as he enters camp. The back feels great, he says, and he’s learned how to take care of it, building up a good base and managing things differently in between starts to put less stress on his body. The hip has never once hindered him during a start, Haren says, and he seems to feel that’s a non-issue. He swears he’s got a high pain tolerance anyway, and even if it did bug him, he’d find a way to pitch through it.

As for the decrease in velocity, it’s no secret that Haren’s fastball is coming in a couple ticks slower than it did a few years ago. His average fastball velocity sat at 91.9 mph in 2005, according to Fangraphs, was at 90.0 mph in 2011 and then dropped to 88.5 mph last season. As a result of that drop, Haren tried to make adjustments on the mound, adjustments which ended up working against him.

“The beginning of last year, I saw my velocity was a little bit down and was trying to get it back to where it was, which led to me getting hit around because I was leaving balls up in the zone, trying to overthrow,” he says. “I went on the DL a little bit, tried to find my mechanics at the end of the year, found my mechanics, just backed off, just tried to pitch more like myself and not look at a radar gun because everybody’s so obsessed with it now. Toward the end of the year, I just started pitching like myself and not really caring that it was 88-90 (mph).

“That’s what allows every pitcher to be successful, you have to trust yourself. I didn’t trust myself last year. I saw that my velocity was a little bit down and I was trying to overthrow. When you’re overthrowing, that means that you’re not trusting yourself. Toward the end of the year, I started to find myself.”

Over his last seven starts of the 2012 season, Haren pitched to a 2.76 ERA, striking out 34 and walking just five in 42 1/3 innings. It was largely that stretch that gave the Nationals confidence that Haren still can be a force at the back of their rotation and round out what could be the deepest staff in the majors.

Now Haren finds himself in Nationals camp, the veteran on a young staff. He had some choices this offseason, receiving interest from multiple teams, but was instantly drawn to the Nats after watching the success they had last year.

“The biggest part of it was just the opportunity to win,” Haren said. “I’m not that old, but at this point in my career, winning is the No. 1 priority. Being able to be surrounded by four other really good starters was a part of it. When it came to my situation, when I was a free agent, I really narrowed it down to a few places and I think the most important thing was winning.

“What other team in baseball gives you a better opportunity to win than this one? Probably none.”

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