Haren’s turnaround and its implications beyond this season

CHICAGO - It really wasn’t too long ago that Dan Haren could have, based on the numbers, been legitimately considered the worst starting pitcher in Major League Baseball.

As of June 22, Haren led the majors in home runs allowed and had the highest ERA of any qualified starter in the National League. His WHIP was 1.43 (in other words, he was allowing an average of nearly 1 1/2 batters to reach via a hit or a walk every inning) and his OPS against was .888.

Over the last six weeks, things haven’t just turned for the better. Haren’s season has made a complete 180.

In nine games (eight starts) since coming off the disabled list, Haren has a 2.16 ERA. He’s allowed just four home runs, struck out 50 and walked 10 in 50 innings. His WHIP is 0.90 and his OPS against is down about 350 points from where it sat on June 22.

“Yeah, it’s been unbelievable,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s been really pitching good, been a mainstay.”

Haren has worked at least six innings in six of his eight starts since returning from the DL on July 8, and has allowed more than two earned runs just once in that span.

In a Nationals rotation that features three starters who have made the All-Star team in the last two years, Haren has been the clear-cut ace over the last month and a half.

“It’s exciting. It’s fun,” Ian Desmond said, when asked what it’s like playing behind Haren these days. “He’s pitching the way he wants to. It’s refreshing. For him, it’s probably more refreshing. But for us, it keeps us in the game a little more. He’s been just lights out. It’s been fun to watch. We all knew how heavy it was weighing on him before.”

Strangely enough, Haren said that he didn’t even feel he had good stuff last night during his six-inning, one-run outing against the Cubs. Haren felt it was tough to get loose early on, possibly as a result of working in relief in Saturday’s 15-inning win over the Braves after throwing a full bullpen session and lifting upper-body earlier in the day, and said he relied on a creatively called game by catcher Wilson Ramos to keep the Cubs’ hitters at bay.

In the first half of the season, Haren consistently talked about how good he felt and how his stuff seemed crisp. Despite that, the results were just terrible. Now, Haren goes out on days where he doesn’t feel he has his good stuff and is able to get through six strong innings.

“In the beginning of the year, I was throwing harder and my stuff was nasty, but I was just getting burned by the homers,” Haren said. “That one mistake would just kill me. I’ve been able to kind of stay away from that.”

Haren admits that coming off the disabled list, he was probably a bad start or two from getting released, and with an ERA in the 6.00s, finding another team willing to give him a shot in the majors would’ve been tough. It probably isn’t being overdramatic to suggest that at that time, Haren was looking like he might not be long for the major leagues.

Now, Haren’s value has started to climb again. He’s almost certain to get at least a fairly lucrative one-year deal this offseason, as teams have seen during this six-week stretch that the 32-year-old still has a decent amount left in the tank. That deal probably won’t come from the Nationals, but Haren should have a handful of suitors this offseason.

“Next year, I really haven’t thought about it,” Haren said. “I’ve been so focused on this year, just trying to turn it around. As good as I’ve pitched the last month or so, I still have an ERA in the mid-4.00s, the high-4.00s. So that kind of tells you how bad I was.

“To think about next year, I just really haven’t thought about it. I really want to keep this rolling. I think I have about seven more starts left. I just want to make the most of those.”

Haren might not be thinking about how much value he might have going into 2014, but his manager sure sees it.

“Oh no question about it,” Johnson said. “For a pennant run, he’s a big-game pitcher. And he’s showing it every time he goes out now.”

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