ST. LOUIS -- Aaron Harang knew he still had the drive to play baseball. He knew he wasn’t done. Still, at home in San Diego this offseason his phone wasn’t ringing. Teams weren’t calling like they had in years past. After 12 years in the majors, coming off a season where he posted a 5.40 ERA with the Mariners and Mets, questions about his future crossed his mind. Questions about the end. Questions about wanting more and having no place to play.
"I had been working out the whole time, getting ready for the season and no calls," the 36-year-old right-hander said. "Finally, my trainer I was working out with was like, 'You do the 90 percent you can control and the other 10 percent will somehow work itself out and if it doesn’t, it’s not your fault. You’ve been preparing to do it. You’ve got to be ready when they call you. At the drop of a hat you’ve got to be ready to go and be on the level with everybody else, ready to compete.' So I think that kind of pushed me to make sure I was ready to go. Sure enough, I got a call the next day and I was heading out to Phoenix."
Harang signed with the Cleveland Indians as a minor-league free agent on February 15, hoping to impress in spring training and earn the final spot in their rotation.
Harang tells young guys to remember they are playing for their own team, but to never forget other teams are watching them, especially during spring training. He reminds them to go out and compete at all times because at some point you may need a contract and hopefully they’ll remember you.
At the end of March, Harang had to take to heart his own advice. Told he wasn't going to make the Indians' Opening Day roster, he exercised an opt-out clause in his contract.
"I was confident when they told me I wasn’t making the roster with Cleveland that I was totally taking a flying shot, that if I opt out, maybe nobody makes the call [to me] and I have to go home," Harang said. "I knew that, but knowing that I pitched well I figured somebody’s got to call me."
Harang signed with the Braves as a free agent on March 26. With three-fifth of their projected starting rotation beginning the season on the disabled list, the Braves needed a starter. Harang provided a huge lift early as the Braves got off to a hot start, as he allowed three runs over his first five starts and is now 4-4 with a 3.32 ERA entering Tuesday's start against the Red Sox.
Harang has more movement on his fastball than he has had since 2010 and he’s throwing his cutter more than he has in previous years, helping him to a career-high strikeout rate of 25.9 percent -- well above his 19.0 percent career rate. He said he hasn’t changed anything in his mechanics but his cutter is working really well this year. "I’ve been able to get consistent with it, so that helps," he said. "Throwing a two-seamer and throwing a cutter, kind of x-ing them back-and-forth across the plate."
He is now part of a select group of pitchers. There are only 13 active pitchers who have pitched 2000 innings. Harang has averaged 29 starts per year since 2004 and logged at least 140 innings nine times. He, unlike so many other pitchers we are hearing about this year, has never had Tommy John surgery. Harang believes much of his good fortune is due to the advice and parenting he received from his dad.
"I would never teach a kid a breaking pitch until age 13," Harang said. "My dad wouldn’t show me one. He didn’t want [my elbow] to blow out. So I didn’t start throwing a curveball until I was 13 years old. I had the karate-chop one, where you just throw it and it spins up there. Your muscles aren’t developed enough, your ligaments aren’t developed enough to withstand it."
Another reason, he thinks, for his good health could be that when he was growing up he wasn’t playing baseball year-round.
"You finished your baseball season, and you might have played winter ball but it was just for fun because you were playing basketball or you were playing football," Harang noted. "So, you put your glove down. ... You were off playing another sport. Whereas now, it’s like at 10, 11 or 12, kids are playing on these travel teams year round, playing in tournaments that they go to for four or five days."
At home with his family, Harang puts his belief that parents put too much emphasis on kids playing just one sport into practice. He and his wife Jennifer have three kids, Addison, Dustin and Kailey.
"They have soccer balls, bats and golf clubs, everything, all the sports, basketballs, everything," he said. "I just want them to have fun."
Beyond that, Harang is thankful his dad didn’t push him too hard. Harang watched a lot of his friends get burned out on baseball and get into trouble with other stuff. In fact, his dad and some of his friends had a completely different approach than the screaming parents in the baseball stands.
"My buddy's dad, he was funny. In high school, he built a seating rack down on the other side of the left-field wall," Harang said. "He and a couple of his buddies -- other dads and my dad when we’d play each other -- they’d go sit out there. They didn’t want to hear the parents. [They wanted] to get away and enjoy the game and watch it, away from [the yelling]."
The combination of wise parenting, talent and relatively good health (his longest DL stint came in 2010 due to back spasms) has paid off. We too often forget how difficult it is to make it to the majors and then, even more, to stick around. The biggest lesson Harang has learned along this journey through all his years in the majors came from his first manager.
"Art Howe told me my rookie year, 'The biggest thing you can do if you want to be in this game a long time is just be consistent. Never let yourself get too high and try to never get too low. If you can kind of just stay consistent, and stay in that middle, you’re going to have a long career.'"
Most likely it will be a tight division race in the NL East and Harang’s contribution to the Braves' National league-leading 2.89 ERA has been important. His story this season is a feel-good one, filled with perseverance, but the one thing he can easily pinpoint as to why he’s pitching so well goes back to the silent phone this winter.
"I mean, maybe having a little chip on my shoulder, nobody really calling this offseason," Harang said. "I always had that fight, that drive. I was always just one of the guys. I wasn’t really highly touted going through the system. I was never one of the top prospects, stuff like that. Yet I went out and I got outs. So I moved through the levels really fast and had a lot of success in the big leagues, just going out and getting people out."
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.