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Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Harang's unlikely, impressive start

Photo: ERIK S. LESSER/EPA

Aaron Harang is having his best season since 2007, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting.

The 2007 MLB season seems like a lifetime ago. Alex Rodriguez won the AL MVP, hitting .314/.422/.645 with 54 homers and 156 RBI. Mike Trout finished his sophomore year and began his junior year of high school. Jake Peavy (of the Padres) edged the Devil -- yes, Devil -- Rays' Scott Kazmir and Twins' Johan Santana for the league lead in strikeouts. Kip Wells and Jose Contreras each threw more than 160 innings. Like I said, it was a lifetime ago.

That season is also the last time Aaron Harang could have been considered anything better than a league-average starting pitcher. Pitching for the Reds in '07, Harang went 16-6, putting up a 3.73 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 1.14 WHIP and 218 strikeouts against 52 non-intentional walks in 231.2 innings. He came in fourth in NL Cy Young voting, trailing Peavy, Brandon Webb and Brad Penny. It has been a steady decline since then, and he seemingly pitched his way out of the majors last year, compiling a 5.40 ERA, 4.79 FIP and 1.35 WHIP. His K/9 was below 7.2 for the fourth consecutive season, and he failed to throw at least 150 innings for the first time in a season in which he made at least 26 starts.

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Harang has been nothing short of a revelation for a Braves' rotation wracked by injury this year. In five starts covering 31 2/3 innings, he has a 0.85 ERA, 2.23 FIP and 33 strikeouts. His average fastball velocity remains in line with his most recent seasons, but he has largely given up on a curveball that was one of his worst pitches last year. He's throwing more four-seamers, more two-seamers, and especially more sliders, and the results have been easy to see. According to Pitch F/X, hitters are swinging at Harang's slider more than half the time it is out of the strike zone. The pitch has a 24.4-percent swinging-strike rate, which would be his best season-long number for his slider in his career. His two fastballs have been equally as effective. Batters have managed a .111/.250/.185 slash against the four-seamer, and .154/.353/.154 slash against the two-seamer. The astute among you will note that the identical batting average and sluggling percentage against the two-seamer means that he has yet to allow an extra-base hit on the offering this year.

It's easy to say that Harang won't possibly keep this up all year, and it's just as right as it is easy. He has a .200 BABIP and 89.3-percent strand rate, two numbers that simply cannot last. Additionally, he has always been a fly-ball pitcher, and that hasn't changed this year, evidenced by his 52.9-percent fly-ball rate. However, he has yet to allow a home run this year. While there are certainly worse places for a fly-ball pitcher than Turner Field to call home, some of these fly balls are going to start sailing over the fences soon. Harang has been one of the brightest surprises this April, but his value is likely at its peak right now.

Pitchers of the week

Collin McHugh, Houston Astros -- Last week: 15.1 IP, 2 W, 19 K, 0.59 ERA, 0.52 WHIP

The 26-year-old McHugh, who made exactly nine starts before this season, dominated in outings against the Mariners and A's last week. He allowed one run on five hits and three walks, striking out 19 in 15.1 innings. In the process, he picked up the first two wins of his career.

PINCUS: McHugh one of the hottest pickups in fantasy baseball

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jose Fernandez pitched lights-out against the Braves, striking out 14 and giving up no runs in eight innings.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals -- 15 IP, 2 W, 10 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.60 WHIP

Wainwright became the first five-game winner this season with a pair of victories last week. He shut out the Mets across seven innings in the first one, allowing four hits and not walking a batter. He then backed that up with eight shutout frames against the Pirates, surrendering three hits and fanning seven.

Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins -- 8 IP, 1 W, 14 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.38 WHIP

With apologies to Johnny Cueto, who had yet another fantastic week (17 IP, 1 W, 15 K, 0.53 ERA, 0.71 WHIP), I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the single best one-game pitching performance from the previous seven days. Fernandez absolutely shut down the Braves, tying his career high with 14 strikeouts in eight shutout innings. He allowed just three hits and didn't walk a batter, earning his third win of the season.

Pitchers of the weak

Mark Buehrle, Toronto Blue Jays -- 5.1 IP, 0 K, 10.13 ERA, 2.81 WHIP

Buehrle had been untouchable in his first four starts of the season, so you had to know the reckoning was right around the corner. It showed up in the form of the Red Sox who roughed him up for six earned runs on 12 hits in 5.1 innings. He didn't strike anyone out and issued three free passes, as well.

Hyun-jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers -- 11 IP, 6 K, 6.55 ERA, 1.82 WHIP

Ryu's week actually got off to a decent start when he gave up two runs to the Phillies in six innings, albeit on nine hits and two walks. The good-luck fairy abandoned him in his second start of the week, as the same number of hits resulted in six earned runs in a loss to the Rockies. He hasn't allowed a run in four of his seven starts this year, but has surrendered 14 across 13 innings in the other three.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants -- 6 IP, 4 K, 10.50 ERA, 2.17 WHIP

The Rockies were the primary cause of two of our pitchers of the weak, knocking around Cain for seven runs on 10 hits and three walks. He had been hot heading into the start, allowing just one earned run with 16 strikeouts in his previous 14 innings. The thin air in Denver has a way of ending hot streaks.

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Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Michael Pineda, New York Yankees -- Judging by the fact that Pineda is still unowned in 36 percent of Yahoo leagues, some of you won't even have to buy him to get him on your roster. It seems unlikely that his owner would want to divest because of his 10-game suspension, but it's certainly worth checking to see if Pineda's pine-tar foibles have made him available. His fastball velocity is way down from his rookie year of 2011, but his slider and changeup have been extremely effective in his first four outings this year. The movement on his slider, in particular, has made that offering vastly improved from where it was three years ago.

PINCUS: Pineda's a cheater for using pine tar, but don't drop him

Sell: Jason Hammel, Chicago Cubs -- No doubt the Cubs are already excited for the day when they can flip Hammel for a future asset. As a fantasy owner, you have no reason to wait that long. In fact, if you do, chances are his value will take a dip. Hammel is 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA, and 0.69 WHIP, but he has benefitted from great luck, exposed by a 4.01 FIP. While his 13.1-percent line-drive rate is quite impressive, a BABIP of .138 is unsustainable. You shouldn't expect to break the bank, but now is the time to get him on the block.

Hold: Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres -- Kennedy suffered through an abysmal 2013, but he has turned it around in the first month of this season. His average fastball velocity is up to 91.4 mph from 90.3 mph, and he has scrapped a cutter that caused him nothing but trouble last year. The increased velocity on his fastball also appears to have made his changeup more deceptive, and therefore more effective. While he's not all the way back to the guy who looked like a budding star after winning 21 games in 2011, he does appear to be, at the very least, a useful starter in 12-team mixed leagues.

Rookie pitcher spotlight

Chris Withrow, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers

I have seen the bullpen of the future, and it is stacked with young, powerful, untaxed arms, capable of topping out in the mid-to-high-90s and giving max effort every time out. In that vein, Withrow should have a job for a long time to come. He showed the Dodgers his capabilities last year, first dominating hitters at Triple-A Albuquerque, posting a 1.71 ERA, 2.54 FIP and 33 strikeouts in 26.1 innings. He earned a promotion to the majors, fanning 43 batters in 34.2 innings.

This year, Withrow has served as a primary setup man for Kenley Jansen. In 12.1 innings, he has allowed one earned run and two hits, while whiffing 18 batters. Walks continue to be a problem, as he has issued 10 free passes, but when he does find the strike zone, opposing hitters are nearly defenseless. Even with all those walks, they're slashing just .054/.250/.054 against him. He may never take the closer's role from Kenley Jansen, but with the sort of rates and strikeout totals Withrow can post, he carries plenty of fantasy value in his current role. He'd also be capable of stepping in as the closer shoud Jansen struggle or suffer an injury. Those of you in mixers of at least 12 teams should consider Withrow, and he should be close to universally owned in leagues that use K/9 as a category.

By the numbers

5.72 -- Walks per nine innings currently surrendered by Shelby Miller. If not for a 94.3-percent strand rate, his 2.86 ERA would be a whole lot worse. His velocity is up this season, but he's not getting hitters to chase his secondary stuff when it's out of the zone, a sign that it might not be all that sharp.

2.37 -- The supposedly disappointing Chris Archer's FIP thus far. Thanks to a .344 BABIP and 66.5-percent strand rate, his ERA is up at 4.11. His strikeout rate is 19.7 percent, while his walk rate is a scant 3.9 percent. Now would be a good time to see if his owner is frustrated.

31.1 -- The percentage of balls in play allowed by Mark Buehrle that have gone for line drives. If you needed another reason to believe that you should be trying to sell him while you still can, here it is.

42.7 -- Percentage of Masahiro Tanaka splitters that are out of the zone that hitters are flailing at miserably. Tanaka's splitter is already one of the best pitches in the league. It's early, but he appears to be worth the investment for the Yankees.

1.55 -- Win Probability Added for Johnny Cueto, which is first among pitchers and second among all players, trailing only Jayson Werth. A WPA of 1.55 indicates that Cueto has increased the Reds chances of winning the games in which he has pitched by 155 percent this year. Last year's pitching leader was Clayton Kershaw at 4.69.

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