"I get worried about the fans down the first-base line," Angels catcher Bobby Wilson said. "There are a lot of foul balls pulled over there. There are a lot of broken bats. When he's pitching, that first-base line better have heads up."
In one year's time, Haren, who is 12-6 with career-bests in ERA (2.91) and WHIP (0.98), has gone from throwing the cutter every fourth pitch to every second pitch and continued his reinvention from a fastball-thrower looking to set up his splitter for the strikeout to a cutter-pitcher trying to destroy hitters' timing and minimize the damage when they do make contact.
Before his trade from the Diamondbacks to the Angels a little more than a year ago, Haren had a 4.60 ERA and 1.35 WHIP -- both his worst since his first full big-league season in 2005 -- but as he's relied more on his cutter, he's become a more effective pitcher. Haren's strikeout rate is the lowest it's been in five years (7.3 per nine innings) but so too is his walk rate the lowest of his career (1.3 per nine). His 5.5 K/BB rate leads the AL.
"The priority is to try and get deep into the game, minimizing pitches and getting into the eighth inning at least, to give us a chance [to win] from there," Haren said. "I've been a little bit more aggressive in the strike zone. The big thing for me is starting guys off with a first-pitch strike. I don't have the Verlander stuff to be pitching into 2-0 counts, 3-1 counts. My game is pitching ahead in the count."
So while Tigers ace Justin Verlander and his 100-mile-per-hour heater and Bugs Bunny breaking ball is arguably the game's best thing going, he's primarily been a one-man show in Detroit. Haren, on the other hand, is the rotation complement to Verlander's chief competition for the American League Cy Young, Jered Weaver, who is 14-5 with a major-league-leading 1.78 ERA.
"Jered has been the most consistent of any pitcher in the big leagues," Haren said, "but especially on the staff. With the exception of a few-start stretch, he's just been money every time out."
With the Angels' offensive production among the game's worst -- they've scored 455 runs, which ranks 13th out of the 14 AL teams -- there's no understating the importance of the club's starting rotation as Los Angeles, just two games behind offensive juggernaut Texas, tries to keeps pace in the AL West and avoid missing the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in a decade.
"They're our bread and butter," L.A. catcher Jeff Mathis said. "That's what we're built around."
But while starting pitcher tandems elsewhere might garner more attention, Weaver and Haren statistically stand right pretty close to or better than nearly any starting pitcher combination on the 2011 ledger. The Angels' duo, as shown below, has the best combined ERA (2.35), the most quality starts (41) and the greatest improvement in their team's winning percentage (.185) when they are pitching. Though, admittedly, wins and losses are an imperfect measure of a starting pitcher, it's still worth noting that L.A. is 31-18 (.663) when either of them starts but only 33-36 (.478) when anyone else starts.
Consider the table below that includes the top 10 starting pitcher pairings in baseball, along with four additional notables: the Red Sox' Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, the Braves' Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, the Giants' Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and a second Phillies pairing because choosing between Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee to go along with Roy Halladay was impossible.
Note on selection criteria: Pairings below were selected based on greatest WAR, as computed by FanGraphs.com. Only one pair from each team is represented (except for the Phillies and Giants).
So while no one can match the Phillies' top starters, Weaver and Haren top the rest of the field. That's production the Angels will have to rely on to return to October.