ATLANTA – Aaron Harang, the reconditioned pitcher, has a taste for taking what was tired and tattered and making it fresh again.
Whether it’s leather: When the starter-strapped Braves picked up Harang this spring for only the price of a phone call, they acquired more than a convenient arm. They also grabbed a skilled glove man – repair, that is. He has been stitching up mitts since he was a teen.
Or steel: The son of a mechanic, Harang knows his way around an engine block.
Then, there’s the most difficult medium of them all, his own self: A 35-year-old castoff, Harang’s first five starts with the Braves have bordered on the fantastic.
Somehow, the guy’s even better than new.
Bring in a forensic team to find his ERA (0.85, second in the majors). Following his last start Wednesday, he led baseball in OPS allowed (.409 on base percentage plus slugging percentage). He ranked second in opponents’ batting average (.143). He’s 3-1 and could be better if the Braves bats were more supportive.
All this from a guy whose signing March 24 was greeted by a citywide muffled yawn. He was piped onboard with minimal expectation and the faintest of praise.
With his brief time in Atlanta, Harang has proved himself the guy who is only too happy to make management earn its pay. He wants to force as many difficult decisions as possible.
The Braves, having lost Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy in quick succession, picked him up before his Indians jersey had hit the clubhouse floor. It wasn’t but three weeks later that manager Fredi Gonzalez had to make the hard choice to lift Harang seven innings into what was then a no-hitter (with his pitch count at 121). And it seems like Harang is going to be a party to more difficult maneuvers down the road, when Mike Minor and then Gavin Floyd are ready to join the rotation.
Signed as a Band-Aid, Harang has become a pillar of the staff. He initially was the temp worker, the guy most likely to be shuffled to the bullpen or out the door whenever the starting situation stabilized.
Although he wouldn’t allow such thoughts to play in his head. “I never really put a label on (his status with the Braves) because once you put that label on it, you can mentally mess yourself up. You have to keep that same mindset – that I’m going to be starting and go from there,” he said.
Could it actually happen that in the period of a month the Braves could go from a dangerous deficit in starting pitching to an almost embarrassing surplus?
“Noooooo. Don’t ever say that,” Gonzalez wailed, all but knocking on wood and crossing himself to counter a hex. “I don’t even worry about that because all that will take care of itself.”
Squeezing the last, best outings from a veteran pitcher is tricky business. But Harang seems a useful case study in how to make it work.
For one thing, he’s an easy fit. Harang is listed at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, but still he blends in with the clubhouse scene. He’s a lumbering, easygoing sort – “I got a long fuse. I don’t know what happens if the fuse gets burnt down low,” he said.
For another, he seems to strongly averse to being dumped on.
His phone wasn’t exactly overheating with calls this last offseason after he spent 2013 bouncing around like a Lotto ball – traded by two teams, released by two others. When the Indians finally cleared a little spring space for him, then let him go, that tapped into one of the most powerful of motivations:
“There’s a drive to want to go out there and be successful – maybe it’s to prove people wrong,” Harang said.
This wasn’t exactly a human batting tee the Braves signed. He’s a 113-game winner, was the Reds’ opening-day pitcher five times and was fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2007. It’s just that his career was heading down the dark alley of diminishing returns.
Currently there are only three questions about Harang’s performance: How? Why? What the ...?
Catcher Gerald Laird has a bouquet of explanations: “I just think he’s pounding the zone. He’s always been a really good pitcher, and now I think he has something to prove. Maybe he’s trying to earn a job for next year. He is one of those guys who has been good in the past, he knows what he’s doing. All his pitches are working, and he’s battling guys.”
After a few months with Seattle last season, he is happy back in the National League. He is responding well to the methods of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, which Harang describes as simultaneously simple and efficient.
Most of all, Harang credits perhaps the best month of his pitching life to a sense of stability even in the face of such uncertainty. Given the upheaval of his 2013 – which ended with him living out of hotel in New York – he quickly wrote off that season as an aberration.
“A very fluke-filled year,” he said, “with a lot of ups and downs based on designations and trades and the extra time off. Whenever I’d get to a team, I was playing catch-up to get back up to speed with everything.”
Thus it was only days after he signed with the Braves that he had lined up a rental house outside the city. His wife and three young children are scheduled to join him soon from their permanent base in San Diego. If you live like a fixture, perhaps you’ll pitch like one, too, went the reasoning.
One of the initial impressions his Braves teammates gathered of Harang was of him sitting in the dugout before a game taking apart his glove as if performing an autopsy on it. He didn’t like the color of the leather lacing, so he deconstructed the thing and sewed it back together with a more aesthetically pleasing look.
Glove repair and reconditioning was something of a cottage industry for Harang when he was younger. His father took out ads in various Little League fliers and drummed up all the business his son wanted. Wherever he has played, he has kept his repair tools in his locker. Chris Van Zant, the Braves equipment guy in charge of emergency glove work, now has an assistant.
Harang has put those skills in play regularly, most recently during last season’s stopover in Seattle. A catcher’s glove had ripped. Let me take care of that, the new pitcher offered.
“He looked at me like I was nuts. ‘I’m not letting a pitcher touch my glove,’” Harang said.
“I said, ‘Fine, but I stand by my work because if it breaks when I’m pitching, you know who to come blame.’”
Later that same game, the catcher was reunited with his favorite glove.
“And he was like, ‘Man, you do good work.’”
That’s Harang’s specialty now, making people overcome their surprise and arrive at that same realization.
Steve Hummer writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: steve(at)ajc.com.
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