Harang, Sanchez fly under the radar
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Much to the shock of approximately 98 percent of America, the National League batting champ's team met the National League strikeout champ's team Sunday.
Whoever they are.
These two guys are so far off the national radar grid, you could probably fund your kids' college education by walking into a bar in, say, South Dakota and laying a few sheckles that your pals couldn't answer our favorite trivia questions of this spring:
Who won the NL batting title last season? And even if you get that one, we know you can't answer the stumper: Which pitcher led the league in strikeouts?
In a more technologically advanced world, we would post a link to the "Final Jeopardy" theme song right here and give you 30 seconds to think this over. But since we're stuck with the world we've got, here come your answers:
AP Photo/David Kohl
Aaron Harang has gone 47-43 with a 4.28 ERA over his five-year career.
Your incumbent batting champ is … 29-year-old Pirates utility-wiz-turned-third-baseman-turned-(this spring)-second-baseman Freddy Sanchez.
And your defending holder of the strikeout crown would be … 28-year-old Reds right-hander Aaron Harang.
These are actual facts. Feel free to look them up.
It's an amazing phenomenon when you think about it. We worship batting champs -- as long as they're named Pujols or Gwynn or Ichiro. And there's nothing we love watching more than a strikeout pitcher -- as long as they're named Santana or Schilling or Clemens.
But every once in a while, a guy -- or in this case, two guys -- will make the mistake of being from Pittsburgh or Cincinnati and filling those niches. And we wipe them right out of our national consciousness.
You'd think those towns had seceded from the United States or something, just because they've combined to play in zero postseason series in the past 11 seasons.
"You know," Pirates GM Dave Littlefield said, "that's just how the sports world works. When you play on a team that hasn't won, it's harder to get recognition."
Well, we get that. But that doesn't mean it isn't an injustice. And there is no better example of that injustice than what happened to Harang last season, two years after the A's traded him to Cincinnati for Jose Guillen. Maybe if he'd only led the league in strikeouts (with 216, in 234 1/3 IP), we could understand. But he also tied for the lead in wins, with 16. And history tells us it's almost impossible to pull off that daily double without generating some monstrous buzz.
Unless your name is Aaron Harang, that is.
Since the invention of the Cy Young Award in 1956, every pitcher who led the National League in both of those categories won the Cy Young (11 of them in a row). But boy, did Harang ever screw up that trend. How close did he come to winning last year's Cy Young? Well, let's put it this way: He missed by one vote …
Of even getting a vote. Any kind of vote. Second place. Third place. Melrose Place. You name the place.
Led NL In W's/ K's...
(Last 50 years)Aaron Harang, CIN 2006 Randy Johnson, ARZ 2002* John Smoltz, ATL 1996* Dwight Gooden, NYM 1985* Steve Carlton, PHI 1982* Steve Carlton, PHI 1980* Tom Seaver, NYM 1975* Steve Carlton, PHI 1972* Sandy Koufax, LAD 1966* Sandy Koufax, LAD 1965* Sandy Koufax, LAD 1963* Don Drysdale, LAD 1962* *
Won Cy Young Award Yes, friends. In an election in which eight pitchers got a vote, he got zero.
"I still can't believe he didn't get one Cy Young vote," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "That's just unbelievable to me."
But that's only the beginning of Harang's dazzling journey toward invisibility. He also managed to avoid winning the Pitcher of the Year award -- on his own team.
(Bronson Arroyo won that election.) And when the new Reds media guide came out this spring, a pitcher was on the cover. But that pitcher was not Aaron Harang (naturally). It was Arroyo.
"He's as far under the radar as any player I've ever played with," Arroyo said. "In fact, I'll tell you the truth: When I came here, they said, 'You'll be the No. 2, behind Aaron Harang.' And I said, 'Who?'"
Then again, "Who" could almost be Harang's unofficial last name.
For instance, here's the complete list of NL pitchers who have led the league in both wins and whiffs in the past 50 years: Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, Dwight Gooden, Steve Carlton (three times), Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax (three times), Don Drysdale and … Aaron Harang. Who?
Even Harang said that when he first saw those names, "It was kind of a shocker. And it's still a shocker to me. I never would have thought I'd be on a list like that. I never really considered myself a strikeout pitcher." Well, he'd better get used to it. He's a 6-foot-7 human mountain range with a live fastball that right-handed hitters can't seem to pick up. He had a better strikeout ratio last year (8.3 per 9 IP) than John Smoltz or Roger Clemens. And against left-handed hitters, who get devoured by his man-eating slider, his whiff rate was more than 10 per 9 IP.
"It's just his style of pitching," Arroyo said. "He's a guy who could punch out eight or 10 dudes in a game, and you're like, 'Hmmm, that was a nice outing.' … But Dontrelle Willis punches out 10, and you're like, 'Holy [cow],' because there's so much stuff going on and the way he looks and he's pumping his first and everything. Aaron just does his thing and walks off the mound."
That, however, is Aaron Harang. Laid-back. Quiet. And, well … "I don't mean this in a bad way," first baseman Scott Hatteberg said with a laugh, "but he's just kind of boring."
"I am," Harang confessed. "I'm very boring. It's sufficient for me, just going out and golfing when I'm not pitching, or playing video games. I could sit in my room all day, and it wouldn't even faze me. …
"I guess I have fun," he said, chuckling. "I just don't have much of it."
Well, we need to give him credit for one thing (besides turning into a legit No. 1 starter, that is): Unlike much of the rest of this continent (and several players in his own clubhouse), he knew that last year's NL batting titlist was named Freddy Sanchez.
"I don't know him personally," Harang said. "But shoot, he might be like me … boring."
AP Photo/Al Behrman
Sanchez became the 11th Buc to win a batting crown and the first since Bill Madlock in 1983.
As it turns out, though, Sanchez has an effervescent personality that manager Jim Tracy has compared to the Niagara Falls of effervescence, Sean Casey. So this guy's low profile can only be pinned on one overwhelming factor: Pittsburgh.
Outside Pittsburgh, Sanchez is a regular John Doe. But in Pirates country, he's a total cult hero. Pittsburgh Magazine named him one of Pittsburgh's 25 Most Beautiful People. Broadcaster Lanny Frattare nicknamed him "Freddy the Great." And when he came to bat in the All-Star Game last July -- in Pittsburgh -- it was such a huge moment we can't prove that ovation isn't still going on.
"It's weird," Sanchez said, "because you go to Pittsburgh, and you're kind of in a whole different world. Then you go back home [to Arizona], and no one knows who you are."
Sanchez's offseason neighbor in Chandler, Ariz., happens to be the league's other best-kept offensive secret, fellow Pirate Jason Bay. And they pretty much spend the winter proving that most Americans aren't aware that Pittsburgh still has a baseball team.
"It's funny," Bay said, "because anyone that does recognize us is always from Pittsburgh. I'll hear, 'Excuse me. Are you Jason Bay?' I'm like, 'Yeah. How ya doing?' And the next line is always: 'Oh, I'm from Pittsburgh. Big fan.' It's become a standing joke that anybody that does notice us has some tie to Pittsburgh. It's amazing."
But here's something even more amazing -- that Hollywood hasn't picked up on "The Freddy Sanchez Story," because it's quite a tale.
Born with a right foot smaller than his left foot, doctors weren't sure he would even walk normally, let alone morph into a big league batting champ. Went to an NAIA college (Oklahoma City University), where he became only an 11th-round draft pick.
Hurt his ankle in 2003, in the middle of his breakout season in Triple-A (.341 for Pawtucket). Traded to the Pirates in the Jeff Suppan deal that July, but barely played for the next season and a half because of those ankle troubles. Spent 2005 as a utility man. Went to spring training 2006 not even sure he'd make the team, with Jose Bautista ahead of him at second base and Joe Randa ahead of him at third.
And then, of course, won the batting title.
You think even Freddy Sanchez saw that coming?
Fewest career ABs entering batting-title season
(last 40 years)0 Ichiro Suzuki, SEA 2001 196 Alex Rodriguez, SEA 1996 291 Don Mattingly, NYY 1984 338 Wade Boggs, BOS 1983 494 Tony Gwynn, SDG 1984 522 Freddy Sanchez, PIT 2006 "Not at all," Sanchez said. "It was just last year in spring training that I was fighting for a utility job. I didn't even play much in April. I had a couple of pinch-hit at-bats, played maybe a couple of days as a defensive replacement, things like that -- but I was just fighting for a utility job. Then [Randa got hurt], and I was just going to play until Joe was healthy. And the next thing I knew, one thing led to another."
More specifically, one hit led to another. So a fellow who got only 48 at-bats in April wound up with 200 hits, 53 doubles, 85 RBIs, a .344 batting average … and a place on quite the exalted list of Pirates batting champs: Honus Wagner … Roberto Clemente … Paul Waner …
"When they put that list in the paper," Sanchez said, "I was kind of in awe."
But who could blame him? As good a hitter as people always thought he'd be, Sanchez was more than merely the most unlikely batting champ in Pirates history. He was one of the most unlikely batting champs in anybody's history.
In the past four decades, only five players won a batting title in a season they entered with fewer big league at-bats than Sanchez had before 2006 (522). Those five, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, were Ichiro Suzuki (2001), Alex Rodriguez (1996), Don Mattingly (1984), Tony Gwynn (1984) and Wade Boggs (1983). It's safe to say none of those guys spent that spring worrying about getting sent to Indianapolis.
So if it's any consolation to those of you who weren't aware this man won that batting title, you should know that the guy who won it hasn't quite digested it himself.
In fact, Sanchez said, he's a little bummed out that baseball doesn't give a trophy to its batting champs. Without one, "maybe no one will believe me, that I won one. I might tell them, 'Hey, give me something -- just so I can believe it.'" Even if they gave this guy a trophy the size of Mount Washington, though, he probably could still walk up to your front door right now -- and we bet you wouldn't know him from the mailman. Just like his partner in spectacular anonymity, Aaron Harang.