SARASOTA, Fla. - Ryne Sandberg was minding his own business in the visiting dugout at Ed Smith Stadium when he felt someone sidle up to him and start talking. It was Aaron Harang, who had just returned from the mound after a scoreless inning against the Orioles.
As Sandberg listened, Harang launched into a detailed self-evaluation of his work: the efficacy of his pitches, the swings he saw from the batters, his success in holding the Orioles' two runners close to the base. By the end of the 3-minute conversation, Harang had transformed himself from another new face in a camp full of them to a player whom Sandberg could understand.
"I kind of got to know him a little bit," the manager said.
Harang is an interesting guy. Only nine active pitchers have amassed more than his 2,149 2/3 innings. All of them have pitched in the postseason. Harang has not.
In 2010, his eighth and final season in Cincinnati, the Reds left him off their playoff roster after he started 20 games for them.
After solid seasons with the Padres and Dodgers in 2011 and 2012, respectively, the righthander found himself as the odd man out on a Los Angeles roster that had been rebuilt with an offseason spending spree. The Dodgers traded him to the Rockies, but the Rockies immediately designated him for assignment eventually shipping him to Seattle. He hadn't pitched in the American League since 2003, with Oakland.
Harang struggled to adapt to the AL, posting a 5.76 ERA in 22 starts for the Mariners, who released him at the end of August 2013. He finished the year with four solid starts for the Mets, earning himself a tryout the following spring with the Braves, who kept him around and were rewarded with 204 1/3 innings and a 3.57 ERA.
Now, Harang is in Philadelphia, his seventh organization in 4 calendar years.
Harang is slightly amused at his late-career odyssey, saying, "I'm getting a good collection of travel bags." But Sandberg realized during the aforementioned in-game conversation, the guy loves the art of pitching, regardless of where the stadium, and it's his careful analysis of that art that has kept providing him with new places to call home.
"I just got smarter," Harang said. "I've been able to see hitters - you can tell sometimes by their demeanor, or their previous swing when they are over the plate. You can kind of get a sense of what they are trying to do. Or their reaction to a pitch. That can kind of make you turn around and think of something different when they are trying to do something based on the situation. When there are runners on, they are going to be a little more aggressive, so you don't have to be as finely executed with your pitch as much as being committed to making [a pitch] in the area [of where you want it]."
When you look at Harang's year-by-year pitch usage, you can see a pitcher adapting to survive. He was never a guy who lit up radar guns, but talk to hitters who faced him during his prime and they'll tell you his fastball was the kind that looked a lot harder than its velocity showed.
He relied a lot on that fastball in his years in Cincinnati, where he logged 200-plus innings in three straight seasons, including 2006, when he started 35 games and completed six of them.
Back then, he relied on his fastball as much as any pitcher in the majors. In 2008, he threw it on 71.3 percent of his pitches. By the end of last year, that number had dropped to 53.6 percent. He has added a cutter, and makes more use of his curveball in addition to a slider that has historically been his No. 2 pitch.
"2013 was probably my most difficult year," he said. "I spent 10 years in the National League, and, here, go back to the American League, and it's different baseball. If you really think about it, it's a different style of baseball.
"You don't play to situations when you play in the American League. So going back there I had to re-learn everything, kind of get out of the normal routine and knowledge of all the hitters that I've faced over the years in the National League and then I had my struggles. Had some really good games, but I was playing catchup from missing 3 weeks at the beginning of the year because of being designated, trades, all that stuff. I look at it, that's kind of a wash year. And then I went to New York and pitched like I usually do. It just kind of showed myself that the National League is more built for me, for the way I pitch."
So when the Phillies offered him a $5 million contract, he jumped at it. He has been around long enough to know the business of baseball. He knows the expectations for his new team are low, and that a good showing from him could result in a ticket out of town at the trade deadline. For now, though, he is a No. 2 starter, the man who will need to play a huge part in picking up whatever innings Cliff Lee loses due to the recurrence of pain in his left elbow.
"My focus is on pitching for the Phillies and trying to help us win," he said. "That's s my goal. Every fifth day when they say, 'Hey, here's the ball, try and help us win,' that's what I'm going to do. There's only so much I can control. I have to do what I can control and leave the rest up to the club."
With his 14th season in the majors on the horizon, it's hard to argue with that approach.