Harden Fallen on Hard Times

Rich Harden’s major league career has come to be defined by short bursts of dominant pitching, followed by lengthy stints on the DL. The slightly-built right-hander has well over one punch out per inning during his major league tenure and his career xFIP sits at 3.89. But sadly, shoulder, oblique, back and elbow ailments have kept him from shutting down hitters for a sustained period of time.

This past off-season, the Chicago Cubs showed little interest in retaining Harden’s services after a 2009 season in which he posted rates of 10.91 K/9, 4.28 BB/9 and a 3.70 xFIP in 141 innings pitched. His campaign was, you guessed it, injury-plagued — Harden was sidelined with a back strain in May and was shut down in September with shoulder fatigue. Rather than risking a salary arbitration offer to the Type B free agent (and gaining a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds of the draft if he declined and signed elsewhere), the Cubs declined to offer arbitration, feeling Harden would accept and get a raise from his $7 million salary in ’09.

Harden inked a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers, with an $11 million mutual option for the 2011 season. Harden’s pact includes performance bonuses: he gets half a million each for reaching 155, 165, 175, 185 and 195 frames. So far, Harden has tossed 54 innings for Texas. While he’s usually either unavailable or awesome, the 28-year-old has just plain been awful thus far.

With 8.17 K/9 (his lowest mark since 2004) and a career-worst 6.17 BB/9, Harden owns a 5.77 xFIP. That puts him in the same sordid company as Brian Burres and Oliver Perez. Harden has been as valuable as a readily available Triple-A talent, coming in at exactly replacement level.

The decline in Harden’s plate discipline stats is shocking. While one would expect him to post a somewhat higher contact rate and a lower whiff rate by virtue of moving from the Senior Circuit back to the DH league, Harden hasn’t been anywhere near as dominant. Over the 2008-2009 seasons, Harden had a sub-70 percent contact rate and a 15-plus percent swinging strike rate. With Texas, he’s allowing contact 83 percent and is garnering swinging strikes just 7.4 percent. For comparison, the average MLB contact rate is 80-81 percent and the average swinging strike rate is between 8-9 percent.

Harden has seen an across-the-board dip in whiff rate on his pitches. According to Trip Somers’ Pitch F/X Tool, opponents whiffed at Harden’s four-seam fastball 10.2 percent of the time in 2009 (six percent MLB average). This year, the four-seamer is getting whiffs 6.5 percent. Harden’s heat is also down in velocity (92.2 MPH in ’09, 91.1 MPH this season), though the radar gun readings are creeping up:

His slider made hitters come up empty 22.4 percent in ’09 (13.6 percent MLB average). In 2010, his the pitch (down from 84 MPH to 82 MPH) has an 8.1 percent whiff rate. Harden’s changeup induced a whiff 22.7 percent last season, crushing the 12.6 percent major league average. As a Ranger, Harden’s getting whiffs on 8.2 percent of his changeups (his velocity with the pitch is basically unchanged).

In addition to not missing near as much lumber, Harden’s control has suffered: his first pitch strike percentage is 52.8, compared to 55-56 percent in 2008-2009 and the 58 percent MLB average. According to Baseball-Reference, Harden has allowed the hitter to get ahead in the count in 39.8 percent of plate appearances, while the 2010 AL average is 36.2 percent.

Given his checkered injury history, it seems fair to wonder if Harden is healthy. Perhaps he will starting rolling soon, but he has experienced precipitous declines in his ability to fool batters and hit his spots. Right now, Harden isn’t near the same high-octane pitcher who laid waste to hitters as a member of the A’s and Cubs.

Injury info from the Baseball Injury Tool.

A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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13 years ago

Seems like there’s a good chance that those IP bonuses are the only things keeping him on the mound right now.