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Harden to Try to Stay Healthy in the Athletics Pen

There is still one significant procedural hurdle between Rich Harden and his next contract – supposedly with the Athletics for a $1.5 million base salary with $1.5 million in incentives. Like all players, Harden still has to pass his physical, but unlike most, he may be on pins and needles as he waits for the results. Assuming he does pass the test, Harden is still a decent gamble at that price (especially with the option of moving to the pen already in place), but he’s more of a gamble every year.

He’s probably only failed to be worth $3 million in two years of his career, despite never once crossing the 200-inning threshold (or, since 2005, even the 150-inning threshold). As we have touched here in many different ways, value can be informed by a mix of excellence and durability, and though Harden had bushels of one, he lacked the other. By keeping his strikeout rate in the double digits and pitching around 140 innings per season, he seemed to have settled into a strange role – an excellent sixth starter that could not be relied upon for a full season. Just for fun, here’s his DL history per Corey Dawkin’s injury tool. It shows nine official trips to the DL (and six day-to-day stints, one of which lasted 38 days) in his seven-year career.

Last year’s mix of a below-average strikeout rate (7.34 K/9) and career-worst control (6.07 BB/9) won’t work in the rotation or the pen, especially since he’s always had flyball tendencies (39.7% career groundball percentage). As was his wont, he was injured and failed to crack triple-digit innings for the Rangers. He also lost two miles per hour on his fastball, the biggest one-season drop of his career. His changeup was negatively rated by linear weights for only the second time of his career.

Since he’s devolved into a two-pitch pitcher anyway, the move to the pen might really work for him. If he can’t get the fastball velocity up in the rotation, Jeremy Greenhouse has shown that the move to the pen adds about 0.7 MPH to the average starter’s fastball. That would go a good way towards recovering his zip, and with that zip he can be effective. In the pen, his salary would probably be closer to $1.5 million, meaning he’d only have to rack up 0.4 WAR to have surplus value – and 106 relievers managed that feat in 2010.

With the bar set so low, Harden should be worth his contract whether he toils in the pen or in the rotation. But there’s another virtual certainty for Harden – he’ll hit the DL at some point. Per Jeff Zimmerman’s excellent work on predicting DL stints for starters, Harden has a 51% chance of hitting the DL in 2011. To some, that may sound low, but the bottom end of the range is 30%, the mean is 41%, and Harden’s 51% would have come in tenth had he qualified for Zimmerman’s list. He’s also only 30, and it’s not like he has a ton of mileage on that arm – otherwise that DL percentage would be even higher.