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Harden’s Huge Whiff Rate

Over the weekend Matthew noted that the only starter who comes close to getting as many swinging strikes as called strikes is Rich Harden. He does it with just two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a changeup. Sliders and curves, generally, get the most swinging strikes so that makes Harden’s feat that much more amazing. Harden used to throw a splitter and a slider as well, but gave them up in hope of decreasing his injuries.

Harden four-seam fastball averages about 92 mph with over 10 inches of ‘rise’. The fastball has a 18.7% whiff rate (misses per swings). Among starters only Ted Lilly, Jonathan Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer have fastballs with a higher whiff rate.

His changeup is an even bigger reason for his huge number of swinging strikes. Hitters miss 48% of the time they swing at his change. As Harry Pavlidis highlighted that is the third most of any pitch in the game, and tops amongst changeups. The changeup has about 8mph separation from his fastball, with less tail and ‘rise’. Because he lacks any other secondary pitches he throws the changeup almost equally to lefties and righties, about 37% of the time. Harden starts about a third of of his at-bats with the changeup and has had better results when he pitches it before his fastball (1.3 runs per 100 above average) then when he throws it after (0.6 runs per 100 above average). This is the opposite of what we saw with Tim Lincecum. Hitters must be expecting the fastball on the first pitch of the at-bat and the changeup trips them up.

Harden’s results so far this year have been poor, but that has largely been driven by his high BABIP and HR/FB. His K and BB rates are inline with his career numbers, so going forward we should expect him to be very good.

According to this DL tool it looks like Harden has spent 26 days on the DL this year and 38 in 2008 way down over from 100 days in both of 2007 and 2006, so it looks like getting rid of the splitter and slider may have helped him stay healthy. That left him with two pitches, both of which rack up tons and tons of swinging strikes. It as a testament to how those pitches are that he can succeed as a starter with just the two pitches.