In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a big Rich Harden fan. To be fair, I don’t get to see many strikeouts by watching my local nine, so he fulfills a need in that respect. But to contextualize, he’s the Will Venable to my Eno Sarris, and today I want to examine why nobody has tried to make Mr. Harden a reliever yet.
There is certainly a mold from which a late-inning reliever can be cut from. Though not required, having a good fastball is a trait more shared than shorn by elite late-inning guys. Certainly, there are fireballers who don’t qualify as elite relievers, such as Jim Hoey, but this is more of an “all squares are rectangles, but not vice versa” situation. Another key is an out pitch. We’re talking Mariano Rivera’s cutter, Joe Nathan’s 12-6er, or Trevor Hoffman’s changeup. For an elite reliever, this is more of a must than a blazing heater; even an average big leaguer can do something with a high-90s fastball if that’s all he sees. Another common characteristic that many late-inning hurlers share? They floundered as starters, and thrived as relievers.
So where am I going with this? Well, with free agency looming for Harden a third time, I think it’s fair to ask if this is the time a club asks him to become a full-time reliever, and failing that, whether it’d be a good move? He certainly has, at least at various points in his career, flashed characteristics – good and bad – which suggest he could be better suited to a relief role.
One possible reason to move Harden to the pen has been the precipitous decline of his fastball velocity-wise. Since peaking at a 94.4 miles-per-hour average in 2005, Harden consistently tumbled to his all-time low of 90.5 in 2010 before slightly rebounding in his Oakland homecoming. Similarly, Harden’s whiff rate, which lived near nine and peaked as high as 11 in 2008, bottomed out before rebounding last season to 9.9, bringing with it an xFIP of 3.68 versus a raw ERA of 5.12. To me this still signals that Harden has the skills necessary to be an elite pitcher in the major leagues, but that a lighter innings load may help him regain the smoke.
Another part of Harden’s rates rebound certainly may be his return to the O.co Coliseum, as the Canadian righty has evolved into a fly ball machine since initially leaving, and there are few places better to induce bird chasers than Oakland. This also leads me to believe that Harden will likely stay in Oakland, but if he were to leave, he’d be best suited to another home run-suppressing environment like Petco Park or Target Field, especially if the Padres continue to employ an outfield that has both Cameron Maybin and Venable.
Then there’s the issue of stamina. This is a double-edged issue, because even though Harden has shown difficulty going deep into games over his career (5.2 innings per start average over his career), there’s also a great unknown whether or not he could throw on consecutive days. Harden’s endurance issue is also backed by his .604/.685/.814 OPS against split in descending opponent plate appearances. For reference, these jumps are much more drastic than the 2011 MLB averages of .700/.729/.774, and suggest to me that there’s at least a decent chance Harden could be an elite setup man by virtue of taking just one run at a lineup.
Also, we’ve seen with starters-turned-relievers such as Joba Chamberlain, Tyler Clippard, and Phil Hughes, that there’s a great propensity to add velocity. Glen Perkins, for instance, was branded as a bulldog with an underwhelming fastball that wasn’t afraid to work inside, even though it burned him at times. Now a full-time reliever, Perkins added two full ticks to his heater (up to 94.0), while his slider and changeup both added some steam as well. In fact, Perkins’ slider became an elite pitch for him, as it ranks among the 20 or so best in the major leagues in value.
Now these results may not be typical, but if a pitcher more or less left for dead like Perkins can show incredible leaps and bounds, why can’t Harden? Harden’s actually had two very good out pitches over the course of his career, as both his slider and changeup have shown a propensity to rank very well in our ‘runs above average’ rankings.
With a flooded relief market this offseason, Harden could be a very good low-cost gamble for a team looking to build a bullpen on the cheap. Our 2012 free agent leaderboard shows 32 available relievers (2o IP minimum), ranging from the Papelbons of the world to the Grabows (sorry, no Tomkos), so with ample money likely to be tossed around at the free agent relief corps, why not give Harden a shot?
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