Rich Harden: Power Reliever?

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 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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In addition to Rotographs, Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

23 Responses to “Rich Harden: Power Reliever?”

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  1. Good post! I have wanted to see Harden as a 2-inning reliever who can pitch in high-leverage situations. Like high-leverage reliever used to do years ago.

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  2. Al says:

    You suck at writing almost as much as Seidman does.

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  3. Dan M. says:

    I want the Jays to go this route with Harden and I think AA is the kind of GM who would try it. It’s possible though that he will sign with a team who still see’s him as a starter. He’s top 5 that I’ve witnessed in person as far as raw stuff.

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    • I would tend to agree in terms of raw stuff, and I think AA is definitely on the short list of GMs which I think would be plucky – if that’s the right word – enough to try rock the boat with this notion.

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      • Piratesbreak.500 says:

        But wouldn’t Harden get rocked in the Jay’s stadium? How much of a flyballer, in terms of distance on the flyballs/Oakland’s foul territory outs are we talking?

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    • He might. It’s really hard to say what’ll happen with him, and the fluidity of reliever performance doesn’t help.

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  4. baycomuter says:

    I believe the A’s have been through this discussion, and concluded that he needs a regular throwing schedule to keep his arm from falling off.

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  5. wiersNRAF says:

    +1 on the No Tomkos. As an A’s fan, there were rumblings for this exact thing years ago. I never heard from an actual team source about any reasons why Harden wasn’t moved to the pen though. I agree, he could potentially be dominant in 1 or 2 IP stretches.

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    • Well I know when the Twins tried to move Kevin Slowey to the pen, he was unable to get loose. I haven’t seen any actual research on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a “thing” for some guys.

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  6. kushernova says:

    Nice article.

    I think you are onto something with this idea – he does seem suited for a relief role as the “K Guy” – the reliever who comes in and can strike anyone out. I watched Harden regularly when he pitched for the Cubs, at that time I’d say his changeup was his best ‘out’ pitch based on observation. Nasty, nasty pitch.

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  7. Hurtlocker says:

    Nice article, I think Chad Billingsly from the Dodgers would also fit nicely into the long relief role.

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  8. white cleats says:

    a’s fans have been calling for this for a while. his breakdowns every season are both predictable and maddening, and the days of counting on him and justin duchscherer to take the ball 30+ starts each a season makes me want to drink heavily.

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  9. PL says:

    As an A’s fan, I watched all of Harden’s starts and he really was terrible the first time through the lineup pretty much every single game. He isn’t a reliever, or if he is going to be one, he needs to warm up for like 3 innings beforehand.

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    • This year’s splits actually agree with you. His OPS splits are .874/.667/.983.

      However, he only tossed 82.2 innings, which I’d suggest are more statistical noise than anything. Still, it’s not like he’d throw more than that as a reliever, so it’s something possibly worth noting.

      Nevertheless, I used his whole career just because this year represents fewer than 10% of his career innings. Hope this makes sense…?

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  10. Nick says:

    Even though he’s fallen off a bit, I still love Rich Harden after his absolutely dominant months with the Cubs in 2008. Simply electric stuff back then.

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  11. The Nicker says:

    This is a great idea; I always wish the Tigers had tried this with Bonderman after he came back from his injury.

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