2010 Free agent profile: Rich Harden


All right Red Sox fans, start your engines. There was a lot of excitement this week when Rich Harden came up as a free agent the Red Sox may be looking at. The 6-1 righty broke into the Majors at age 21 with Oakland, featuring a then mid-90s fastball and some of the nastiest pitches even to come out of Texas. He was known for his slider and split-finger fastball at that time, which were just phenomenal. Plagued by injuries his whole career, Harden has topped 30 games started just once in 7 seasons. His 26 starts in 2009 was actually his second-most ever. Given that background, how much should we offer the hard-throwing righty?

A good signing?

Harden is a power arm, and he can locate his fastball to both sides of the plate. He’s managed a tremendous strikeout rate over his career (9.35 K/9), and been AWESOME in that department in the National League (10.91 K/9 last year). That being said, Harden’s 4.09 ERA and 4.35 FIP were not especially good this year, and he’s also become something of a flyball pitcher, which is generally not a great fit for Fenway.

Harden excelled in the second half of 2009, going 4-3 with a 2.55 ERA and strong 1.12 WHIP over 12 starts. Consider that his xFIP (FIP corrected for HR luck) was much more palatable at 3.70, and even after the transition to the tough AL East, I think we would have ourselves a nice pitcher.

A different pitcher

Everyone knows about the injury caveat. But here’s another thing to consider. Harden is NOT the same guy he was when he entered the league. Look at his pitch distribution over the years (adapted from FanGraphs):

Season Team FB SL CB CH SF
2003 Athletics 67.7% (92.6) 10.5% (84.8) 4.7% (81.5) 7.4% (83.8) 9.6% (85.3)
2004 Athletics 66.7% (94.3) 17.4% (85.7) 0.2% (82.8) 5.9% (85.3) 9.8% (85.6)
2005 Athletics 62.2% (94.4) 10.7% (85.8) 0.1% (80.0) 9.0% (85.2) 18.0% (86.1)
2006 Athletics 63.3% (93.5) 9.3% (85.2) 5.7% (84.8) 21.7% (85.0)
2007 Athletics 62.4% (93.8) 2.6% (83.9) 16.0% (85.8) 19.0% (85.4)
2008 Athletics/Cubs 64.0% (92.0) 2.9% (84.9) 28.8% (84.8) 4.2% (84.6)
2009 Cubs 60.8% (92.1) 39.2% (84.0)

He has all but stopped throwing his slider AND his splitter, and is now almost exclusively a fastball-changeup guy. The velocity seems to have stabilized at around 92 mph, but if that slips, he will struggle without other offerings to fall back on. Due to his arm problems, Harden has had to reinvent himself and managed to maintain a pretty good level of success. Give him credit for that; however, keep in mind that it’s tough for a starter to succeed consistently as a two-pitch pitcher.

The good thing about the new Harden is that he has developed a REALLY good changeup, according to pitch-type run values:

Season Team FB SL CH SF
2006 Athletics 0.2 -1.8 0.7 7.6
2007 Athletics 3.9 -1.4 2 1.8
2008 Athletics/Cubs 16.8 0.9 16.4 -0.6
2009 Cubs -3.7 9.5

He struck out over 30% of lefties this season with that thing. It’s THAT good.

Analysis

Here’s what I gather from looking over this data. Harden may have figured out how to keep himself healthier; unfortunately, it may involve him not throwing his slider or splitter anymore; It is possible that Boston’s medical staff could help him with that issue. He knows how to succeed even with just two (very good) pitches, and he comes with a little postseason experience, which we know the Sox like.

Harden looks like he could slot in as a number 3 or number 4 in our rotation, but it’s hard to say how many innings he’ll be good for. He’s coming off his age 27 season and a $7M option, so he will be looking for as long-term a deal as he can find. Assuming he can make about 25-30 starts a year, I’d be willing to pay around $10-12M per season. I’d prefer not going over 3 years with Harden, but perhaps something like 4/40 could get it done? Is there another team that would risk more on him?

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4 Responses to 2010 Free agent profile: Rich Harden

  1. Pat says:

    I was pretty high on Harden before, but I found this post very sobering. I hadn’t realized he had turned into a two pitch, pitcher.

    Still, he has had good results these past two season going just FB CH. I am sure the front office is going to take a hard look a Harden. I imagine everything will hinge upon how the medical staff’s opinion of Harden’s condition.

    I too would like to see 3 years be extent of any contract with Rich.

  2. redsoxtalk says:

    It appears that Ben Sheets is the less risky free agent, but I expect the interest in him to be stronger as well; here’s where Theo will evaluate the market, and sign whoever he thinks gives him the best value. So the situation looks something like this:

    Risk: Mulder > Harden > Sheets
    Expected performance: Sheets > Harden > Mulder
    Cost: Sheets > Harden >> Mulder
    Upside: Sheets = Harden > Mulder

  3. redsoxtalk says:

    I have done a 3-year weighted, regressed projection for Harden, and he now comes out with this line in the NL next year.

    9-7, 3.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 143.1 IP, 118 H, 19 HR, 63 BB, 164 K in 26 GS

    Make an adjustment to the AL, and he might be similar in performance to an A.J. Burnett, possibly?

  4. Pingback: Links: Analysis of Bard, Harden « Red Sox Talk

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