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Was Rich Harden Good or Bad in 2011?

October 16, 2011

There was an interesting story on the frontpage of Athletics Nation yesterday about Rich Harden. It seems as though the A’s will offer him a $4M-$5M deal to come back in 2012 and with Harden the line has always been that he is great when he is healthy, however he seldom to never is healthy. Superficially Harden had some very sketchy looking numbers: a 4-4 record with a 5.12 ERA. Even for me a fan of FIP the numbers are less than exemplary at 4.69. These numbers help explain a very pedestrian 0.4 WAR over his 15 starts. But when you look at Harden’s numbers one thing stands out, his HR/FB% which in 2011 was an alarming 15.6% despite playing half his games in the spacious Coliseum.

It was this HR/FB% that set into motion a lot of Harden’s struggles. It accounts quite a bit for the high ERA and of course it very significantly plays into his high FIP. If you look at his xFIP, which normalizes people’s HR/FB%, Harden was had a decent 3.68. As noted in the Athletics Nation piece if you look at his SIERA (here is a good primer on SIERA which I don’t often use myself) it is even better at 3.47. One reason SIERA is so favorable to Harden is that SIERA really loves his high K rate (9.9 K/9) and the fact that FIP considers that HR/FB to be more Harden’s fault than SIERA which views it more as an unstable derivative of poor luck.

So which is it? Over the course of his career Harden has given up home runs to the tune of 1.0 HR/9 (in 2011 he was at a whopping 1.9), as a measure of HR/FB% he has a career mark decidedly lower than his 2011 total at 10.4%. By either measure balls jumped off of Harden’s bat far more frequently in 2011 than they had previously. If we use Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/X Tool, to look at Harden’s 2011 season we see some strange things. We know that Harden primarily threw fastball/change and Fangraphs supports this saying Harden went to his fastball 61.7% of the time and his change 36.5% of the time. This is incongruent with charts at Lefkowitz’s site which show Harden relying on the fastball 59.2% of the time and the change only 7.9% of the time. Looking at his Horizontal Movement vs. Vertical Movement chart (below), we see to clear clusters. For the sake of this argument let’s treat the blue as the fastballs Fangraphs speaks of and the yellow/green/red we will lop all together as “changeups” as this looks much more like the Fangraphs numbers which correspond better to what I recall seeing watching Harden this season (likewise if you use any of his other charts they all seem to fit this pattern of the fastballs and these three other pitches forming two distinct clusters).

If we look at these numbers we see that (and there are rounding errors in dealing with the numbers Lefkowitz provides) that basically Harden gave up HRs on 1.6% of his changeups compared to a 0.8% mark on his fastballs. It is clear that Harden was leaving hangers then so that argument that his changeups weren’t so sharp and resulted in a ton of home runs seems reasonable, also if we look at his horrid 2010 season with the Rangers that also held true that the changeups resulted far more often in home runs than did his fastballs, whereas when he was last truly effective by any metric in 2009 with the Cubs, despite playing in very hitter friendly Wrigley Field and having a very high 15.1% HR/FB% those mostly came on fastballs as opposed to the changeups. In 2008 in split time between Oakland and Chicago, he allowed home runs on fastball and changes at a relatively even rate. It seems therefore that it is possible that Harden’s struggles could be tied to his changeup becoming more hittable, particularly to home run hitters. Furthermore when Harden gave up home runs, he really gave up a good degree of no-doubters as HitTracker shows.

All in all when I read the article I was skeptical, I said hey Harden got penalized by poor luck, but when looking at the data it seems he has lost something with his changeup, it has indeed become more hittable and for Harden that means he is surrendering more home runs. With that it seems his FIP is an accurate gauge of him, that he is merely average and not as good as his xFIP or SIERA make him out to be. He may not be worth $4M-$5M but more like the $2.0M Fangraphs says his value was in 2011. It seems like the story needs to be changed on Harden, nowadays it seems that you can have a pretty average pitcher, that is if he can stay healthy.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ken Arneson permalink
    October 16, 2011 3:53 pm

    I’d disagree that he’s lost something on the changeup. I’ve been arguing on Twitter that he’s lost something on his fastball, which makes the speed separation between the two pitches too small. He’s thrown changeups as hard as 86mph, and fastballs as slow as 88mph. That makes the changeup, if he leaves it up in the zone, little more than a batting practice fastball. He can get away with an 85mph changeup in the middle of the zone if his fastball is 95mph. He can’t if it’s 90mph.

    This is why I want Harden in the bullpen. If he’s only throwing an inning or two at a time, he might get that fastball back up to 93-96 on a more consistent basis, and the changeup will be fine.

    • October 16, 2011 4:05 pm

      That’s interesting because it is true – shoot the pitch is even named for its type of deception – that a changeup depends so much on the fastball creating that contrast. Now I can’t speak as an MLB hitter but Harden has lost it seems 2-3 mph on his fastball as per Fangraphs, yet the change has lost speed too so the differential between the two pitches seem to be the a similar 8mph to a few years ago though it seems earlier in Oakland that difference was closer to 10mph which could account for it. Perhaps a delayed adjustment by hitters?

      • Ken Arneson permalink
        October 16, 2011 4:31 pm

        Here’s a case where the average doesn’t tell the whole story, because the distribution is so inconsistent. 88-96 is a wide range for fastball speed.

      • October 16, 2011 4:43 pm

        That is a really good point. He also has this season looked like a completely different pitcher from start to start. If anything he has been consistently inconsistent.

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  1. Rich Harden’s HR%: What Is To Blame? « The Todd Van Poppel Rookie Card Retirement Plan

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