A Log for the Hot Stove: The Enigma That Is Rich Harden

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A Log for the Hot Stove: The Enigma That Is Rich Harden
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A good portion of this piece will call back to point two of my Off-Season Plan , please refer back if you missed it!

With the Twins limping along behind the Tigers and the White Sox hot on their heels, with the Sept. 1 deadline for playoff rosters bearing down on them, news came that the Twins had claimed Rich Harden on waivers from the Cubs and were going to make a serious attempt to acquire him in hopes that he would bolster the rotation for a title run. Blogs fired up, the Twitter stream was all abuzz, and we waited with bated breath to hear if he of the glass arm would be heading to the Twin Cities.

In fact, Harden may never have been claimed by the Twins, many reports said an NL team had claimed him, meaning that his name never would have reached Bill Smith. True or not, the point was moot in the end, the Twins got fantastic production from Brian Duensing, a good turn or two from Jeff Manship, and better-than-expected work from Carl Pavano. Harden might have given the Twins a different look, but he wouldn't have been the difference between a playoff run and a long offseason; they did just fine without him.

I was fairly ambivalent about the trade when it was proposed, feeling that Harden wasn't the key missing piece and that the Twins could be tricked into giving up too much for him if they believed he was the difference between a deep run and October golf.

Now that Harden is a free agent, worries about exaggerated value can be allayed to a large extent; all that's at stake for the Twins now is money. This is not to say that throwing a bag o' cash at Harden is a risk-free proposition, but the Twins were likely to try to resign Harden had they acquired him earlier, meaning that those costs are pretty much fixed and the variable is who they would have had to give up to get Harden before season's end.

The book on Harden has been pretty well written despite the fact that he's just 28 years old. When he's healthy, he's electric. He's got three good pitches: A fastball that averages 92 MPH, a changeup around 84, and a splitter that mimics his change. He threw a slider during his days in Oakland, but the Cubs had him stop throwing it, as well as his wicked split, in an effort to reduce the strain on his elbow.

That's the rub with Harden you know, he's made of glass. He's never thrown 200 innings, heck, he's thrown 150 or more just once. Forget 20-game winner, whoever signs Harden will be hoping he makes 20 starts per season for them. The Cubs managed to hold onto him for 1.5 years, getting 38 starts out of him during that time. He went on the DL just once this season with a back strain, though a mechanical flaw necessitated an early end to his season, though with the Cubs well out of the race by September, it's hard to gauge how serious that injury was. 

He's never had surgery, though he's had injuries to his back, oblique, UCL, and shoulder, the last of which kept him out of the WBC, but did not cause him to miss any time. So he's had a grab bag of injuries, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, it means a harder task for the training staff in terms of keeping everything from top to bottom in playing shape, but on the other, it means there isn't one nagging injury that's kept him out for all this time. That's always good news, but especially for pitchers. That Harden hasn't spent weeks and months on the DL with consistent elbow or shoulder trouble gives me hope that he can remain healthy over a longer period of time.

Additionally, any injury for Harden is going to be magnified because of his history. His 51 starts over the last two seasons is more than any Twins starter except for Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker, so it isn't as though he's been missing tons of time recently, it's more a case of the time he has missed being exaggerated due to his years of nine and four starts in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

This may seem like damning with faint praise ("he isn't THAT injury prone"), but if so, it's only because the upside is so obvious.

This video , taken against the Phillies in 2008, shows what Harden is capable of. Need I remind you, this is the same Phillies team that would go on to win the World Series, and Harden makes them look bad. Worse than bad. The Twins, as I have said before, need a guy who can miss bats and get hitters out on his own—Harden can do just that.

Even after the Cubs took away his out pitch, a decision the Twins can make for themselves, Harden struck out nearly 11 hitters per nine, though his walk rate did reach 4.28 per nine. Nevertheless, as he came to rely on the strikeout less and less, Harden lowered his LD percent, raised his GB percent, and raised his IFFB percent (pop-up rate, more or less). His Stuff   rating of 30, provided by Baseball Prospectus, ranks him as the 10th best starter in the majors last season, three times better than league average. His QERA , the pound-for-pound best predictive pitching stat available right now, was 3.57, 15th best among pitchers who threw at least 130 innings. 

But his more traditional metrics seem to tell a different story: 9-9, 4.09 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, and a Support Neutral Winning Percentage of .488 (what percentage of Harden's starts were winnable assuming normalized offensive production, bullpen support, and team defense) are all fine numbers but nothing to crow about. So what causes the breakdown from his great peripherals to very mediocre actual performance?

Two major factors lead him down the primrose path. First, his HR/FB rate was astronomically high, 15-percent, which lead to a HR/9 of 1.47. If that doesn't strike you as really high, think of it this way—for every six flyballs Harden gave up, one left the park and they were leaving once or twice a game. Some of that is park related, he gave up 1/3 more HR at Wrigley than he did on the road and was generally hit harder there, and some of it is luck. According to Hit Tracker Online, Harden gave up only three No Doubt home runs, meaning that he wasn't getting blasted so much as getting really unlucky. In any case, outside of the Friendly Confines his rates should normalize and that major Achilles' heel will be a significantly smaller issue. Second, his BABIP was 20 points over his career and league average (both about .280). BABIP is one of the quintessential luck based metrics, so expecting that to regress to around .280 isn't much of a leap of faith at all.

Two more factors will determine whether or not Harden becomes a Twin and how he would do if acquired.

Upon Harden's return to the AL, he'll be instantly under assault. As of 2007 , pitchers moving from the NL to the AL saw their ERA rise by about .75 runs, which would push Harden near 5.00 if he repeats last year's performance (as indicated above, I'm confident he'll be better). There will be a battle waged for Harden's stats as his skill-based metrics will rise due to overall league difficulty, but his luck-based metrics will regress back to their mean. Its enough to keep Harden in the NL, especially if he wants a short-term deal to rebuild some value.

That value piece is what may ultimately keep Harden from opening the season at Target Field. Speculation has Harden's value ranging from seven million per season for a one-year deal (while this was originally said in the context of an AL team, I have to believe Harden will remain in the NL if the idea is to raise his value for next off-season) to $10 Million per year. I'm reticent to recommend a deal on the upper range of that because, as much as I believe he'll be healthy going forward, there is a greater than normal chance that he won't be.

If the Twins are deciding between three years $30 million and four years $33 million, I'd take the second deal. At 28, Harden has a number of good years ahead of him before his stuff will begin to decline, so adding the extra year or two doesn't push the Twins into the "why in the world do we even have this guy on the roster" zone. He'd be 32 when a four year deal expired, hardly headed for Social Security checks. That four-year $33 million deal looks like a pretty fair one to me. I'd be willing to go a little higher, but the lack of good starting pitching in this market isn't a good reason to overpay to the extreme.

So Harden makes sense for someone, but why should it be the Twins.

Simply put, they can afford the risk. In a market where you can make the argument that Randy Wolf is the second best arm available, acquiring Harden and his inherent risks isn't that much different than bringing in one of the midlevel vets, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. The difference is that there's a really good chance that Harden actually reaches his expected value, whereas Daniel Cabrera and Rich Hill are pretty much locks NOT to reach their potential.

If they bring in Harden and he does well, their rotation shapes up thusly: Harden, Baker, Slowey, Blackburn, Perkins/Bonser/Liriano/Duensing. That's a good rotation, Slowey could be the best No. 3 in baseball in that case, and a playoff set of Harden/Baker/Slowey with Blackburn keeping anyone from short rest is formidable to be sure. If it doesn't work out, the Twins are left with: Baker, Slowey, Blackburn, Harden, (fifth pitcher du jour) and if he's injured, two of those arms come into play.

If the Twins don't sign Harden, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them re-sign late season acquisition Carl Pavano, who I like fine, but who doesn't have the ceiling he used to. If Pavano is brought in, he's probably the Twins' third or fourth starter, depending on Nick Blackburn's performance, leaving the Twins with a rotation of Baker, Slowey, Pavano, Blackburn, Spare Arm No. 5 at best. Pavano is no iron man himself, so it's likely he'd find himself on the trainers table and miss a start or two, which, of course, is no different than if Harden or even Roy Halladay were there instead. While having to throw two of the Twins' chattel arms isn't ideal, those players are better than those most teams have in that position. A start or two from Glen Perkins never killed anyone, and the Twins are likely to have a better option available to them in Liriano or Swarzak. 

Carl Pavano makes the Twins better by keeping Glen Perkins off the field, and that's no small improvement, but he is another guy who is going to put the ball in play a lot, get a small handful of strikeouts and generally be a decent but not great pitcher. Rich Harden is a strikeout arm who can improve the team being a really good pitcher AND keeping a bad pitcher off the field. Pavano isn't signing for no money, and given the talent discrepancy between the two, the Twins would be wise to spend the extra money and get themselves a pitcher who gives hitters a very different look from the one they saw the day before and the one they're likely to see the day after.

Harden is not a mortal lock for a Cy Young award, he's not a sure ace, he's not even a lock to make 20 starts. However, he is an incredibly talented pitcher when he's healthy and he's the type of arm the Twins sorely needed last year. You don't get many chances to add guys in free agency who were striking out more than a batter an inning who don't have some glaring question mark, and Harden's (his health) can be mitigated. Getting him away from the hitter's paradise that is Wrigley Field circa June and July will help keep his HR rates low and will allow him to be more aggressive, which should help him keep his walks in check.

Harden's talent is too good to pass up when the Twins sorely need someone with his skill set and have pieces available to mitigate his downside. He may not be the one piece standing between them and a parade down Hennepin Ave., but there is no doubt in my mind that he improves the team more than any other pitcher realistically available to the Twins.

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