Tuesday, July 15, 2008 | By Alex Eisenberg
In response to the C.C. Sabathia trade to the Brewers, the Cubs made a deal of their own last week in trading for Rich Harden, the talented but oft-injured starter for the Oakland Athletics. This article will break down the key figure in that deal: Rich Harden. To read about the other players involved in this deal please see:
Durability and Mechanics
When healthy, Harden is one of the best pitchers in baseball. The key two words are: When Healthy.
I've always felt this Carlos Gomez article did a great job in explaining the potential health concerns with Harden. To recap what Gomez said and show you the animation he used to base his observations on:
1. Arm Action - Harden cocks his wrist upward as his arm moves through its arm circle and as a result he is letting the ball pick up the elbow. Ideally, you want to be able to draw a line straight from the elbow to the wrist to the ball.
In addition, Harden straightens his arm all the way back instead of maintaining a slight bend, which is preferred.
2. Tempo - for a power pitcher, Harden's tempo is pretty slow. He has a tall-and-fall delivery, meaning he is coming to a full stop as the knee reaches its upper most point before falling forward. Stopping mid-way through your wind-up is not a good way to build up momentum and therefore velocity.
However, Harden does throw for a high velocity, so how does he do it?
An extremely fast arm, great separation between his torso and hips, and a very aggressive step-over move, which is what helps kick-start his hip rotation.
Harden's arm is unbelievably quick from a cocked position into release and because of this, Harden is creating and then transferring energy very late into his throwing process. Ideally, you want the energy to be transferred a little more evenly throughout your wind-up.
Harden also possesses some poor front side mechanics. You can see how the glove ends up by his side at release when it ideally should be out in front of his chest. As a result, Harden puts himself at risk for flying open, which hurts his control and can potentially shred the shoulder.
With that said, Harden has undergone a couple changes to his wind-up, specifically his arm action, since the date Gomez's article was published. Check out these two clips below, one from Harden in his first start for the Cubs last Saturday and the other from a Harden start in April 2007:
1. Harden's arm is further along in its arm circle in 2008 than in 2007.
2. Harden's arm is traveling a longer distance in 2008 than in 2007. The path his arm takes is more circular and "sweepier" than in 2007.
3. Harden adjusts for a longer arm action with a bigger step-over move, giving the arm enough time to get into the position it needs to.
4. Harden's forearm is rising above the elbow earlier, meaning he is getting into a ready-to-throw position earlier than in 2007.
You'll notice I delay a few of the frames in the middle of the animation. This delayed sequence illustrates the point in which his hips start rotating forward, which is just before foot plant. Take note of each version's arm positioning and then watch the path each arm takes to reach its ready-to-throw position.
5. The vertical position: it appears Harden's arm in 2008 reaches further back -- meaning the arm will travel a longer distance in the same amount of time than in 2007.
What does all this mean? Are these safer mechanics? Is Harden destined for good health the rest of the year?
Honestly, I don't know. Given the choice between one arm action or the other, I prefer what he's doing in 2008 because the process from the rotation into a ready-to-throw position and then the rotation into release is simpler and the arm action overall looks smoother. And yes, while he still cocks his wrist upward to where the ball is picking up the elbow, it is less prominent than it was before.
But that does not mean Harden is out of the woods. I'm not privy to his MRIs or medical records. How strong are those ligaments and muscles in his elbow and shoulder? We don't know. We do know that pitching itself is not a natural act, so when you are throwing for velocities that reach the upper 90's, the risk is naturally going to be higher to succumb to injuries.
So let's assume Harden holds up. What are the Cubs getting?
Harden has electric swing and miss stuff. Watching highlights of Harden, I couldn't really make out what he was throwing. Was it a change-up, a slider, a spliter? So I looked it up and it seemed I wasn't the only one having problems. Apparently he has scrapped the splitter and only goes sparingly with the slider if you go by this quote by A's catcher Rob Bowen:
"He doesn't throw a split at all anymore," Bowen insisted. "For one thing, a split is harder on your arm than a change-up, so not throwing one is probably going to help keep Rich healthy. And he doesn't need to throw a split. His change-up acts like three different pitches, and one of them has real similar action to a split. It tumbles just like a split."
It makes sense because the splitter is generally tougher on a pitcher's arm and it's true: Harden's change-up has an action that resembles his splitter. One thing all his pitches have in common: he throws them hard.
I've talked about my affection for pitchers that throw two or more pitches on the same plane. Harden's fastball and change-up combo does just that:
This is pretty sick stuff. You have a 96 mph fastball and an 86 mph change-up coming in on the same plane. In addition, the change-up is late breaking with the bottom dropping out of the pitch just before reaching home plate.
Fastball Grade - 70
Change-Up Grade - 60/65
By the Numbers
As you can imagine, Harden gets a lot of swings and misses. He's sporting the best K% of his career at 30.4%, which is excellent. His control really isn't that great as he walks over 10% of the batters he faces, but his command is what stands out given his excellent K:BB ratio.
In terms of batted ball data, Harden has never been a groundball pitcher and this year is no different. The difference is that Harden has actually been more of a fly ball pitcher this year (GB% down from the 42 - 46 range and is now 31%). The fly ball tendencies favor pitchers when pitching in Oakland, but Harden will likely be less fortunate in Chicago, so expect his homerun rate to increase slightly.
Sabathia vs. Harden -- who do you prefer?
Harden has the better raw stuff and is less hittable. Sabathia has the better control and better command. One x-factor doesn't even involve pitching: Sabathia has shown he can hit a little. I think that has to be considered if you're looking at who the bigger benefit will be for his team.
However, I do think it will ultimately come down to health. Sabathia is the much better bet to stay healthy, but if Harden can stay healthy, the two pretty much cancel each other out. However, given the health risks of Harden, I would prefer Sabathia be on my side.
For part two, we'll break down the rest of the players involved in this trade and answer the question: who got the better deal -- the A's or Cubs?