It's very apropos, in a repugnant sort of way -- Jake Peavy and Rich Harden, two ace-caliber starting pitchers of similarly high-strikeout pedigrees, preparing to square off at a time when both are pitching just about as badly as they have ever pitched as major leaguers. Only one of those hurlers is pertinent in the context of this space, however, and that's Harden, whose average per-start pitching line through his first four starts in a Rangers uniform most closely resembles this: 4.1 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 5 K. Does that suffice for you? Because it doesn't for me.
As an unabashed proponent of the Harden signing (primarily because of the projected strikeout-per-inning boost), perhaps I'm being hypocritical at some level in believing that Texas is going to have to make a move sooner rather than later. Perhaps he deserves to win this round of the track record vs. current performance debate and the resultant extended leash that gives him no fewer than 8-10 starts to establish his usual brand of pitching efficacy. Conversely, perhaps the focus should be trained solely on what we know right now, and what I thinkwe know right now is that Harden is simply not right.
The velocity problems are, of course, glaringly obvious; his average fastball velocity (90.2 mph), or AFV, is two miles per hour off from where it was last year (92.2 mph), and is in fact slowly eroding, with his 88.9 mph AFV in his April 23rd start against Detroit being his lowest single-start AFV since 2007. This cannot be attributed to so much variance in home/road Pitch f/x velocity readings, either: if we assume that Harden throws at least one max-effort, max-velocity fastball in a given start, then note that his maximum fastball velocities in his April 7th (home) and April 18th (road) starts were virtually identical. Pitch f/x isn't infallible, but measurement error isn't to blame here.
Now, set aside the control/walk problems momentarily and concentrate on the one good thing he is doing, which is striking lots of batters out. Harden's current swinging-strike rate (6.7 percent) is virtually half that of his career baseline (13.0 percent), which is disturbing in the sense that swinging-strike rate is the single most important leading indicator of future strikeout rate; however, one must consider that a pitcher so consistently errant as Harden through the early going is not going to induce as many swings in general, owing to the fact that batters are more inclined to lay off pitches if they know the opposing pitcher is having difficulty hitting the strike zone.
But while Harden's overall swinging-strike rate is destined to climb simply by way of him (eventually?) throwing more strikes, what happens if we isolate the sample to only those pitches that opposing batters do swing at, as a sort of rough proxy for pitch quality and pure ability to overpower and/or fool hitters with a given pitch? Adding this qualifier to the mix, Harden induced the following swinging-strike rates in 2009: Fastball (21.7 percent), slider (45.7 percent), and change-up (48.6 percent). This year? Fastball (7.0 percent), slider (21.4 percent), and change-up (31.6 percent). There's nothing definitive here, but these are, at the very least, very alarming trends.
Insofar as Harden's control problems are concerned (and yes, walking nine-plus batters per nine innings is a massive problem), sticking with him indefinitely in the hopes of him working out the kinks and rediscovering the strike zone of his own accord may not be a workable solution -- his pitching mechanics have been cited as a significant problem since the outset of spring training (Jason Parks has specifically noted Harden's difficulty in finding a consistent release point), and my growing suspicion is that there's an underlying injury for which he has unsuccessfully attempted to compensate by modifying his delivery.
Assuming this to be the case, Harden has placed himself at an inherently higher risk of exacerbating the situation with a full-blown arm injury -- by virtue of permitting far more baserunners and pitching in higher-leverage situations of his own doing, Harden is almost certainly exerting more effort and thus exposing his fragile right arm to greater danger. Coupling a heavier per-pitch workload with out-of-line mechanics strikes me as a veritable recipe for disaster, with disaster in this context being "getting only 40-50 low-quality innings out of Harden in exchange for $7.5 million."
The Rangers can't afford for Harden to continue pitching like this, but they also can't afford to lose him to injury for an extended period of time; thus, the prudent thing to do -- in my mind, at least -- would be to give him 1-2 more starts to show some indication of progress, and then if that doesn't manifest, find some way to stow him on the 15-day disabled list and try to get him right once and for all ... because if he's still a disaster six starts into the season, and there's no improvement in sight, and neither the Rangers nor Harden know exactly what's wrong, how much do you think extending the leash even further is really going to accomplish?