That was awful. Just revoltingly awful. There's no way to delicately sugarcoat it. And to put the catalyst of "it" into context (that being Rich Harden deciding to hop aboard the "two steps forward, one huge step back" plan), both the older-school -- the Bill James-devised Game Score -- and newer-school -- Tom Tango's Win Probability Added -- start-evaluating metrics concur that this was one of the three worst efforts in a major league career spanning 135 starts over eight seasons. Oh Rich Harden, what have you become?
What's most perplexing about this latest nadir in Harden's tumultous 2010 season is that he managed to combine elements of his very best pitching with those of his very worst pitching; by the first, I mean that he ran his fastball all the way up to a maximum of 95.2 mph and comfortably averaged above the all-important 91 mph inflection point while amassing 15 swinging strikes in 86 total pitches. That, at the very least, signals to me ... well, I'm not sure what it signals, honestly. He does still appear to wield legitimate swing-and-miss stuff, making him a tremendous asset if/when he consistently commands it ... but that leads directly into the "worst" part.
The severity of Harden's first-inning control problems -- which culminated in a stunning five walks in that frame alone -- implies more mechanical problems, with his sharper second inning suggesting an in-game adjustment, but as for what ensued in that catastrophic third inning, I just don't know. Just as soon as it appeared that Harden was reasonably back on track after a two-start respite from high-walk games, he goes and pulls this. I wish I had some answers, but at this point I really don't, and I'm beginning to think that the Rangers don't either. If he's going to perform the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde routine like this for the remainder of the season, Texas isn't looking at a front-line starting pitcher; rather, it's looking at a talented enigma that cannot be trusted down the stretch.
While the distinct possibility does exist that Harden isn't hurt, I still fear that if he's not hurt now, he will be hurt sooner rather than later; as I wrote back on April 28th (and intrepid statistican Dave Allen wrote before that), pitches thrown in higher-leverage situations place more stress on a pitcher's arm, primarily because pitchers throw their fastballs at a higher rate of velocity in such situations. This effect manifested yet again last night, as Harden's velocity ticked upwards into the 93-94 mph range near the end of his outing as he attempted to close out the bottom of the third inning with runners on base. He may not be broken now in the conventional sense, but how much longer can this really go on?
Harden's last two solid starts and some mild attrition on the starting pitching front -- including Matt Harrison's disabled-list visit and, now, the growing danger that Scott Feldman's continued poor performance will force something to be done about him as well -- have bought him a little extra time to get things straightened out, but we thought he was already getting things straigtened out, and then he went out and walked six batters in 2.2 innings.
The Rangers are fortunate in that they're surrounded by comparatively weak divisional foes, but at some point you have to shore up your weakest links if you fancy yourself as a legitimate post-season contender, and if that means a preemptive disabled-list assignment intended to get Harden consistently right, then that's what will have to happen. It may not happen right away, given that Brandon McCarthy is incapacitated by his latest shoulder issue, Harrison is still unavailable and Tommy Hunter is two minor league starts away from becoming a serious option, but this situation is becoming maddeningly untenable.