If you had told me three months ago that I would come to write no fewer than four Rich Harden-specific pieces by the season's one-third point, I would have assumed one of two things: (a) that he had embarked upon an injury-plagued odyssey entailing conflicting diagnoses, rehab stints and the like, or (b) that he had been so utterly dominating that his work merited as many as four separate pieces. But this? Never. Or at least not right away. Pitchers are inherently inconsistent, but Harden is taking that maxim far too literally, and you could make a case that it's killing his supporting cast -- literally.
Before taking this morning's Rich Harden diatribe down the road that it needs to go, it's worth mentioning that this is, in fact, a fortuitous time for the Rangers in that they fared well during their six-game stretch against Chicago and major league-best Tampa Bay, going 4-2 and managing to cling to a half-game divisional lead. More uplifting, however is the Rangers' upcoming schedule through the All-Star break, which comprises 32 games -- including 12 interleague tilts -- against 10 teams with a composite third-order winning percentage of .401, equivalent to a 65-win pace over the span of a full season. A beautiful opportunity to build a significant cushion between first and second place.
Adherents of the "glass half empty" philosophy will contrarily argue that this opportunity cannot be wasted, and if it does go wasted, it's not a stretch to assume that Harden will have been a prime contributing factor. His velocity is back on the right track (recently averaging 91-92 mph while maxing out at 95-96 mph), but to boil it all down to the bluntest possible terms, his command still sucks, and it's snowballing out of control. Three quick points that I cannot help but throw down, all of which somehow pertain to yesterday afternoon's disappointing effort (5.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 2 HR, 111 pitches):
● Each of the local beats made reference to Rich Harden's high foul ball count yesterday, with several taking it a step further and implying -- if not outright stating -- that his high foul ball count this year reflects some degradation in his stuff. Not buying the connection. Why? Simple: Because his current foul-ball rate (20.9 percent) is essentially right in line with his recent career norms, and you'll notice that he had no issues amassing 13-16 percent swinging strike rates in those seasons, which obviously hasn't been the case this season (7.8 percent swinging strike rate). The notion that he's lost a little stuff may be right on the money, but the supporting evidence predicated on foul ball tallies isn't.
● Said Harden in the post-game aftermath: "I'm feeling good. I'm getting stronger, throwing more strikes, getting ahead of hitters. I'll turn this around."An odd sentiment, particularly the "getting ahead of hitters" portion: Harden fired first-pitch strikes only 48 percent of the time yesterday (ML average: 58 percent) and recorded two of the first three pitches for strikes only 53 percent of the time (ML average: 60 percent), statistics which would seem to run counter to what Harden is conveying. And while the whole "throwing more strikes" thing is good and all, it didn't exactly preclude yesterday's high walk-to-inning ratio, and didn't preclude big problems in other starts either.
● David Brown wrote at length about the virtues of ground ball-inducing tendencies last August, showing that pitchers can generally trim 20-25 points from their ERA for every 25-point increase in their ground-to-fly ball ratio. Sounds great, doesn't it? Sure. But assuming that the reverse also holds true, Harden is trending in a disturbing direction: his ground-to-fly ball ratio was a disturbing 2-to-10 yesterday, bringing his seasonal ratio to just 0.59 -- by far the worst mark of his major league career, as well as the worst mark in the majors right now. We knew that Harden was a fly ball-inclined pitcher coming into this season, but this is just ridiculous, and helping kill both him and his team.
Where does Texas venture from here? Nowhere, yet. The best-case scenario for Derek Holland likely entails another 2-3 weeks on the shelf, after which the Rangers may be forced to make a serious determination on his future (barring further starting pitching attrition), and unless you're one of the outlying few who condones giving a legitimate shot to Michael Kirkman or Guillermo Moscoso, the Rangers don't wield any other appealing options. They are, in effect, stuck with Harden much the same way that they are stuck with Michael Young at third base.
And while I still don't consider Harden to be a true-talent 5.50 FIP pitcher or anything else quite so grotesquely bad, it's probably about time that we acknowledge and reconcile ourselves with the reality that Rich Harden, plagued as he is by mechanical inconsistencies, is what he is right now. He might improve upon this brutal five-inning, 100-pitch precedent that he has set, but he's probably not going to. He's certainly not giving us any reason to believe that he's going to. Harden thought he positively identified the culprit (inconsistent arm slot), but even if that was it, he isn't succeeding in fixing it, and is now going back to the drawing board to watch more video and look for more flaws.
Nobody knows anything. Harden doesn't know anything. The Rangers don't appear to know anything. And when it comes to the pitching game, that's just about as scary as it gets.