Rich Harden is an elite pitcher. He rarely loses. He can throw in the high 90s. He has a changeup that's complicated to pick up. He electrifies fans and teammates with his stuff and his strut. The man is fun to watch. For the most part, all he does is win.
When he's out there.
With Harden, that's always the issue.
When he's out there, he can be an ace on a lot of staffs. When he's out there, his team knows it's a good bet the result will be a victory.
Of course, he's not always out there. Harden has spent more time on the disabled list since 2005 than off it. He has made 26 starts in three years. Keeping him on the mound is a bigger concern than what he'll do once he's out there.
The A's seemed to have figured that out.
Will the Cubs be so lucky?
Tuesday's six-player trade that sent Harden to Chicago wouldn't have happened if the 26-year-old weren't such a health risk. The A's could have obtained much more in return if he hadn't gone on the DL six times in four years. Then again, if the A's had intended all along to move Harden, keeping him active for 11 consecutive starts (after he spent five weeks on the DL) enabled them to get the deal done.
"You have to figure out what works for yourself," Harden said. "For me, it's everything from my warm-up to my treatment to my workouts and everything in between. You have to figure out what you need to do on a daily basis to feel good and stay out there."
The A's were extremely cautious with Harden this year. He limited his on-the-mound work between starts, instead throwing mostly off flat ground. He all but disposed of his split-fingered fastball, a pitch that has ruined many an arm. He no longer reaches with his bare hand for comebackers, something that twice shelved him in the past.
He wasn't rushed back when he had the shoulder strain that landed him on the DL from April 3 to May 10. He wasn't sent to the bullpen for rehab, which the A's have done in the past. And he was limited to fewer than 100 pitches in his final six Oakland starts.
Harden credited his recent sturdiness in part to Ron Romanick, who's in his first season as the A's bullpen coach after serving as the minor-league roving pitching instructor for nine years. They've had a close relationship since Harden signed out Central Arizona Junior College in 2001, but this is the first year Romanick helped oversee Harden's activities between starts.
"He really knows his stuff, and he really knows the way I throw and my mechanics," Harden said. "He came up with my throwing program, which limits the throws between starts and limits the stress on my arm. He made me realize you don't need to throw a ton of pitches to be ready."
Romanick served as a security blanket to Harden, a key confidante, but he wasn't part of the trade, unfortunately for Harden. Now it's up to the Cubs' coaching staff and trainers to keep up with the program.
Romanick, who pitched for the Angels for three seasons in the mid-'80s and worked as a pitching coordinator in Seattle's system for seven years, was brought to the A's by minor-league execs Keith Lieppman and Karl Kuehl. He began with a program when he arrived, and it has evolved into the basic game plan for all pitchers throughout the organization.
For Harden, the A's tweaked it to his benefit. Much of his between-starts work involves throwing on flat ground in the outfield, with red cones measuring the distances of his throws.
"He's a power pitcher," Romanick said. "He's a special guy, a rare guy who doesn't need to grind it between starts to find his control or delivery. It's more of a rest-and-recovery thing with minimal mound work. He's learned a lot about himself, about what he has to do before he pitches and after he pitches and taking care of his arm when he does his [between-starts] throwing.
"We don't throw those feel-good bullpens where a guy is grinded to a pulp. We have a purpose. We have different kinds of side work, depending on a guy's needs. As the season wears on, it changes. With someone like Rich, he's trying to do something a little differently. You adjust with him. Instead of grinding it, you back it off. It's a way to let the arm bounce back. He's learned how to peak on days he pitches."
Harden won his first five decisions this year before falling to the White Sox on Sunday, two days before the trade. When he pitched eight innings (with a career-high 11 strikeouts) in a combined shutout of the Phillies on June 26, the A's had won nine of his first 11 starts.
But his last two starts made it easier for the A's to move him, maybe even accelerated trade talks. He lasted five innings in each, and the A's lost both. His velocity was down, and his command was off, especially against the White Sox. It was a far cry from his June 8 start against the Angels in which he struck out the side on nine pitches, the first A's pitcher to do so since Lefty Grove in 1928.
Harden is 20-8 since 2005, and the A's were 58-31 in his career starting assignments. He averages 10.75 strikeouts per nine innings (tops in the majors among starters), and the Cubs would be elated if he gave them what he gave the A's in recent weeks.
"That's a lot of fun to go out there every five days and pitch," Harden said. "It's not fun to be on the DL. It's not fun not playing, not being able to help the team out. I want to have a good second half. I want to continue this."
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