So, Cubs fans, are you (we) officially freaked out yet? A little bit! It's May 12 already, and not only are the Cubs playing decidedly mediocre baseball, they're sporadically injured, and they're relying on Ryan Theriot and Kosuke Fukudome for what feels like a lion's share of their offense. This is not a blueprint for long-term success.
One of the more interesting subplots of this frustrating first month-and-change has been Rich Harden's sudden decline in quality. Last year, while healthy, Harden was basically unhittable. Now? He's hittable. Very much so. So what's wrong? Is it an injury? Fatigue? Is he just maybe regressing a little bit?
Turns out, as Bob Romashko at the Mouthpiece Sports Cubs Blog writes, it might just be luck. This would be good news!
For Harden, the story is mostly home runs - he’s giving up 1.7 homers per nine innings right now, an entire home run more than his career average of .7. He’s also walking about one more every nine innings than in past years. These are offset a little by his strikeout rate being slightly up, but if you put more guys on base and then give up more longballs, you’re in trouble.
Whether there’s a particular reason for Harden’s walks and homers is unclear. A lot has been made of his shoulder and his velocity, but Fangraphs says his average fastball is only .3 mph slower than last season, at 91.7. And if you look at what batters are doing against him (the contact percentages on his Fangraphs page), those numbers are actually encouraging.
Here's why. Batters are making more contact with pitches out of the zone against Harden than last year, which basically boils down to luck. Harden hasn't lost much velocity. It's just that some of his pitches -- those tricky cutters and half-sliders and two-seamers that tail in or away from hitters at the last second -- are getting hit disproportionately this year. If that's luck, and it sounds like luck, it should correct itself soon.
So, optimism. Harden might not be getting worse. He might just be getting unlucky.
Eamonn Brennan is a Chicago-based writer, editor and blogger. You can also read him at Yahoo! Sports, Mouthpiece Sports Blog, and Inside The Hall, or at his personal site, eamonnbrennan.com. Follow him on Twitter.