Recently I made a comment during Rich Harden's last start (before yesterday) that if he has a negative it's the fact that opposition batters have such a hard time making solid contact with his stuff. That leads to his pitch count often getting up and early because as most folks know, strike out pitchers often wind up with higher pitch counts. For years the A's have preached to guys like Mulder and Hudson to try and induce contact early and let the quality defense behind you do their jobs. It's hard to do that when people can't seem to touch anything you throw up there. It's like Harden is sometimes playing a different game than anyone else out there.
For example, Rich Harden has a fascinating stat this season. Harden is arguably the most untouchable he has been in his career. And if you judge by the contact that players make when they swing at one of his pitches, that appears to be the case. Opposing batters are only making contact 66 percent of the time when they swing at a Harden pitch. That is a ridiculous number. For example, Johan Santana, who was widely considered the best pitcher in baseball for quite a few years when he was with the Twins had a contact percentage on swings of 69 and 67 percent. These were years when he was striking out 265 guys. Santana's percentage this year is 78 percent. For those of you wondering, Barry Zito's contact percentage is 86 percent, the highest it's been in his career.
Rich Harden gets all the attention because he has that fastball that can approach 98 mph when he wants to ramp it up. But I actually like watching a pitcher like Justin Duchscherer more. Don't get me wrong, Harden making hitters look goofy is a treat to watch too, but Duke's ability to induce guys to make poor contact while putting the ball in play is also a skill. Maybe not as sexy as the flamethrower, but I also love watching a guy where the opposition fans are saying to themselves, "He's only throwing 87 and his curveball just seems to float up there, how come we're not pounding this guy?"
If you look at Duke's stats , his contact percentage is 81 percent. The funny thing is that Duke has been right around 81 percent contact throughout his career, showing a remarkable consistency. Outside of his first year when the percentage was 85 percent contact on swings, Duke has been plus or minus two percentage points every other year. Harden, for comparison, has a difference of 10 percentage points. The good news being that he was at 76 percent contact his first season and has climbed downwards to 66. He's become progressively more difficult to make contact with (another comparison is Felix Hernandez who has a contact percentage of 80 percent).
As a result of all this, Duke is averaging about 3.68 pitches per plate appearance and Harden is averaging 4.10 pitches per plate appearance. Of course Harden is the dominant ace. The strikeout king. But I'd also like to see him go later in games. He only has two complete games in his career. Now there's no question to me who is the "better" pitcher and the guy that I would want out there if the A's needed to win one game. Harden has some of the nastiest stuff I've ever seen.
But for me, my personal preference is that I love watching a pitcher work the zone with pinpoint control and Duke is one of the best at that. He doesn't have that baffling stuff, but the guy knows how to move inside and outside on batters. He knows how to drop a remarkable curveball for a strike in a very predictable fastball count. He does the best to keep the batters off balance because he can't rely on pulling 96 mph out of his back pocket. On the other hand, hitting against a pitcher like this is remarkably frustrating. Jamie Moyer used to drive me bananas whenever he went against the A's because he was just that kind of pitcher.
So while many probably circle days when Harden is slated to pitch, I'm often circling the days when Duke is scheduled to pitch because I'm almost always guaranteed to see a guy work every inch of the zone. You'll rarely see Duke throw a fastball down the middle and get away with it. Harden, well, he can do it because his fastball has such velocity and movement that he can get away with it.
Do you care what kind of pitcher a guy is? Are you in love with the heat? Is the most dominant pitcher your thing knowing that that pitcher could possibly do something special every time he goes out there (like a no-no)?