Goal is fewer pitches, more innings

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's easy to think of an oft-injured pitcher as one who isn't physically fit. Don't make that mistake with Texas Rangers starter Rich Harden. One glance and it becomes obvious that he takes care of his body.

"He just loves to pump weights," manager Ron Washington said.

But Harden knows there's more to staying in shape than lifting weights. And in an effort to put his injury issues in the past -- he's had seven stints on the disabled list in the past five seasons and has pitched more than 148 innings just once in his career (2004) -- Harden implemented an offseason program that targets pitching-specific muscles and incorporates plenty of cardio work.

"I feel great," Harden said. "This is definitely the best I've felt in a long time. Last year, I got a chance to do my program for half the offseason and felt good even doing that. This is the first winter in a while that I haven't been rehabbing. I've been able to build strength and get the body in shape. Now I have to maintain it through the season."

The Rangers' goal is to have Harden in the rotation for the entire season. That's 33 or 34 starts, if possible. He made 26 last season, his most since 2004.

"We have to take care of him," Washington said.

Washington said there will be times that Harden gets an extra day of rest. He won't be on a pitch count, but Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux will make sure they aren't pushing him too much early in the season.

"If he's thrown 88 pitches but they are stressful pitches, we'll get him out of there," said Washington, who knows what Harden is capable of after watching him when both were in Oakland. "He's the type of pitcher that misses bats. But the biggest thing is keeping him on the field. If we keep him healthy, he's going to deliver without a doubt."

Reaching the club's goal of 180 innings pitched and becoming a reliable starter who goes deep into games isn't just as simple as staying healthy. Harden's other focus is becoming more efficient.

Of the pitchers that threw at least 140 innings in 2009, Harden was tied for the fourth-most pitches per inning at 17.7. That's not too surprising, considering that Harden is a strikeout pitcher. He had nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings last season, tops in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings. But it's a number he'd like to see go down.

"I want to go deeper in every game, pitch more innings, take pressure off the bullpen and help my team win," Harden said. "Throwing fewer pitches can help me do that. It also puts less stress on my shoulder."

Becoming more efficient isn't about throwing three or four fewer pitches per inning for Harden. His strikeout rate won't allow that.

"But one or two pitches can make a big difference," Harden said. "That's another inning right there if I can drop the pitch count."

The key: getting ahead of more hitters and putting them away without wasting pitches.

Harden, who had 171 strikeouts for the Chicago Cubs in 2009, had only 17 more strikeouts on an 0-2 or 1-2 count than he did on 2-2 or 3-2 counts. In other words, he had numerous opportunities to finish off hitters once he got ahead and didn't do it as often as he wanted.

"That's something I can work on," Harden said. "You try to either get the strikeout when you're ahead like that or put the pitch where they might make contact, but hit it at somebody and you get the out quickly."

Harden said he would gladly take a reduction in his strikeout total if it meant throwing fewer pitches and going deeper in games.

But he's confident he can do both -- put up the strikeout totals and do it more efficiently -- in 2010.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.