I rarely mention my fantasy team, but I’ll make an exception here because it says a lot about today‘s interview subject. I play in a Scoresheet league with a bunch of baseball-media types — many of us stat nerds — and we’re allowed to protect up to 10 players. I didn’t keep Matt Harrison.
I offered Harrison in a trade before formally cutting him, but no one was interested. Like myself, the other 23 so-called experts were guilty of greatly underestimating the Texas Rangers left-hander.
Harrison is making us — everyone but MLB Network Radio’s Casey Stern, who smartly grabbed him at the tail end of the 12th round — pay for our disrespect. In 24 real-life starts, the 26-year-old has gone 14-7 and his 3.19 ERA and 3.2 WAR rank in the top 10 among American League pitchers. His strikeout rate is predictably sub par, at 5.37 per nine innings, but given his other numbers, does that really matter? Last season, with a lackluster 6.11 K-rate, he went 14-9 with a 3.39 ERA and a 4.2 WAR.
Harrison discussed his repertoire and approach — including the lack of strikeouts — on a recent visit to Fenway Park. Mike Maddux, the Rangers pitching coach, also offered his thoughts on the underrated lefty in a separate interview.
Harrison on his most-important pitch: “I’m a big sinkerball pitcher. I like to keep the ball down in the zone and make them put it on the ground most of the time. I started throwing my sinker more and more a couple of years ago, and it’s gotten better and more consistent in the strike zone. That’s allowed me to be more aggressive with it. I try to get strike one with it and try to move it in and off the plate.
“I think the [improvement] came mostly from just using it more. I knew what the break was, it was just a matter of where I wanted to start the pitch. Now I know where to start it for a strike, and where to start it for it a swing-and-miss, off-the-plate type of pitch.
“The break is more down than side-to-side, but there is some arm-side break. I kind of try to throw it middle-away and let it run down-and-away from the plate. Then, with lefties, I try to make it run a little more side-to-side and let it run in on their hands.
“The slower I throw it, the more it moves, so more times than not, with guys on base, I’ll take a little off just to make sure I hit my spot. That way, I can try to get a double-play ball. To do that, I’ll kind of put the ball back in my hand a little bit farther. I obviously don’t want to change up my arm speed, because if I look like I’m slowing up a little bit, it may give them a clue about what I’m doing.
“The grip is a regular two-seam grip. There are no pressure points, or any different type of grip, it’s just a regular two-seam.”
On his second-most-important pitch: “My changeup. It kind of works off my fastball. Once I start locating the fastball, I try to keep them off balance with the changeup. It’s probably my second-best pitch, and my most consistent in-the-strike-zone off-speed pitch. It’s a four-seam circle, and the arm speed is what sells it.
“What I throw sometimes depends on the lineup, or the ballpark, but it’s the pitch I use more than any other off-speed pitch, so I kind of let the hitters dictate. If they start pulling my fastball, I’ll start using my changeup.”
On the rest of his repertoire: “I have kind of a cutter-slider combination and a curveball. The cutter, I just let go. I throw it as hard as I can and get it in on a right-hander’s hands. The slider I use more to lefties, and as more of a swing-and-miss pitch. I use the cutter to both sides, and my slider usually just to the glove side. My curveball is something I mostly use to throw a strike early in the count. If I get guys seeing it for a strike, I’ll try to get a swing-and-miss with it later in the game.”
On his low strikeout rate: “It doesn’t bother me at all. My job is to get the hitter out, and it doesn’t matter to me how I get him out: fly ball, ground ball, the occasional strikeout. I know there are times you need a strikeout, like with a guy on third base with less than two out. But for the most part, I try to get the hitters out with one pitch. It obviously takes at least three to get a strikeout, and the more you can limit your pitches, the deeper into the game you can go. I like quick innings.
“For me, the meaning [of pitching to contact] is being aggressive and commanding the strike zone. Once you can start doing that, you’ll get the hitters in swing mode. If you’re pitching to contact, you’re allowing your defense to be on their toes a lot more, and any time I can do that, I feel like I’m doing my job.
“Pitching is all about location and keeping hitters off-balance. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw. I mean, it’s nice to have 98 to 100, but if you can’t locate that and are walking guys, it’s no good to you. You can also keep a hitter off-balance with mostly fastballs, if you use them differently. You can throw four-seamers, sinkers and cutters and move the ball around. You can do that and get weak contact. You don‘t need to strike guys out to get outs.”
Mike Maddux on Harrison: “Matt has good stuff. He’s got velocity, he’s got movement and he’s got command of the baseball. He can throw four pitches for strikes, he changes speeds very well and he has a pretty good sinking fastball. He gets a lot of ground balls and induces a lot of double plays.
“He doesn’t try to strike people out; he tries to get them out as quick as he can. He’s got some stuff to where he can strike you out if the situation calls for it — he has some pitches that are of the swing-and-miss type — but he definitely pitches to contact and tries to get it done quick.
“[Pitching to contact] is not trying to trick everybody and expand the zone. Pitching to contact is throwing the ball over the plate; it’s challenging the strike zone. If you’re not willing to give up hits, you’re not willing to throw strikes. If you’re not willing to get hit, you walk everybody.
“Matt has matured a lot, not only as a pitcher, but as a person. There’s been a lot of inner growth. There’s also experience. That’s the one thing nobody has when they first come up. He has more experience, so he trusts himself more. He knows what he can and can’t do with the baseball.
“What is his second-best pitch? I can give you an abstract answer and say that it depends on the hitter, but he’s got a very good changeup and a very good curveball.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to attack different hitters different ways. That said, he might attack somebody’s weakness more than he would other guys’. If your strength is better than their strength, that’s what you attack with. If your strengths are equal, where’s the weakness? He might attack some other guys in a different manner than he would attack somebody that has a specific strength that is better than his own.
“He does a lot of homework. The information prior to a game is more of a sharing of information. It’s a two-way street.
“When he’s not pitching well, it’s usually command-oriented. Command is the staple of anybody’s game. If you can command the ball and change speeds, you can succeed. If you don’t command well, you better change speeds a little bit more.
“If Matt keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be a better pitcher tomorrow than he was yesterday. He takes the game a day at a time, and that’s the way it should be. He‘s a better pitcher than some people probably think he is.”