Where Josh Harrison Goes from Here

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you’re a position player and your team asks you to pitch, it’s pretty likely that they don’t see you as a critical piece for the future. Even though position players usually just walk to the mound and keep it simple when called upon, the risk of injury prevents clubs from letting truly valuable players fall on the sword which is why the Pirates let Josh Harrison toss one-third of an inning in 2013.

Legend has it that it was the first time he had pitched since Little League (although it doesn’t appear that anyone called his high school’s official historian to verify that) and he faced one batter and induced a fly out against the Rockies Corey Dickerson. Harrison was the utility guy the Pirates turned to in order to avoid burning through an arm in a blowout in 2013, but his 2014 went in a very different direction.

Harrison’s breakout over the last year is so compelling because it appears to be the kind of thing that the organization didn’t see coming either. It’s certainly believable that a 26 year old getting his first shot to play regularly had a standout season, especially after posting some pretty solid minor league numbers. Yet it is awfully surprising that Harrison was the “can you pitch?” guy in August of 2013 and a 5-win, irreplaceable player the following year. Two different ways to look at the same ten month window in the Steel City.

Harrison had put together some good minor league numbers but in his MLB career prior to 2014, he looked like a below average regular or a useful bench player. No one was arguing for Harrison to be out of baseball, but he fit the bill of someone the Pirates could ask to pitch without getting into any trouble for risking a prized asset.

Year PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2011-2013 575 2.60% 12.30% 0.117 0.275 0.250 0.282 0.367 78 1.2
2014 550 4.00% 14.70% 0.175 0.353 0.315 0.347 0.490 137 4.9

Which brings us to his 2014 campaign. If you’re only into looking at outcomes, Josh Harrison was one of the 30 or so best position players in baseball last year, stacked around Jason Heyward, Troy Tulowitzki, and Steve Pearce. It’s probably fair to say that few people believe Harrison is one of the best 30 players in baseball, but that’s what he was during the most recent six month stretch.

Any time something like this happens, we start looking for explanations. Harrison performed much better than anything we’ve ever seen him do and because we hate accepting randomness as an answer, we look for reasons to believe the breakout. Heck, we even heard those “Josh Harrison was the MVP of the Pirates” comments despite the existence of Andrew McCutchen and Russell Martin.

It’s safe to say that Harrison had a great year and was instrumental in helping the Pirates reach the Wild Card Game, but how bullish should we be on him as a player going forward? Did we see anything in 2014 to give us the impression that he’s an above average major league regular going forward?

Just as an anchor, let’s take a peek at Harrison’s 2014 numbers and his 2015 Steamer projection. His great numbers last year certainly give Steamer more confidence in his future than we had a year ago, but we’re naturally seeing that the projection system is looking for BABIP regression and a power decline. Pretty standard stuff, but it’s still good enough for three wins.

Year PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
2014 550 4.00% 14.70% 0.175 0.353 0.315 0.347 0.490 137 4.9
Steamer 614 4.40% 13.90% 0.142 0.310 0.280 0.318 0.421 109 3.0

Fortunately for us, Harrison’s base running and defensive numbers in 2014 were consistent with his prior marks, so we can focus all of our attention on his hitting. He doesn’t walk and he strikes out far less than league average. He swings a lot, but he makes a slightly above average amount of contact, and that didn’t change last year. If anything, he took as step back in the contact department.

Instead, Harrison had a high BABIP and was the beneficiary of a nice jump in ISO which allowed him to post that terrific 137 wRC+. Both of those could be indicative of sharper contact (a change in talent), but those could also easily be boosted significantly by good fortune (randomness). Some of what happened to Harrison last year was probably a change in true talent and some was probably luck. The question for us is how those two were divided and what Harrison will be in 2015 and beyond.

PNC Park the worst park for right-handers trying to hit home runs, but it is decent for doubles and triples, allowing Harrison to post a .152 ISO at home and .198 ISO on the road with identical home and away BABIP in 2014. He hit well to all fields and was well above average in every month after April.

In other words, the basic red flags aren’t there. Skepticism is good, but Harrison didn’t pad his stats with one good month that hid the flaws of the other five. He had a high quality, consistent season, and while it’s good practice to follow Steamer in projecting certain types of regression, the consistency of the performance and one particular change in his approach might offer us a reason to believe that Harrison is actually an improved player to some meaningful degree.

If we’re looking for reasons to buy the BABIP and the ISO, we’re looking for reasons to think Harrison has found a way to make harder contact. While we don’t have the tools to speak directly to the exit velocities, we can identify an area of the strike zone that Harrison started covering differently.

Let’s compare Harrison from 2011-2013 to Harrison from 2014. First we’ll look at his swing rates and then at his ISO, using the FanGraphs Heat Maps.
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You’ll notice that Harrison is going after pitches inside more aggressively and it worked extremely well for him in 2014. We can’t say for sure if he changed his swing to allow himself to cover that area of the zone or if he simply discover his ability to cover it last year, but he’s driving the ball with more authority on pitches inside and Ryan Parker certainly thinks that’s due in part to improved swing mechanics.

This could absolutely be an aberration. That’s always a possibility when dealing with any one season of data, but the Pirates have been a team that’s stressed pitching inside, which gives me pause when thinking about anything that happens involving them and the inner third of the plate. Did Harrison take the information the Pirates pitchers were receiving about batters being unprepared for an assault on the inside corner and reverse engineer that to create a new approach in which he jumped on pitches down and in? It’s possible.

What we can say for sure is that Harrison had a great season and probably did genuinely improve at the plate. We don’t know for sure that he’s a true talent 135 wRC+ hitter, but it’s unlikely that a true talent 80 wRC+ hitter put together that kind of season. In all likelihood, he probably became something resembling a 110 wRC+ hitter and wound up in in the right tail of the distribution.

However, if Harrison’s improvements were the product of more aggressiveness on pitches inside and mechanical tweaks, then pitchers will have a chance to respond in 2015. Maybe this post didn’t come with a strong conclusion, but I think it offers you something to watch and track in the coming year. Can Josh Harrison continue to be an All-Star caliber major league hitter or will pitchers start trying to set him up with offspeed pitches away to neutralize his new found love of the inside pitch?

The Pirates are currently projected to be one of baseball’s best teams, but the difference between a 4 WAR Harrison and a 1 WAR Harrison in an age of parity might be the difference between a deep playoff run or earlier flights home. How his bat carries over from 2014 to 2015 might very well decide the NL Central.

We hoped you liked reading Where Josh Harrison Goes from Here by Neil Weinberg!

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Jose Canseco
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Jose Canseco

Now I know why the @#$@$! Rangers let me pitch…..

Doug
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Doug

is it hard to type with only 9 fingers