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Josh Harrison and Steve Pearce: Here to stay or one-season wonders?

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Josh Harrison and Steve Pearce seemingly came out of nowhere to hit the living daylights out of baseballs in 2014. Are these two just part of the random variation of the game, or can we count on them to keep hitting? Let's take a look at what the numbers have to say.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A funny thing happened this past season. Two previously unspectacular players suddenly became spectacular players, and both posted fWAR’s of 4.9. After being players of little consequence in previous years, Josh Harrison and Steve Pearce were vital players in their teams’ runs to the postseason in 2014, and both were an absolute blast to watch. Unfortunately, we’ve seen lots of one-season-wonders in this cruel world we call baseball. From Mark Fidrych to Rick Ankiel to Brady Anderson’s 50-homer season in 1996, random fluctuations in performance simply happen from time to time. What then of Harrison and Pearce? Are they mere flashes in the pan, or do the Pirates and Orioles have two new cogs in their machines with which to aid their race back to the postseason? Before we take a look at what the projections have to say about Harrison and Pearce, let’s take a look at what drove their outbursts into relevancy.

Josh Harrison

Harrison had easily the best year of his life in 2014 (his age 26 season), hitting .315/.347/.490 with 13 bombs and 18 stolen bags. He played in 143 games, which was by far the highest total of his career. His ability to play all over the field helped the Bucs compensate for a number of injuries. Harrison saw time at second base, shortstop, third base, and both corner outfield spots. UZR/150 liked his glove at second, third and right (grades of 6.1, 7.0, and 16.1 respectively) but Harrison didn’t embarrass himself anywhere and that kind of Ben Zobrist-esque versatility is valuable.

His defensive marks aren’t too far off from his career norms, so Harrison’s value in 2014 came from his bat. He made his strides in BABIP and ISO. Harrison was the beneficiary of an absurd .353 BABIP, which is .049 points over his previous career high. Normally, we view surges in BABIP like this as marks of luck that are due for regression. However, Harrison’s spike in ISO shows that he wasn’t just getting lucky on grounders and weak line drives squeaking past defenders, but that his increase in BABIP may have been in part due to a higher rate of extra-base hits. A good hint at Harrison altering his approach to drive the ball further was a small jump in K% (from 10.5% to 14.7%). Higher strikeout rates are normally associated with a more power-centric approach, and while Harrison wasn’t trying to morph into Adam Dunn, extra bases make for a more productive hitter. The two charts below, courtesy of the wonderful Brooks Baseball, look at A) Harrison’s swing tendencies from the time he broke into the league to the end of 2013, and B) his swing tendencies in 2014. Keep in mind that the charts are from the perspective of the catcher, and Harrison is a right-handed hitter.

It appears as though Harrison made a marked decision to simply swing more often in 2014, and he took cuts at balls in the zone and inside. And guess what: this approach seems to be working. The next two charts document the same time periods, but look at Harrison’s slugging percentage on balls he connects with in the corresponding area of the strike zone. Basically, if Harrison makes contact in the zone or inside, it’s going to result in something good. His Achilles heel seems to be on balls down and away, and it will be interesting to see if pitchers try to exploit that more in 2015.


Steve Pearce

Unlike Harrison, Steve Pearce has been around the big leagues for more than a few years. After coming up in Pittsburgh in 2007, Pearce bounced around for a while before settling in at Camden Yards. In 102 games in 2014, Pearce exploded to the tune of .293/.373/.556 and 21 homers. Pearce gave the Orioles yet another dangerous bat, and helped offset the loss of catcher Matt Wieters to injury. Pearce also provided some flexibility defensively by playing first base and both outfield corners, eventually acting as Chris Davis’ replacement at first base during the playoffs.

Most players don’t break out at 31, though. And not in such monstrous fashion. Pearce was just as valuable as Harrison, and in 41 fewer games. His .404 wOBA, for some context, was higher than Giancarlo Stanton’s. If Pearce can even come close to matching what he did in 2014, the Orioles can stick him right in the middle of their lineup alongside Adam Jones and Chris Davis and have a very scary offensive core.

But will he? Unlike Harrison, Pearce didn’t see a big leap in BABIP. Pearce did see an astronomical spike in ISO. His .263 mark was higher than David Ortiz and Nelson Cruz’s. Pearce always had a bit of pop in his bat, but 2014 was the year he became a true slugger. 21 homers in 102 games is pretty damn impressive, plain and simple.

How did Pearce do it? Once again, zone profile charts are useful. The first chart below encompasses Pearce’s career through the end of 2013, and the second looks at 2014. Until 2014, Pearce preferred his pitches over the plate and closer inside. This past year, Pearce appears to have made it his personal mission to attack pitches that were offered to him in the strike zone. The third chart shows that he rarely whiffed at those pitches. This allowed him to maintain a good OBP without striking out too much. And of course, when Pearce made contact, he usually hit it pretty hard.

Projecting and Wrapping Up

So will Harrison and Pearce still be good, or are they one-season wonders? Based on the way in which these two hitters broke out, I think it is a pretty safe bet that they’ll continue producing well. Harrison and Pearce used selectivity at the plate to find success, rather than overhauling mechanics or something else physically radical like that.

Will they be 4.9 fWAR players next year, then? No, probably not. They probably won’t be quite as good in 2015 due to some expected BABIP regression, but I would say that, in all likelihood, we haven’t seen the last of Josh Harrison and Steve Pearce as above-average players. Let's check our work to see if we're on the right path. How?

Well, we can use projections systems to see if our expectations are correct. Turns out they agree with the conclusions I've come to. Before looking at the numbers below, it's important to note that there are a few different projection systems floating around out there, and each of them use different quantifiers and methods of forming predictions. There isn't one singular "correct" projection system, but they are all fairly accurate.

The ZiPS projections for Pittsburgh and Baltimore haven’t been published just yet, but we do have the Steamer system's predictions on Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections as well. Steamer projects Harrsion for a .280/.318/.421 line and 12 homers, and 3.0 fWAR of total value. PECOTA says almost exactly the same thing, and predicts a 2.9 WARP. Pearce's Steamer projection is a .270/.349/.467 line along with 23 home runs and 3.1 fWAR, while PECOTA pegs him for .257/.341/.430, 18 homers, and 2.8 WARP.

Both systems knock these players for expected BABIP regression, hence their depressed stat lines, but what's important is that Josh Harrison and Steve Pearce both profile as good players moving forward. The Pirates and Orioles can count on these men being important parts of their 2015 squads.

All statistics and figures courtesy of Fangraphs.com, BrooksBaseball.net, and BaseballProspectus.com.

Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond The Box Score, and a member of the IBWAA. You can follow him on Twitter @StelliniTweets or email him at stellinin1@gmail.com.