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Josh Harrison’s rise and fall

The Pirates finally spent some money on a player they thought could be a regular All-Star. Unfortunately, it did not work as planned.

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pirates are not a team known for their big spending habits. Despite the team being mostly competitive in recent years, Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh’s only true star player, has been the subject of trade rumors because his contract expires after the 2018 season (the Pirates have a team option at $14.75 million for that year). Whether the Pirates can afford him is the subject for another article, but the fact is that Pittsburgh rarely doles out expensive contracts regardless of player name cache or performance.

While it is not the equivalent to what the Yankees, Dodgers, or Red Sox spend, Pittsburgh took a chance back in April of 2015, signing Josh Harrison to a four-year, $27.3-million extension. Having banked a mere $513,000 in his All-Star/arbitration 2014 season, the utility player found success in Pittsburgh, and the Pirates decided he could likely be a building block to propel the team to further success.

Fresh off a five-win year in his age-26 season, which included a .315 batting average, 13 home runs, and solid defense around the diamond, there was good reason for the Pirates to take a chance that Josh Harrison’s talents were for real. Unfortunately, the marriage has been a large disappointment since Harrison’s breakout season as an everyday utility man.

Looking back at his 2014, we can’t really see any tell-tale signs regression was imminent. Harrison had an above-average .353 BABIP, but it is not entirely unusual for a player as fast as Harrison — who also stole 18 bases that year — to hover above average.

The biggest hook for the Pirates was the .175 isolated power. While PNC Park is not exactly a hitter’s haven, the large expanses of the outfield make it a great place for right-handed batters to drill doubles and triples. Despite the home field advantage, Harrison demonstrated power and productivity wherever he played. In 2014, he posted 22 doubles/triples at home and 23 on the road; it wasn’t as if Harrison had a Coors Field-like split.

2015 and 2016, however, have been a far cry from the production Harrison put up in 2014.

Despite posting 58 extra-base hits (including 13 home runs) in 2014, he hit only 34 in 2015 and 36 last year. Harrison’s ISO dipped from .175 to .103 between 2014 and 2015, and his pulled batted ball percentage dropped nearly 22 percent from 45.4 to 35.5 percent in 2015. Additionally, his ground ball rate increased from 37.3 percent to 41.3 percent, which — together with a lower home run/fly ball rate — generated only four long balls all season. While he pulled the ball 40.3 percent of the time in 2016, his ground ball rate rose even more, to 44.3 percent, which again limited him to four round-trippers.

Weaker contact, more ground balls, and fewer extra-base hits all combined for a lower BABIP and ISO, but the real issue since Harrison’s breakout season is his inability to pound fastballs for average and power. Comparing Harrison’s 2014 results to what has happened since (combining 2015 and 2016) really gives some context to his struggles at the plate — particularly against fastballs.

Harrison vs. FB Swing% Whiff% Balls In Play% BA BABIP ISO SLG
2014 47.23 8.25 19.91 .380 .419 .265 .645
2015-2016 50.27 10.02 17.56 .263 .316 .147 .411

Against the hard stuff, Harrison swung a bit more, and whiffed a bit more, but the change in results is astounding. He nearly halved his ISO, and since 2014 has posted merely ⅔ of the slugging he put up in 2014.

While he suffered against fastballs from all pitchers, diving in deeper we find some real issues both against southpaws and in pitcher’s counts. Against left-handed pitching, the numbers are not pretty.

2014 .393 .417 .179 .571
2015-2016 .172 .192 .141 .313

Harrison feasted on southpaws in 2014, but since then he’s been a meek hitter. What was nearly a .400 average dropped to less than half that number. Unsurprisingly, lefties noticed Harrison’s difficulties against fastballs, and increased their aggregate hardball offerings to him from 31 percent in 2014 to 39 percent in 2015/2016. Additionally, in 2014, with two strikes, lefties offered fastballs only 30 percent of the time, which increased to 42 percent of the time in 2015/2016.

Not only have lefties been getting the best of Harrison when throwing him the hard stuff, but since 2014 he’s consistently floundered against fastballs in pitcher’s counts regardless of handedness.

The stark contrast between being ahead versus being behind in the count tells a similar story to his struggles versus lefties. In a hitter’s count, with zero strikes, Harrison posted a 2014 average of .400 with a .733 slugging. Since 2014, the numbers have been largely the same: a .438 average with a .719 slugging. In other words, with the count in his favor, he is largely the same hitter he was in 2014. The problems occur with two strikes.

Harrison in 2-strike counts BA BABIP ISO SLG
2014 .312 .453 .104 .416
2015-2016 .177 .278 .095 .272

In two-strike counts, Harrison has demonstrated very little success against fastballs. Although his strikeout rate has been consistently in the 14.6 to 15.8 percent rage from 2014 through 2016, he’s doing little damage despite making contact with two strikes.

Josh Harrison’s 2014 is looking more and more like an aberration than the star player the Pirates thought they extended at the end of the 2014 season. Unless Harrison adjusts his approach in pitcher’s counts, and finds at least some success against lefties, he will likely revert back into the utility bench player he was before his 2014 ‘breakout’.


Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano