Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison participated in his second All Star game yesterday. His first came back in 2014, when he broke out in a major way. It was in that year that Harrison was pressed into action due to a bout of appendicitis from then-Pirates second baseman Neil Walker.
Carrying multiple gloves, Harrison’s versatility at multiple positions kept him in manager Clint Hurdle’s lineup and resulted in an out-of-nowhere 5.0 fWAR season.
Having signed a 4-year/$27.5 million extension — with two team options — after his career year, Harrison struggled through the two intervening seasons, never quite putting together a season approaching his 2014 highs.
But that’s not to say he was not a productive player during that time. In 2015 and 2016, Harrison put up a combined 2.8 fWAR. Though a seven-week thumb injury in 2015 was partially to blame, Harrison cooled considerably after 2014, posting two consecutive seasons with a slugging percentage less than .400. His average wRC+ of 94 was below the MLB position player average of 100, though not by much.
And in that way, Harrison seemed to have carved out a profile for himself that represented the type of player many clubs would love to have: a solid-but-unspectacular bat that carries great value and flexibility on defense. Whether or not those same clubs would like to have him at the price tag the Pirates are paying him is another question altogether.
But flash forward to 2017, and Harrison seems to have recaptured his 2014 form, or something close to it. With Harrison, it is hard to tell what exactly the Pirates are getting for their money. Yes, he’s a 2017 NL All Star, and he does deserve that recognition, however underwhelming it might seem.
A return to form
Despite a rocky start to July — Harrison was mired in a 2-for-28 start to the month before breaking out for a 3-for-5 day in the team’s final game before the break — Harrison has already posted 2.3 fWAR on the season, good for the third-best mark among all second baseman in Major League Baseball. That certainly is rarefied air in a field that includes players such as Jose Altuve, Daniel Murphy and Robinson Cano among others.
Harrison has always been a patient hitter, with a 14.5 percent career strikeout rate despite a somewhat-high 37.2 percent O-swing rate. Despite chasing a bit more than many would like, Harrison has often made more contact on balls out of the zone — at a 74.8 percent clip — and more overall contact — 82.2 percent — than accepted averages.
With just a 3.9 percent walk rate for his career, Harrison loves to put the ball in play. During his 2014-2015 downturn, that ended up serving as his undoing.
After hitting the ball at a 31.8 percent hard-hit rate in 2014, Harrison saw that figure dip to a 27.7 percent rate by the end of 2016. His groundball rate also increased seven percent over that time frame, up to 44.3 percent from 37.3 in 2014. For a player who relies on good things happening after he makes contact like Harrison, a dip in hard-hit rate can be fatal.
2017 has seen a Harrison rebound in several key peripherals that lead directly to his high fWAR and All Star nod:
Josh Harrison 2017 peripherals
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That .361 on-base percentage is undoubtedly buoyed by pitchers seemingly seeing a bullseye on Harrison’s various appendages, as his league-leading hit-by-pitch total of 20 suggests. But no matter; Harrison is still enjoying a fine season simply by getting back to making good contact while maintaining his patient approach.
Harrison is undoubtedly an All Star at his position, of that there is no question. Then why is it that fans and observers might have felt underwhelmed by his selection?
A solid approach is not always the exciting one
For one, Harrison does not carry the natural pop seen in players such as Altuve, Cano or even the up-and-coming Jonathan Schoop of the Orioles. Harrison has displayed 10-15 home run potential at most throughout his career, and his firm placement at the top of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ batting order does not result in many opportunities to drive in runs with any consistency.
Of 33 “full time” second basemen with at least 25 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Harrison ranks 29th with just 40 trips to the plate, and hits .233 in that scenario. Harrison also extracts most of his value from his defense play, which, admittedly, chicks (and dudes) do not seem to dig as much.
In this enlightened age of baseball that we find ourselves in, fundamentally sound players such as Harrison deserve to recognized when recognition is due. Harrison deserves his all-star status, and we should be happy about his selection.
Jason Rollison is a contributor to BtBS who believes that if you are going to have an All Star game, make it count. Follow him on Twitter.