Josh Harrison broke out in a big and unexpected way in 2014, but the Pirates' third baseman carries a lot of risk heading into the next season.
The third base position experienced a resurgence last year, with youngsters like Anthony Rendon and Nolan Arenado right at the center of the push. There were also a few late bloomers in the mix, perhaps none more surprising than Josh Harrison.
Harrison started the year without a spot in the everyday lineup, but quickly became a Swiss Army knife of sorts for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, logging significant time at third base, second base, and both corner outfield spots. The 27-year-old eventually settled in at third and ended up slashing .315/.347/.490 with 13 homers and 18 steals, providing production across all five traditional head-to-head categories. Harrison was a revelation for the Pirates and any fantasy owner who bought into his potential breakout, and he returns in 2015 as the team's starting third baseman. Can he also return as a worthy fantasy starter?
Before last season, nothing in Harrison's professional track record presaged anything more than a replacement-level career. The Cubs selected him in the sixth round of the 2008 draft, well after the guys who immediately became prospects were off the board. It wasn't until his third full season in the minors that he rose above High-A ball. He hit the ball well enough in a season and a half split between the Pirates' Double A and Triple A affiliates before earning a promotion to the majors in the middle of 2011, but failed to meet even his low expectations over the next couple years in the bigs. He split the 2013 season between Triple A Indianapolis, where he hit .317/.373/.507, and Pittsburgh, where he fell to a .250/.290/.409 slash line. At 26 years old without a prospect pedigree, he looked destined for the dreaded Quadruple-A tag.
Something clicked for Harrison last year, however. Quite simply, he started hitting the ball harder than ever before. Harrison posted a 24-percent line-drive rate in 2014, good for 23rd in the majors. Heading into last season, his career line-drive rate was 19.9 percent. That, combined with above-average speed, helped push Harrison to a .353 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which nearly drove him to the National League batting title. While that seems fortunate on its face, Harrison's expected BABIP (xBABIP) was .343. He may have been a tad on the lucky side, but he was earning every bit of his .315 batting average last year.
The first thought when a player makes this kind of sudden change is that perhaps he improved his plate discipline. That wasn't the case here. Harrison's shoddy plate approach didn't change a bit, as he swung at 37.9 percent of all pitches he saw out of the strike zone, the 17th-highest rate in the league. His swinging-strike rate ticked up from his previous career total to 9.9 percent, and his walk rate remained an abysmal 4.0 percent. Harrison may have hit the ball much harder and more frequently, but it wasn't via a better understanding of the strike zone.
No, the smoking gun appears to be a better understanding of the type of pitch he wants to hit. According to Brooks Baseball, Harrison hit .361 with a .573 slugging percentage against hard pitches (fastballs, sinkers, cutters). He hit just .226 with a .336 SLG against breaking pitches and .275 with a .373 SLG when the pitchers threw something offspeed. From 2011 through 2013, he swung at 48 percent of all hard pitches he saw. In 2014, he upped that to 50.6 percent. Unfortunately, his slapdash approach hurt him here as well, as he offered at 54.4 percent of all breaking and offspeed pitches thrown his way last year.
The pertinent tables are below..
While Harrison may very well be doing a better job of looking for hard stuff and then putting that in play, his swing-happy tendencies are likely to result in a lower BABIP this year, and thus, a lower batting average. The average draft position isn't exorbitant (89.94), but there's still too much risk, and too much depth at third base, for my tastes.