Is Josh Harrison Really This Good?

I’ve always been a fan of Josh Harrison. It’s probably because I’m a fan of those superutility types, regardless of their actual ability to play all of the positions at which they appear. Nonetheless, there’s a certainly level of validation that comes along with actively cheering for Harrison this season. Despite the plight of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Harrison has been a steady performer to the point where WAR has him valued near the top of this year’s qualifying third basemen. It’s certainly worth exploring, though, if Harrison’s ascent in 2017 is legitimate, or if we should see him slip back down to the level of production that we’ve come to expect from him thanks to the past couple of seasons.

The following represents Harrison’s output over the past three seasons, including the 267 plate appearances that he’s registered to this point in 2017:

2015 .287 .327 .717 .103 .336 15.8 4.2 100
2016 .283 .311 .699 .105 .323 14.6 3.4 87
2017 .311 .381 .862 .170 .342 14.6 6.4 132

Not only has Harrison shown improvement across the board, it’s actually been significant in nearly every respect. Park-adjusted offense paints him as a well-above average offensive player, and he’s brought the power¬†far more than he did in either of the two previous seasons. As of the publishing of this article, Harrison ranks fourth among 25 qualifying third basemen in WAR, third in Off rating, fourth in OBP, and fifth in wRC+. Given the elite talent at the position, Harrison ranking among the likes of the position’s best certainly was not expected coming into the year.

One small, but encouraging, element of this that is immediately recognizable is that his batting average on balls in play isn’t so significant that you wonder when he’s going to come back to earth. So we can eliminate that as a cause for apprehension. As such, this is an example of a guy showing marked improvement in a variety¬†of ways.

Perhaps most worth noting is the on-base figure. At .381, he’s currently sitting at an OBP that comes in almost 35 points above his previous career high. And the walk rate isn’t up so significantly as to account for all of the on-base improvements. The influx of power could also be a factor here, as he’s posting the highest OPS of his career, with an ISO that currently sits just five points back of his previous career-best, which came back in 2014. Here’s something of a visual representation of the power, against the previous couple of years:

There are some trends in Harrison’s approach, and the resulting contact type distribution, that could easily lend themselves to such noticeable improvement in those areas, perhaps more than any sort of mechanical change that he may have made. But first, let’s take a look at those numbers:

Swing% Contact% Soft% Hard% LD% GB% FB%
2015 54.2 81.8 19.3 29.0 25.1 41.3 33.5
2016 54.3 82.2 17.3 27.7 19.5 44.3 36.3
2017 51.2 81.4 19.0 33.5 23.7 36.1 40.2

Right off the bat, his swing rates appear to indicate an improvement in approach. His swing percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone has dropped a few percentage points, from 37.1% last year, to 34.6% thus far in 2017. That, in conjunction with a pitches per plate appearance of 3.82 P/PA, which represents the highest of his career, are certainly indicative of the surge in production that we’ve seen thus far. It would also certainly appear that, based off of this information alone, Harrison is benefitting from putting the ball into the air more. Rather, the combination of harder contact with those linedrive and flyball tendencies, is benefitting Harrison.

That’s blending two separate elements and explanations, though. What Harrison’s improvements really come down to, overall, are his improvements in approach. He’s not only shown growth from the previous two seasons in terms of pitch selection, as indicated above, but in terms of his zone coverage as well.

Harrison’s heatmaps from 2015 and 2016, compared with that of 2017, certainly appear to indicate that he’s not only become more selective at the plate, but he’s put himself in a position where he’s attacking certain parts of the zone that produce better contact. The first is from the previous two seasons:

And the heatmap from the first couple of months of 2017:

Because of this change, the pitches at which Harrison has primarily swung have graduated more to the outer part of the plate. Subsequently, he’s making harder contact than he has has at any point in his career, with the exception of 2013, where the hard contact rate was just 0.3% higher. Additionally, his percentage of barreled balls has risen ever-so-slightly, sitting at 26.0% for the season to this point, according to Baseball Savant. It’s not a tremendously high total compared to others in the league, obviously, but for a guy who has shown such little power potential in the last two seasons, it seems rather significant.

And to just drive this point home a bit further, here are Harrison’s overall swing rates against each of the three predominant pitch types, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Though it isn’t all reflected above, his swing rate against the hard stuff is the lowest it’s been since 2012, with his swing rate against breaking stuff shrinking to its lowest mark in three years. While the offspeed swing rate is still obviously higher, it’s also experienced a noticeable drop from 2016 to 2017. It all paints a really nice picture for Josh Harrison moving forward.

There are two elements to really take into consideration here, in terms of the overall pitch selection and the zone coverage, but they both lend themselves to the same idea: approach. It’s approach that has Josh Harrison on the rise in 2017, and it’s approach that has me believing in him as the season wears on. His ability to reign in his plate discipline and shift his predominant hot spots from the inner part of the plate to the outer half are working in unison toward this increase in production.

Never known for his on-base skills, Harrison is suddenly an on-base threat. The combination of discipline and harder contact in the air have allowed him to reach base at a clip well above anything we had become accustomed to. When you factor in the baserunning, where he has six swipes on the season, this increased frequency in appearances on the bases will allow him to utilize that element more so than before. When you factor in the versatility on the fantasy side, as player with second and third base eligibility, he becomes an even more attractive presence.

As such, I have zero qualms about supporting Josh Harrison as a viable option across the board moving forward. Which is similar to how I’d normally close a letter of recommendation. Same thing, right?

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Hasn’t he been playing 2B more?

Pirates Hurdles
Pirates Hurdles

Yes mostly 2B when Freese isnt on the DL