Photo: Keith Allison
April was a rough month for the Pirates. Marte was suspended, Kang is still stuck in Korea, and Freese, Cervelli, and Frazier all missed time with injuries. When you lose nearly 40% of your opening day lineup, it’s hard to stay competitive.
This disappointing start is following a 2016 season in which the Pirates ended 5 games under .500. If you were upset with the Pirates performance last year, Josh Harrison is just one of the many to blame. He turned in his worst season as a starter last season and some started to call for him to be benched for Adam Frazier.
However, later in 2016 he really turned it on. From August until the end of the season, Harrison batted .326/.349/.418. So from the beginning of August until the end of the season, Harrison had 155 plate appearances that very closely resembled Harrison of 2014.
Of course, using August as a start date is rather arbitrary. If you set the time frame from June of last year to the end of the season, Josh hit just .259/.283/.363. Rather below average across the board.
So maybe you could say that Josh changed his approach starting in August. But, his strikeout rate stayed the same, his walk rate stayed the same, his overall plate discipline stayed the same, and his hit profile stayed the same. The only thing that went up way his BABIP, which inflated all of his other numbers. To me, it doesn’t look like Harrison did anything different at the end of last season other than get a little bit lucky.
But that’s last season. So far this season, Harrison has been phenomenal. Out of all the healthy Pirates, Josh has been the best hitter. In fact, not only has he been the Pirates best hitter, he’s also been one of the leagues best. He has the 29th best OBP, the 35th best wOBA, and the 26th best WAR. He has also improved his walk rate and his strikeout rate compared to previous seasons.
The number that sticks out most is his 5 home runs. This year he is on pace to hit 28 home runs. That would more than double his previous career high of 13. Plus, coming off of two season with just 4 home runs each, it’s unlikely he can sustain this power.
Below is a spray chart that shows where Harrisons home runs have landed using PNC park as an overlay.
As you can see, 2 of his 5 homers would not have left the park at PNC. Of course, PNC does have a deep left field. But that’s where hes going to play the majority of his games, so it seems fair to use PNC park to compare how far his home runs have traveled.
Exit velocity is a big indicator of home runs. If you hit the ball hard, you will hit it far. Out of 318 major league players who have hit home runs this year, Josh Harrison ranks 305th in average exit velocity on home runs. He also ranks 288th in average distance on home runs with an average distance of 376ft which is below the league average of 400ft.
Despite that, he is elevating the ball a whole lot more this year. Over his career he has hit fly balls 37.7% of the time. This year his fly ball rate is all the way up to 50.6%. That is 10th most in the bigs. He is ranked just behind power hitters Nolan Arenado, Jose Bautista, and Jay Bruce.
Harrison has been getting the job done. Maybe he’s not hitting the ball farther than most, but he still has hit 5 home runs this year, period. He is elevating the ball more which will result in more home runs. Compared to last year, Josh has increased his launch angle by 7.8°. That is the third biggest jump up across the league. Just above him is Jose Ramirez, who has already hit 6 home runs this year despite hitting just 11 all of last season. Ramirez has hit the ball harder than Josh has. But still, it’s a good indicator that elevating the ball could mean sustained power for Josh.
Of course, this new approach for Josh could possibly mean a 20 home run season. But hitting the ball in the air also means more fly outs which would lower his batting average and on base percentage. If elevating the ball is indeed a new approach for Josh, it will be interesting to see if he can sustain this success.
Weighted on base average is one of the best stats out there for tracking a hitters performance. Now, with the new statcast data, we are able to estimate a players expected wOBA. If you take a players exit velocity and launch angle, statcast can then estimate the likelihood of a hit falling for a single, double, triple, home run, or an out.
Based on xwOBA, Harrison has been the 8th luckiest hitter. His xwOBA is .just .300, while his actual wOBA is .387. Of course, xwOBA has its issues. It typically undersells speed guys that can turn singles into doubles, and turn outs into infield hits. But, this gap is rather large. In 2015 and 2016, Harrison had outperformed his xwOBA by .026 and .027 respectively. This year, he’s outperforming his xwOBA by .087. Obviously, him outperforming his xwOBA in 2015 and 2016 is a solid indicator that he could do it again this year. But he certainly won’t outperform by as much as he is now.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about his season thus far has been his improved plate discipline. He’s swinging at pitches out of the zone less and swinging at pitches in the zone more. Sounds like a good combination, right?
On the first pitch of his at bats, he swung at pitches outside of the zone 15.52% of the time from 2015-2016. In 2017, that’s improved to just 9.52% of the time. I’m sure at one point we’ve all seen Josh be too aggressive at the plate. If Josh can continue hitting home runs, that would be great. But if he has improved his plate discipline, that would take him back to being as good as he was in 2014.
For whatever reason, though, pitchers are throwing in the zone just 42% of the time on the first pitch of his at bats this year. In the previous two seasons, Josh had received pitches in the zone 60% of the time on first pitch which seems much more likely to be what he will get moving forward. Regardless of where pitchers are throwing it, Josh needs to continue to not chase bad pitches. Going down 0-1 is a huge difference from being up 1-0. Throughout his career, Harrison has a .290 OBP and 85 wRC+ when falling behind 0-1. When ahead in the count, he has a .347 OBP and a 114 wRC+.
Josh Harrison being a leadoff hitter is something the Pirates have toyed with over the years. Out of your leadoff hitter, you want a guy that will get on base. In limited time last season, he was actually quite good as a leadoff hitter. But in total, he only had a .311 OBP last season which is not ideal. This season, though, hes been great. He has the 30th best OBP in the league. Maybe you are skeptical that his on base percentage is inflated because of he’s been hit by pitches a league leading 7 times this year. Well, if you take out his HBP he still has a .362 OBP which would be a career high for him. When Marte and Frazier come back, it will be interesting to see if they continue using Josh in a leadoff role. I hope they do.
Coming into the season, Josh claimed he was fully healthy for the first time since 2014. He said that he rushed back from rehab and it effected his swing. A healthy thumb and a healthy groin could lead to the power we saw in 2014. I think there is reason for excitement here. The increased launch angle and plate discipline are all good things. His projections have him finishing the season with a .291/.338/.441 line to go along with 13 home runs. I think that is an achievable line, but I think he could finish with more home runs.
He is definitely an interesting player. His breakout in 2014 was followed by two disappointing seasons. Hopefully in 2017, he will reestablish himself as an all star. The Pirates could definitely use another all star right now.