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What's wrong with Josh Harrison?

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Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

We know plenty of things about Josh Harrison. We know he has an awesome mom. We know he’s the MLB’s foremost practitioner of the ridiculous rundown escape. We know that he emerged from relative obscurity last year to become a near-superstar who played all over the field, created havoc on the basepaths, and served as a champion of sorts for the perennially underestimated.

What we don’t know is whether that player is ever coming back.

To say that Josh Harrison’s 2015 has been a disaster is sort of like saying Bill Buckner had a rough day in the field during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. J-Hay has underperformed expectations with his fielding and baserunning, but his hitting has been the most visibly disappointing. Consequently, this article will endeavor to explain, if not excuse, his .181/.228/.310 line before his seven-hit outburst Thursday and Friday.

See below for the sad tale of Josh Harrison’s year (2015 statistics updated through the end of 5/13, courtesy of FanGraphs):

There isn’t really any good news here, but it’s worth trying to separate legitimate skill-based decline from pure, unadulterated bad luck. Harrison’s plate discipline has decayed. He’s also hit for less power. His microscopic BABIP suggests that luck is at least partially the culprit for his poor performance, but it’s also likely that he isn’t entirely blameless. Nobody has a true-talent .196 BABIP, but even with neutral luck Harrison might be in the mid-.200s.

A hitter as aggressive as J-Hay is naturally going to see a ton of fluctuation in performance due to such luck—his lack of plate discipline puts significant pressure on the quality of his batted balls. Fortunately, we have the tools to assess how well Harrison is hitting the ball.

Let’s begin with some statistics regarding the quality of Harrison’s contact:

Not good. Harrison is pulling the ball less often, hitting fewer balls hard, and hitting more balls on the ground. His speed score has also declined. The one positive here is the lower IFFB%, but in such a small sample that’s basically a rounding error.

Here’s the thing, though—Harrison’s decreased quality of contact is almost entirely on ground balls:

Ditto for his pull percentage:

The decrease in ground ball pull percentage isn’t, in isolation, a bad thing—becoming less of an extreme ground ball puller should in theory make you less susceptible to shifts. Problem is, it looks like the decrease in pull percentage is coming at the expense of making hard contact. And Harrison isn’t actually among the league shift leaders anyway.

The point here is that the quality of the fly balls and line drives Harrison is hitting hasn’t substantively declined between 2014 and 2015. He hit .165/.624 (BA/SLG) on fly balls in 2014, and he’s hitting .160/.560 on fly balls in 2015. He hit .677/.977 on line drives in 2014, and he’s hitting .455/.682 on line drives in 2015. So we’re basically dealing with some slightly bad luck on line drives, but no real decline in power on balls in the air. We should probably expect Harrison to perform a bit better on line drives and fly balls moving forward.

Which is fine, but it doesn’t explain why Harrison hit .354/.578 on contact last year, and he’s hitting .213/.372 on contact this year.

The problem, of course, is the ground balls. There are more of them, and they’ve been nearly automatic outs. Last year, Harrison hit .295/.349 on ground balls—this year it’s down to .146/.146. Figuring out why Harrison is hitting so many ground balls—and why he’s hitting them so weakly—should help pinpoint why he’s been struggling.

We can do this by looking at the pitches he’s seen and how he’s responded:

As with our quality of contact table, there’s not much to like here. Harrison’s actually gotten more aggressive, especially outside the zone. Relative to the MLB population as a whole he’s done a very poor job choosing when to swing, and he’s systematically hitting worse pitches.

The average pitch Harrison’s hit has been a bit over a third of an inch further, horizontally, from the center of the plate this year (6.46 inches versus 6.10). It’s also been about a tenth of an inch further outside, which might not sound like a lot, until you realize that percentage of Harrison’s contact coming on the outer half of the plate has increased from 50.9% to 52.1% from 2014 to 2015.  Which is bad, because Harrison’s power is almost entirely on the inside half of the plate.

If you prefer a more visual way of thinking about this, here are all Harrison’s batted balls over the past two years, plotted by their location in the strike zone (from the catcher’s point of view):

See all of those orange dots on the outer part of the plate? That’s the problem.

This is pretty much the entire reason Harrison’s been rolling over a ton of ground balls—I used Pitch(fx) data to compute Harrison’s 2015 batted ball frequencies on pitches of different horizontal locations, and 60 percent of the pitches he hits on the outer half of the zone (and further out) turn into grounders. In other words, when Harrison swings at an outside pitch, something good is usually not about to happen.

All of this is to say that Harrison probably hasn’t lost his power—his problems have more to do with plate discipline (laying off those outside pitches) and plate coverage (being able to make quality contact on said outside pitches). Which are major problems, to be sure, but they’re fixable, and Harrison’s history of contact ability suggests that they’re probably not insurmountable.

ZiPS still expects Harrison to be an above-average third baseman the rest of the way, projecting him to hit .268/.304/.424 (101 wRC+) with plus defense and baserunning. That’s quite a valuable player, especially when you account for Harrison’s defensive versatility and ability to play the left side of the infield. It’s very, very difficult to acquire competent third basemen on the open market right now (ask the Giants how Casey McGehee is working out for them), and in that context, one of extreme positional scarcity, I think the criticisms of Harrison (and his extension) are premature.

I still don’t know how J-Hay’s story ends. I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty what will happen next—predictions are hard, especially about the future. Maybe Harrison will never be able to adjust. But I can tell you that anyone writing Harrison’s baseball obituary is likely to be surprised in the coming months.