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Five Fast Facts: Josh Harrison’s contact peripherals paint a scary picture

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The Pittsburgh Pirates’ heart and soul has trouble putting the heart of his bat on the soul of a baseball

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Five Fast Facts, a semi-weekly series where we throw five fast analytical facts about a Pittsburgh Pirates player at you, with some quick commentary.

Since he rose to full-time status in 2014, Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Josh Harrison has been known as a hitter who does not strike out very often.

It’s a well-deserved reputation, as Harrison has never had a strikeout rate above 16.6 percent, a figure posted in 2017.

However, patience does not necessarily mean production in Harrison’s case, as these five fast facts about his contact peripherals will show.

No screamers

Harrison ranks dead last on the Pittsburgh Pirates with an even 84 mph average exit velocity on batted balls.

That in itself is curious, as Harrison carries a 33.5 percent hard-hit rate as per Fangraphs. A closer look, however, shows a pretty substantial explanation for this discrepancy.

Harrison’s higher exit velocity areas are up in the zone, with surprisingly lower EV hot spots in the middle of the plate. Pitchers are starting to adjust to these hot zones; here is the same set of charts over the last three weeks or so (June 3rd through last night), a stretch in which Harrison has am 81.5 mph EV overall:

These pitches are a little tighter inside on Harrison, and he has struggled mightily to get around with solid contact on them.

No screamers on heat, either

A quick sidecar to our first fact: Harrison’s contact struggles don’t get better against fastballs. Against all the heat (Four-seam, two-seam, sinker, cutter, split), Harrison is again the caboose to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ train with a 86.9 mph EV rate on heat. Not only is this the lowest on the club, but it is also 2.2 mph behind the league average 89.1 rate.

One would think that exit velocity issues would be easier to live with if there was a more pronounced difference in EV on fastballs vs other pitches. Hunting fastballs and working into fastball counts would be a fail safe against so-so contact. Alas, Harrison’s contact troubles are universal.

Power-Schmower

Harrison hit a career high in home runs last season with 16 despite missing the last 3+ weeks of the season. It was not out of the realm of possibility to think that Jhay could have ended up with 20 dingers.

Well, except for one small detail. Even his home runs suffered from poor exit velo.

In 2017, the MLB average exit velocity on home runs was 103.2 MPH. Harrison’s 96.1 mph figure on home runs paled in comparison.

242 players hit 10 home runs or more in 2017

Harrison was dead last among them in exit velocity.

No big deal, right? No one expects Josh Harrison to serve as a consistent power threat. A more realistic expectation is for consistent double power. Harrison logged 38 two-baggers in 2014, and has put up 25 or more in each of the three full seasons he has completed since then.

That streak will likely come to an end, barring any hot stretch the second baseman may have in his back pocket. He is on pace for around 18 doubles should he complete 600 PAs this season (not very likely, so we are being generous here).

Is that a sole function of his exit velocity? Probably not, as you’ll see below.

No fish in the barrel

Here’s a quick fact for you: Harrison has only logged double-digit barrels (as defined by Statcast) once since the statistic was first monitored by Statcast. In 2017, he had 11 “barrel” batted balls; in 2018 thus far he has five.

Barrels take into account exit velocity and launch angel, so a non-typical home run threat such as Harrison may not necessarily have high barrel marks, but it’s worth noting that his best season in terms of power coincided with a higher number of barrels.

At or below average

The simple fact is, Harrison has always hovered at, or slightly above, league average contact and production rates for most of his regular years:

Harrison Contact Rates and Production

Year Contact % Z-Contact % wRC+
Year Contact % Z-Contact % wRC+
2014 81% 86.80% 137
2015 81.80% 86.80% 98
2016 82.20% 84.60% 86
2017 80% 84.30% 104
2018 80.80% 82.60% 85
Accepted MLB "average" 80% 87% 100

Harrison has been an average hitter in terms of contact both in and outside of the zone (Z-contact refers to contact only on pitches in the strike zone) for quite some time now, even during his halcyon 2014 season.

In many ways, this table is quite indicative of Josh Harrison the hitter. Though he is a bit underwhelming according to many peripherals, he can still remain effective enough to justify a consistent spot in the team’s starting lineup; All of this is to say nothing of his solid defense at second.

Still, one wonders what kind of hitter Harrison could be if he could just make contact more often, and better contact when he does put bat to ball.