Can Josh Harrison Carry Over his Breakout Season?
Josh Harrison 2014
Top 10 in Slugging and Top 5 in batting average
Without a doubt, Josh Harrison has been a difference maker for the Pirates this season by playing good defense at several different positions for Pittsburgh. Before the arrival of Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison had taken over the starting job in right field for the Pirates and rated as a very good defender at that position. After Polanco's debut, Harrison has played left field, second base and third base whenever needed with the various injuries the Pirates have had to their team this season. With all of the defensive versatility that Josh Harrison has shown this season, that has not been the biggest story of Josh Harrison's season. Going into the third weekend of August, Josh Harrison currently sits third in the National League in batting average while having the tenth best slugging percentage in the National League. With this being the first season where Josh Harrison has earned everyday playing time, there are some questions about whether this performance is sustainable. At age 26, Harrison is about to enter his prime years as a professional baseball player, and being at his peak as an athlete may be allowing him to perform at such a high level consistently until the point where he is past his prime.
The approach for Josh Harrison
Josh Harrison's approach is one where he goes up to the plate to swing the bat and his swing percentage supports that. Fangraphs shows that Josh Harrison has swung at 52.1 percentage of the pitches that he has seen in his plate appearances this season. Since Josh Harrison is batting for a similar average and slugging percentage as teammate Andrew McCutchen, he makes a good comparison for these plate discipline numbers. With Andrew McCutchen playing at an MVP level again this season, while being one of the more disciplined hitters in the game, some difference between the two can be expected. Andrew McCutchen is only swing at 44.9 percent of the pitches that he has seen in his plate appearances so far this season. As far as how many pitches they are swinging at outside of the zone, when Josh Harrison is swinging, he is swinging at a pitch outside the zone 38.9 percent of the time. When Andrew McCutchen is swinging the bat, he is swinging at a pitch outside the zone only 27.6 percent of the time this season. This disparity is evident in each of their walk rates, as Andrew McCutchen is walking in 13.9 percent of his plate appearances while Josh Harrison is only walking in 5.3 percent of his plate appearances. The plate discipline for each player does not seem to have that much of a difference in their strikeout rates though, as Josh Harrison is striking out 15.2 percent of the time, and Andrew McCutchen is striking out 17.4 percent of the time. With all these things considered, what is Josh Harrison doing that is leading to his success so far this season?
Extra base hits on good contact
In a recent article by Peter Gammons, he pointed out that Josh Harrison is second in all of baseball in at bats where he hits a line drive. Harrison's line drive percentage this season sits at 32.6% percent, which is roughly near his batting average. Of course there are some line drives that he hits for outs, but then he also hits ground ball hits and fly ball hits which make up some of his homerun total. This line drive contact has led to a very significant extra base hit total for Harrison this season as he currently is among the leaders on his team in extra base hits with 41 of them. Over 352 at bats, Harrison has hit 10 homeruns, 25 doubles and six triples to make up that total of 41 extra base hits so far on the season. This is significant because as a plus runner, the possibility exists that Harrison is hitting line drives toward gaps and legging out doubles, but the high triples and homerun totals would suggest that Harrison is earning all of these extra base hits with extremely good contact. These contributions this season have made Josh Harrison a dangerous hitter, and while he has taken the league by surprise early on, it is now getting later in the season. Pitchers have adjusted or tried to adjust to Josh Harrison, but somehow he manages to keep coming back with strong performances to follow up any period of time where he has not hit the ball well.
What is Josh Harrison doing to beat National League pitchers?
Pitchers around the league have tried a variety of strategies in an effort to make Josh Harrison uncomfortable at the plate this season, but all have ended with Josh Harrison somehow finding a way to deliver. These efforts to try to expose a potential hole in his swing have resulted in pitchers throwing fastballs in on him to try to keep him from getting extended. Harrison has responded by getting the bat head out quicker when he sees a fastball in, and he has homered recently on a fastball that was in off the plate. Harrison has also hit multiple doubles down the left field line on fastballs in off the plate, which has forced pitchers to pitch further in with a pitch that is clearly not a strike or try to employ a different strategy. While Josh Harrison is swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, he is not starting his swing early on pitches that he sees as middle or middle away. As a result he is staying back enough to avoid chasing many pitches that end up bouncing in the dirt or well out of the zone outside on a pitch such a slider. With pitchers having to keep off-speed pitches near the strike zone in order to get him to swing, he has often fouled off changeups and curveballs down, only to follow that up with line drive contact when he sees that pitch again in the at bat. While it is rare to see a batter stay as locked in as Josh Harrison has been this season, he has accomplished the feat which suggests he may be able to do it again.
The biggest difference for Josh Harrison this season when compared to seasons in the past, is what he is doing against fastballs with significant velocity. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, Josh Harrison was an inexperienced hitter at the big league level who got most of his hits when pitchers threw him an off-speed pitch that he could handle. This season he is getting the bat head out quick enough on high velocity fastballs in, that he is able to drive those pitches that used to be so troublesome to him in the past. Now that Josh Harrison has experienced success in the big leagues, and has the confidence that he can continue to succeed, it becomes less likely that he will see significant regression. The numbers show that Josh Harrison's approach is not without flaws, but in his physical prime possessing plus bat quickness to begin with, he has gained the confidence needed to continue his success through the rest of this season. As for next season, Josh Harrison will have to come out and prove that he can do it all over again. To continue to produce like a legitimate MVP candidate is hard, but with any improvement in his plate discipline, Josh Harrison should continue to produce quality offensive production in his prime years as a Major League Baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.