Matt Harrison isn’t your average afterthought.
The Rangers’ 6’4 hurler throws the fifth-hardest fastball of any left-handed starter. He’s 26 years old and boasts the second-best ERA on a very strong Texas staff. But for some reason, he never has drawn a lot of attention.
Harrison came to the Rangers in 2007, one of many prizes exchanged in the Mark Teixeira trade. Despite the fact that he was arguably Atlanta’s top pitching prospect at the time (Baseball America thought so), most analysts and fans overlooked Harrison, who was perceived in most circles as an injury-prone third or fourth starter, focusing on the trade’s other components.
Neftali Feliz blossomed into a fantastic prospect, then a successful reliever. Elvis Andrus became a very good shortstop. Jarrod Saltalamacchia faltered. He was traded away and has flourished in Fenway Park.
Matt Harrison took his time arriving, struggling in his first three years as a major-leaguer. But a renewed work ethic and an upward velocity spike (coincidence? I wonder…) have taken him from a fringy #5 arm to a key cog in the Rangers’ rotation. One could make the case that Harrison has actually been the most valuable member of Team Teixeira over the course of 2011. How has Harrison managed to evolve from a marginal player to one of 2011’s 30 most valuable starters?
Harrison has very publicly come into spring training in great shape during the last two seasons. He evidently took it upon himself to ensure he would be the absolute best pitcher he could be. Meanwhile, here is his average fastball velocity and innings count from 2009 to 2011.
2009 90.9 63.1
2010 92.2 85.2
2011 92.8 173.2
Some say pitchers aren’t athletes and scoff at the notion that they need to be in shape. Harrison and Derek Holland both bring clear evidence against that notion. Pitchers generally don’t gain fastball velocity past the age of 22, but the two Rangers lefties got more out of their arms by making sure their bodies were well-tuned.
Harrison’s improved fastball velocity has created a chain reaction in a few areas. Once upon a time, he was known as a nibbler. He lingered on the corners, afraid of serving up an attractive pitch. Because his average command didn’t always allow for the desired strikes, Harrison became walk-prone. But as his fastball picked up and became a strong pitch, he gained confidence in his stuff. This has helped create the illusion that he’s gained….
Raw stats indicate Harrison has effectively reined in his wildness this year. The man who was giving free passes to 9.7% of all hitters is gone. Harrison has only walked 7.5% of hitters in 2011. But a closer look makes you wonder about how he’s doing it.
Between the start of 2009 and the end of 2010, Matt Harrison threw 60% of his pitches for strikes
Between the start of 2011 and September 18th (his last start), Matt Harrison threw 61% of his pitches for strikes.
If his control has improved at all, it has been almost imperceptible. The real improvement has come in his swinging strike rate (6.8% to 7.7%) and the percentage of balls that hitters swing at (25.4% to 29.2%). This further enhances the conclusion: The biggest step forward in Harrison’s game has come from his improved arsenal. Further proof comes when we look at…
One thing which makes Harrison a good fit for Arlington is his groundball tendencies. Harrison induces almost a groundball and a half for every flyball he allows, a high number compared to the league average. He also allows an above-average number of line drives. But one thing has changed this season, which helps explain why Harrison is giving up far fewer home runs. As Harrison’s fastball velocity crept up, his ability to limit longballs improved. Harrison’s home run per fly ball ratio has declined in consecutive seasons. While this is considered to be in part a product of luck, there is a definite link between fastball velocity and the ability to limit home runs. His popup rate has also risen – from 8.4% in the two previous seasons to 11% this year. Hitters aren’t able to make as much solid contact with Harrison’s pitches. They seem to be coming up late on the newly supercharged offerings, which results in a better overall repertoire. There’s a reason fastball velocity is regarded as the #1 factor in determining a pitcher’s ceiling: Striking the fear of high heat into a hitter will make them unable to properly square up , liable to swing at inferior pitches and susceptible to secondary offerings. Which brings us to…
Harrison always had a deep arsenal. But there’s a difference between throwing four pitches and trusting yourself to throw four pitches. Neftali Feliz is a perfect example: He can throws a fastball, cutter, change-up, slider and curveball. But he relies on the first pitch 80% of the time, as comparing its to development and effectiveness to his offerings would be like comparing a T-Bone steak to a stick of celery (They each have their uses, but assuming the second is anything more than complementary would make your palate quite sad).
Harrison technically throws six pitches: A four and two seam fastball, a cutter, slider, curve and change-up. It’s tough to tell the first two apart, though close examination reveals that his four seam offering Is slightly faster and gets more swings and misses, while the two-seamer is easier to spot for strikes. Harrison throws the two pitches over 64% of the time, relying on his fastball more than most. Their effectiveness has risen along with their velocity, and Harrison throws his fastball at almost any point in the count. But one big change during this season has been Harrison’s discovery of an above-average curveball. But during the season, he’s become a lot more comfortable with his bender, throwing it nearly 13% of the time (up from 8.4%). The pitch draws a decent number of whiffs, but its greatest utility is in drawing ground balls. He has also reduced his use of the slider (or cutter, depending on which charting system you believe). His change-up continues to lag behind his other pitches, but Harrison is still developing, which leads us to the most important part of this breakdown…
From a basic perspective, it seems like Harrison’s best months came early in the season. His ERA before the All-Star break was shinier, but he was getting by on good luck and more double plays than anyone could reasonably expect. Harrison has truly come into his own in the last three months. He has drawn significantly more swings and misses (especially on his curveball and change-up) while hitting his spots more effectively. The effect: He has thrown 83 innings with a spectacular 3.7 strikeout/walk ratio. Meanwhile, his groundball rates have risen from “good” to “great”, also lowering his home run rate to a measly .53 every 9 innings. Walks, strikeouts and home runs are the three biggest factors in a pitcher’s success. If you measure Harrison’s performance by Fielding-Independent Pitching, a stat which takes those three into account and works along the same scale as ERA, Harrison is rocking a FIP of around 2.8. For reference’s sake, only six pitchers in all of baseball have been better than that over the extent of 2011. Setting arbitrary start or end points for stats like this is dangerous, but there should be no doubt that over the last three months, Harrison has been very good, if not elite.
To wrap it up:
A lot has been written about Derek Holland’s maturation and development during the second half of this season. Much of it is deserved. But Harrison merits more than his share of articles, as well. He’s become a very good hurler, combining legitimate stuff with a newfound discovery of how to pitch (He admitted during spring training this year that he’d never read a book cover-to-cover before embarking upon “The Mental ABC’s of Baseball” and “The Tao of Sports” during the winter). He is proof that with young pitchers, patience is a virtue. And when the playoffs come around, he’ll play a major role for this exciting, young Rangers team.