Last week I wrote about Josh Harrison, wondering where he would play when Gregory Polanco arrives in the majors. Harrison has been hitting well lately, and has found a regular spot in right field. Since the start of May, Harrison has a .878 OPS in 61 at-bats. Those are great numbers, although they represent a small sample size. To demonstrate the small sample size, his OPS dropped from .955 to the current .878 after going 0-for-5 yesterday. Even without the small sample considerations, once Polanco arrives, the Pirates will have to find another position for Harrison.
On Saturday, I asked where that position could be. The popular response was shortstop, since Jordy Mercer has been struggling offensively this year. But don’t count on the Pirates making Harrison their regular shortstop anytime soon. Neal Huntington spoke about this to the media on Sunday.
“The challenge is Josh is hot at the bat,” Huntington said. “And, the easy thing to run to is the hitting. Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes have done some great things for us defensively at shortstop that, while Josh is swing the bat better, Jordy and Clint are in our minds better defensively. And, that no slight to Josh Harrison. That’s meant to be a compliment to those two guys. And that is a position that organizationally we believe we need to make sure we handle the baseball.”
It’s no secret that the Pirates value defense at shortstop. They started Clint Barmes at the position for a year and a half. Barmes didn’t have any value with the bat, but was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball during his time as a starter. Mercer is a downgrade defensively, but an upgrade offensively. Still, the focus with Mercer has been improving his defense, and while his offense is down this year, the defense is up, which is securing his spot in the lineup.
Harrison doesn’t have the same defensive skills at shortstop. He can play the position, but his defensive abilities are more in line with an emergency backup, rather than a regular starter. Shortstop is the most important defensive position in the infield. The Pirates get the most ground balls in baseball, making the shortstop position even more important. Harrison would have to hit a lot to make up for his lack of defense.
“Josh is swinging the bat great,” Huntington said. “He’s making us feel like we under evaluated him a little. It would be fun to see him do this over an extended period of time. He’s had stretches in the past where he has been great and now we need to work hard to help him continue this.”
If Harrison somehow continued this pace, then it would be a no brainer to make him a starting shortstop. But it’s unlikely that Harrison continues this pace. His OPS lately would put him close to Troy Tulowitzki territory offensively. I don’t think anyone realistically thinks Harrison is as good of a hitter as Tulowitzki.
So how good would Harrison have to be offensively to make up for his defense? In a very small sample size, he has a -11.9 UZR/150 at shortstop, spanning 167 innings. Just comparing defensive stats, Asdrubal Cabrera has combined for a -11.3 UZR/150 since the start of the 2011 season. He also has a .751 OPS during that span. That has led to a combined 8.1 WAR, which is about a 2.4 WAR per season over three and a third years. That would be good enough to be a league average shortstop, which is better than what the Pirates are getting from Mercer right now.
It’s too early to project this type of performance from Harrison based on less than a month of everyday playing time. He will get a few more weeks of regular time, until Polanco arrives. If he continues hitting well over that span, then he would make a stronger case for regular playing time. It would still be a small sample size, but would be a bit more than just 60 at-bats.