(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Why You Shouldn’t Expect to See Josh Harrison as the Pirates Shortstop

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.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • wkkortas

    J-Hay has about a full-seaon (or a little more) of plate appearances for his career, and the numbers don’t scream everyday regular. He’s a very useful player, especially in the era of twelve or thirteen man pitching staffs, but he would have to keep his current numbers for a whole season to be a viable regular.

    • Arik Florimonte

      I’ve never looked closely at Harrison’s minor league career before now, but in 5 seasons, 2000 PA, he’s got an respectable 308/358/437 slash line, while typically playing a year or two younger than average for each level. The first 500 PA in the majors are not likely indicative of his ceiling in the majors.

  • Steven Lewis Hartzfeld

    He could prove to be valuable trade fodder…

    • Scott

      His value is a lot higher as a utility player for the Pirates than as a trade piece. He can still get plenty of ABs once Polanco arrives. 3B vs LHP, LF is Marte continues to have bad ABs, 2B/RF to give Walker/Polanco/Cutch a day off and even a game or 2 at SS wouldn’t kill them to try.

      • Steven Lewis Hartzfeld

        Good point but I wonder if they might balk at the prospect of constantly shuffling his position around

        • wkkortas

          But that’s where Harrison’s value is–the fact that you can plug him in at second or third or a corner outfield spot for a day or two without him killing you. Without that versatility, he doesn’t offer enough to keep around.

          • Steven Lewis Hartzfeld

            I’d think that platooning Barmes and Harrison at short might be something to consider – Mercer is the weakest link in the lineup as far as I’m concerned.

            • freddylang

              I like the idea of Harrison getting in 2-3 times a month or so at SS but not really more than that…unless his defensive numbers are solid average there…which they haven’t been in a small sample in the past.

    • freddylang

      Why would you trade a good guy off the bench when they have been looking one for, oh, about 10 years? First of all, Harrison is doubtfully an .800 OPS player let alone an .850 guy so when he goes back to being a .700-.750 guy he will have nice value getting 1-2 starts a week against lefties and playing almost every game in an off the bench role and being a 250-300 AB guy. This is what he is and it is a good thing.

      • freddylang

        …and he needs to approach .290-.300 to be a .750 ops guy because he is a no walk hacker. At .286 he has an .814 OPS and that is with unsustainable HR and triple rates.

  • gregenstein

    Fun to speculate, but these things usually work themselves out. Either Josh will go back to being his normal, .650-ish OPS self, or someone will come up lame with a hang nail injury. Worst comes to worst, he takes 1 start per week away from LF, RF, SS, 2B, and 3B. Just have to time it so that when he takes Marte’s place, it’s in a road ball park where LF is considerably easier.

    • freddylang

      My inner platoon-whipped by the past voice started to say Harrison can play in right against a lot of lefties but with Polanco they have a guy who isn’t useless against lefties. (He is actually really good this year.) …so once Polanco gets here and if everyone in the OF is healthy there is barely a need for a 4th OF let alone room for a guy to get a few starts a week.

  • bucsws2014

    In 3 of the 4 periods where Josh has had extended ABs (60+ in a 4-week span), he’s proven to be a .265-.270 hitter, not many walks, some pop, so OPS in low 700s. If they can’t find a regular position for Josh, IMO, they still need to get him 15 PAs per week for him to continue to contribute and for Bucs to reap the benefi ts.

    • freddylang

      Harrison has 6 HR in his last 172 AB. If that rate is real they may have something and be forced to get him in wherever they can. Walker usually has an issue somewhere down the stretch…if he does it will be nice to have Harrison as 2B insurance. Especially because 2B/3B is where I think he is best.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5315860 ndbrian

    Jhay for Didi Gregorius. He’s got that makeup that Kevin Towers craves. It’s not likely, but…it is Kevin towers.

    • freddylang

      I would consider that deal. Gregorious is hitting really well at AAA. He is making a lot of errors at SS though. I think the Pirates are happy to keep running no hit great field guys out there into perpetuity or until they can finally produce a guy themselves. Part of me doesn’t have a problem with that because they have the potential for decent offense everywhere else with Davis and Polanco.

  • piraddict

    Given the Pirates emphasis on defense at SS, would the Cleveland Indians consider the following trade: Alen Hanson and Andrew Lambo for Fransisco Lindor? The Indians could use Lambo immediately at the MLB level and Hansen would almost replace Lindor as a SS candidate. The Pirates have no open position for Lambo, and if they had Lindor would not need Hansen as Lindor’s defense is superior.

    • csnumber23

      That is an interesting thought. I like Hanson’s offensive potential a lot more than Lindor’s but Lindor is great defensively and can hit for good average and has good speed. I would like this trade if it happened.

    • Ron Loreski

      That’s actually a pretty good deal. Then Cleveland could extend a QO to Asdrubal Cabrera, giving Hanson a full year at AAA.

    • leowalter

      piraddict, If you could see Lindor play a couple of games, you would know that there is no way the Indians would ever make a deal like that.

      • piraddict

        Thanks for confirming Lindor’s value Leo. You have a great advantage seeing these AA players firsthand! Cleveland’s off to a disappointing start. And Swisher at 1B is hitting like Pedro and their 5th outfielder Raburn is hitting like Mercer so Lambo could replace Raburn and spell Swisher occasionally as well. Maybe that’s not enough to equalize value. If not then we add another prospect to the deal until the scale is tipped. But I get your point. Some prospects are so valuable that they will never be traded.By the way, what is Gift’s problem with hitting? Is he suffering from Marte syndrome (swinging at too many balls), or is simply unable to see the ball (swinging and missing on fastballs), or does he fail pick up breaking balls? To me it matters because if he can’t hit fastballs there’s no hope of improvement whereas the other problems are fixable, maybe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

    I heard 3rd base was an area that was under-performing…

    • Ron Loreski

      I’m starting to buy in that Pedro Alvarez needs to be a platoon player, so I looked up his spilts.

      vs RHP – .217/.312/.375/.687
      vs LHP – .206/.270/.382/.653

      This year, he stinks against all pitching. He needs to step his game up, big time! And soon!

  • leadoff

    Harrison does not have the range for a regular outfielder or infielder. He can hit and probably would hit as good as a couple of the regulars, but this is the National league, defense is very important to clubs, not so much to fans or media.
    Harrison is a prime reason that the Pirates will surface somewhere near the top when the season is over, he is depth, Cumpton is depth, other teams like the Brewers or Reds don’t have this type of depth and I know the Pirates have more than Cumpton and Harrsion.

  • smurph

    Yeah, Harrison is that perfect utility guy that the Pirates really haven’t had for many years. No reason to trade him. When Polanco comes up, hopefully they will trade Snider for a minor leaguer. Harrison will play somewhere as long as his bat stays hot. Third base platoon is sounding better and better, and he could still get a few games in the outfield to rest the regulars.

    • leowalter

      smurph,I don’t think a trade for Snider is ever going to happen. I actually think he is going to wind up in Hiroshima,Osaka or another city there in Japan.

      • piraddict

        Kobe steak for Travis then.

      • bucsws2014

        Billy Beane will turn him into Brandon Moss II.

        • Ron Loreski

          No doubt about it, wherever he ends up after Pittsburgh, he’ll realize his potential and be the next Jose Bautista/Brandon Moss.

          • leowalter

            I know that sounds funny,but those other two guys had quick bats even though they struggled while in the Pirates’ organization. Travis,,,not so quick !

  • mam995

    Tim, one of the things that should be considered, or at least given weight to, is the fact that when Harrison plays regular (STARTS), his batting average is around .274. That may indicate that, if he were to get to play everyday…he’d hit well enough as a starter. I have some qualms about him starting at short…but ideally, he’d be perfect at second.

  • Jared

    The Pirates need a SS. Barmes and Mercer cannot hit and Mercer has not been overly impressive defensively this year either. I actually am not sure that JHay wouldn’t be a better all around SS right NOW over Mercer. Mercer has been that bad. And, yes, I am more speaking to how awful Mercer has been then how well I think JHay would do at SS. Honestly, this team as a whole has been extremely frustrating to watch this year…errors, bad base-running, wild pitches…this Mets series is especially indicative of that. Just some awful awful play.

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