After practice at Pirate City, Josh Harrison is taking swings in the batting cages. He’s rotating with his teammates, and after several turns through the cage, he announces that he is finished. Harrison stands and watches one more player take his last turn in the cage. As things are wrapping up, Josh announces he wants one more turn.
Watching near by is Josh’s brother, Vince Harrison, who joined the Pittsburgh Pirates organization this off-season as a player/coach. Vince laughs at Josh stepping back in the cage, and simply comments “Throw another quarter in the machine”.
Josh Harrison’s Career as a Pirate
The Pirates added Josh Harrison in 2009 as the third piece in the trade that sent Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates received pitchers Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio in return. Both Hart and Ascanio are out of the organization. Harrison was the third player received in the deal, playing in A-ball at the time.
The Pirates immediately placed Harrison in high-A, where he joined prospects Matt Hague, Chase d’Arnaud, and Jordy Mercer in the Lynchburg infield. Together the group helped lead the Hillcats to the 2009 Carolina League Championship. A year later they led the Altoona Curve to the 2010 Eastern League championship.
Harrison had a breakout season in 2011 at the AAA level, hitting for a .310/.365/.460 line in 254 plate appearances. He earned a promotion to the majors and played in 65 games with the Pirates. During that time Harrison hit for a .272/.281/.374 line in 204 plate appearances, with 21 runs, 13 doubles, two triples, one home run, 16 RBI and four stolen bases.
Harrison enters Spring Training this year hoping to compete for a backup infield role.
Vince Harrison Making the Transition to Coaching
The Pirates signed Vince Harrison over the off-season as a player/coach. Vince recently played in independent ball, winning an Atlantic League Championship with the York Revolution in 2011. Vince hit for a .327/.377/.450 line in 431 at-bats during the season, capping off a four-year Independent league career where he hit for a .311/.371/.442 line. In the minors, Vince had made it as high as the AA level, where he had a combined .266/.354/.391 line in 402 at-bats over two seasons.
The Pirates added Vince as a player/coach. During Spring Training he is helping out where ever he is needed, throwing batting practice, flipping in the batting cages, and helping players with their hitting. This isn’t Vince’s first experience as a coach. He actually coached Josh’s high school team during his younger brother’s senior year.
Vince suffered a broken wrist that put him at home for most of the season. He used the opportunity to coach Josh’s team. It was at that point that he started getting the coaching bug.
“For me, that felt like that helped me stay in the game, but it was a great way to give back,” Vince said about the experience. “And actually then, my wife told me ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re meant to coach.'”
The transition to coaching carried over even when Vince was in independent ball. He loved to throw batting practice to his teammates while in independent ball. His teammates would ask him why he liked throwing batting practice so much, and he would respond that it was just something he liked to do, noting that he’d like to be a coach one day.
“Coaching is definitely a passion of mine. I didn’t know I had it ingrained in me,” Vince said. “It helps me to stay around the game, and it’s awesome to be back here with Spring Training.”
Vince brings a lot of experience with him, having played for seven seasons in the minors and four in independent ball, including the championship run in 2011 with York. His role during the season hasn’t been defined, but Vince has said he will do anything he can to help out.
“I’d like to be a manager, I’d like to be a coach, I’d like to be a Pirate in any way,” Vince said. “Any way they could use me, I’m all in.”
Growing Up in a Baseball Family
John Shelby played 11 years in the majors, and was part of the 1983 World Series champion Baltimore Orioles. He is also the uncle to Josh and Vince.
Shelby was on the road a lot due to the normal travels in a baseball career, but he still managed to talk with Vince and give him instruction on the game. Having a World Series winning uncle would make any family a baseball family. That certainly was the case with the Harrison brothers.
Josh picked up baseball early, playing tee ball as early as three years old. Even before playing in the earliest of organized baseball, Josh would find any way to play the game. When he was younger, he would grab a fork out of the kitchen, grab a piece of paper, ball it up, and ask his older brother to throw it to him.
“He’s always had that desire to just want to get better,” Vince said about his younger brother. “Being a little guy in high school — not highly recruited, guys looking over him — I think he saw the value of hard work then.”
“He definitely is a worker, and he wants to get better. And he accepts challenges. One thing, I always like to mess with him. I’ll mess with him and tell him he can’t do something. And that’s just motivation for him.”
Just like his uncle, Josh now finds himself in the majors. And to improve his chances of sticking in the majors, he’s taken on some new challenges this off-season.
Josh Trying to Separate Himself From the Pack
On October 3rd, Josh headed down to Bradenton, Fla., for 10 days for the fall instructional league to improve his versatility. Already able to play second and third base, Harrison worked on getting reps at shortstop, a position he hasn’t played regularly since College at the University of Cincinnati.
“It’s definitely an advantage,” Josh said about adding shortstop to his arsenal. “I look at where I was last year, I was able to play more than one position and it just helped. And add another position to that definitely shows how much more you can help.”
The 24-year-old played in one game at shortstop during the 2011 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. It was the first time since being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2008 that Harrison had gotten playing time at shortstop.
“I’m definitely feeling comfortable,” Josh said about the position. “I played there ever since I was little, so it’s not something that’s totally foreign to me. It wasn’t really anything that I felt it was going to take a long time, but getting more reps definitely feels better.”
The Pirates enter the 2012 season with their starting infield locked up. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez are locked in at second and third base, while Clint Barmes and his two-year, $10.5 M deal has a hold on the shortstop position. There is a battle for a backup infielder, and that’s an area where Josh’s versatility can offer some value.
“There’s a handful of guys in that utility middle competition because we’re looking for somebody who can go there and give us games at short, or give us games that [Clint] Barmes doesn’t start,” Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said. “One of the challenges we put to Josh last fall was to come down here to the Instructional League and work a week with Gary Green and our Instructional League staff. He’s going to get innings at shortstop while he’s here. We’re going look at [Yamaico] Navarro at shortstop, [Chase] d’Arnaud, [Jordy] Mercer, and Anderson Hernandez are all in that group. And we’re looking forward to see if someone will separate themselves.”
Harrison faces some tough competition. Navarro, d’Arnaud, and Mercer are all primarily shortstops, while Hernandez has parts of six seasons in the majors on his resume. But working at shortstop isn’t the only thing Josh did to try to improve his chances at returning to the majors.
Aside from his work at shortstop over the off-season, Harrison also spent time training at “Ignition”, a world-class facility that specializes in getting football players ready for the NFL combine.
“They helped with my explosiveness, my first step, quickness and everything,” Josh said about the training center.
One of the big weaknesses in Josh’s game is his plate patience. He doesn’t draw a lot of walks, recording just three in 204 plate appearances in the majors during the 2011 season. That was an issue in the minors with his walk rate sitting between five and six percent. However, Josh didn’t strike out that much, with a very low ratio around 10 percent in the minors, and an 11.8 percent ratio in the majors last year. A big reason for the low walks is because Josh has the tendency to swing at anything close. The strikeouts are low because Josh is very good at making contact.
If he could repeat some of his minor league numbers, Harrison wouldn’t be the first player in the majors to have a low walk rate, a low strikeout rate, and a good average. But he’s going to need to improve on his 2011 numbers, which saw a very low walk rate, and an average that didn’t make up for the difference. He’s hoping that the off-season work will help him continue to improve, both on the field and at the plate.
“”Honestly, where I’m at right now, where I have been for the past week or so that I’ve been here, I feel good,” Josh said about his early time in Spring Training. “I just want to continue to get better everyday at the plate, get comfortable at more than one position and we’ll see where that takes me. I just want to continue to get better everyday.”
The hard work this off-season is nothing new for Josh, according to his brother.
“For him to just continue to work hard, he’s had that in him for awhile,” Vince said about Josh’s work ethic. “It goes back to high school, when we were doing early work when no one else was, and he actually understood there was a purpose to it.”
“It’s neat to see that he hasn’t lost that side of him.”
Kristy Robinson contributed to this story.