Prospect Rewind: Josh Harrison is Exceeding All of His Old Prospect Reports

In the past, we’ve done the Prospect Rewind series, looking back at the reports on certain players, and how they’ve fallen short of those reports, met their reports, or exceeded the projections. With the recent success from Josh Harrison in the majors, I felt like it was a good time to look back on his prospect reports, to see what he was projected to become. This is also a reminder that the 2014 Prospect Guide is on sale in the Pirates Prospects store, where you can also find limited copies of the 2013 Prospect Guide for $1.

There are only two season-ending prospect reports we have on Harrison. The first one came at the end of the 2009 season, which was the season Harrison joined the organization. This was before the Prospect Guide started coming out each year, but the report can be found here. Since this site started mainly covering the Lynchburg Hillcats in 2009, I got to see a ton of Harrison that year. Here was the report, with Harrison ranking 39th in the system.

Information: Harrison was selected by the Cubs in the sixth round of the 2008 draft out of Cincinnati. He hit for a .378/.437/.559 line in his junior year with Cincinnati, then combined for a .305/.379/.419 line in two levels of A-ball with the Cubs in 2008. Harrison is 5′ 8″, but has a big frame, weighing in at 175 lbs. Harrison doesn’t have a natural position, but has been splitting between third and second base this season. He’s got a lot of speed, which helps his range, and makes him a weapon on the base paths, but he doesn’t have much power, making him a top of the order guy only. One concern is that Harrison doesn’t draw many walks. He had one walk in 155 plate appearances with Lynchburg, and just 23 on the season in 568 plate appearances. On the other hand, he doesn’t strike out often, with just 51 strikeouts in 514 at-bats in 2009. Harrison is the nephew of former MLB player John Shelby, who was a member of two World Series teams, the 1983 Orioles and the 1988 Dodgers. Harrison turned 22 in July.
Optimistic Projection: David Eckstein
Conservative Projection: Utility player able to play second, third, and the corner OF spots

The Eckstein projection was due to Harrison being a small guy who doesn’t walk or strike out a lot, but makes good contact and could play a lot of different positions. Eckstein had a nice career, with a .280/.345/.355 line in over 5700 plate appearances. He never really hit for power, with his ISO only topping .100 in one of his seasons (.102 in 2005). He had below average walk rates, but always remained productive at the plate, and had decent defense at the middle infield spots. Harrison has hit for more power in his career, although the walk rate is Eckstein-like. The year Harrison is having in 2014 is something that Eckstein could only dream about, and is far exceeding the conservative projection of a utility player.

The following year we did the 2011 Prospect Guide, which was the first time we ever did the book. Harrison moved up to 23rd in the system after a good year in Altoona, but was still held back due to the utility player upside. Here is the report.

Harrison was acquired by the Pirates at the trade deadline in 2009, and has helped lead the Pirates’ minor league affiliates to championships in high-A and AA since the trade. Harrison made a great jump to AA this year, with a .300 average, and a big improvement on his walk rate, all while keeping his strikeout rate low. He carried that hitting success over to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit for a .330/.390/.516 line in 91 at-bats, with a 12:10 K/BB ratio.

Harrison is short, but has a thick frame for his height. His best skill is his speed, allowing him to be a top of the order hitter. He doesn’t have much power, although he does hit for gap power, with a lot of extra base hits over the last two seasons. He swings at a lot of pitches he shouldn’t, leading to a low walk rate, although he has great contact skills, leading to his very low strikeout rate despite the ill-advised swings. He doesn’t have a true defensive position, playing second, third, and the corner outfield spots in his career. The lack of a defensive position makes Harrison more of a future utility player than a starting option, although if he continues hitting like he did in 2010, the Pirates would have to find a place for him to receive regular playing time.

Harrison’s full line that year was a .298/.343/.394 line. The idea that the Pirates would have to find a place in the lineup for him was mostly based off the first two numbers, and not so much the power. Once again, he didn’t show anything close to what he’s doing now.

There wasn’t a prospect report for Harrison after this, because Harrison lost his prospect eligibility with 204 at-bats in the majors in 2011. This followed some great numbers in Triple-A, where he hit for a .310/.365/.460 line in 254 plate appearances. Harrison had similar numbers in 2009 in Low-A with the Cubs, and his Arizona Fall League numbers in 2010. This was the first time he showed anything like this in the upper levels, showing off numbers that rival what he is currently doing in the majors.

Those numbers didn’t carry over to the majors. In his first three seasons, he had a .250/.282/.367 line in 532 at-bats. However, he did have an interesting trend where his power increased each year. The change from 2011 to 2012 was small, going from a .103 ISO to .112. Harrison spent most of 2013 in Triple-A, with a .190 ISO. In his brief time in the majors, he had a .159 ISO. This year has been a surprise because of the power production, but it seems like that power might have started last year in Triple-A. Or, to be more accurate, it started in 2011 in Triple-A, and carried over to the majors for a brief time last year.

I don’t want to say that Harrison’s numbers this year are legit. He has 378 at-bats. He still needs about 150 at-bats to match his career total coming into this season. That means his sample this year is much smaller than the sample he had in his first three years — years where he didn’t look anything like this.

Despite that split, Harrison might have enough of a sample this year that we can start to say some of his numbers are reliable. Looking at Russell Carleton’s research on the stability of sample sizes, we see that Harrison’s 404 plate appearances mean that the following 2014 stats should be viewed as reliable, and not a small sample size.

Strikeout Rate (60 PA) – Harrison is at 14.6% this year, which isn’t much different from his 13.3% career average.

Walk Rate (120 PA) – His walks have gone up to 5%, up from a 3.6% average. That’s not a big jump, and not something I’d say can’t continue.

ISO (160 PA) – This is the big jump. His career numbers (largely influenced by this year) are at .143, while his ISO this year is .180. I went back to the point where Harrison passed 160 plate appearances, and his ISO was .179. So he has remained stable since that point (June 14th).

HR Rate (170 PA) – This is going to be linked to ISO. Harrison’s home runs have more than doubled this year, in fewer at-bats than his previous three years.

SLG (320 PA) – His slugging percentage this year is .484, which is one of the best marks of his career. Of course this raises an interesting question of which reliable sample we should use: pre-2014 or the present?

OBP (460 PA) – We’re not there yet with Harrison, but it’s close. His OBP is .341, up from .306 in his career, and .282 before the season.

The sample size for batting average is 910 at-bats, so we’d need a full season of this next year to say he’s a .300 hitter.

Overall, Harrison is exceeding any prospect report ever placed on him. It’s too early to say whether this is legit, but we’re getting to the point where we can start to believe that this could be legit. At the very least, we can say that he’s living up to being a super utility player.

  • Stargell_Stars
    August 24, 2014 1:22 pm

    None of these stats measure Harrison’s absolute dedication, hustle, and heart. He may never get to this level of production again, but I want this guy starting on my team, period.

  • Michael Shaeffer
    August 23, 2014 12:30 am

    Dave Eckstein also married the lovely Ashley Eckstein, which makes him a winner in my book.

  • As useful a tool as #s are, the thing they can’t quantify is a guys want to. Jhay has want to up the kazoo. For those of you a little more literal minded that translates to, passion for the game, determination to succed and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win.

    • I have to agree. I wish Alvarez had the same passion for the game that Harrison and McCutchen have. It’s something that comes across just watching the way they both play the game. It’s something that cannot be faked. If only the recent benching of Alvarez would light a fire under him. Alvarez doesn’t show hardly any emotion on the field. It’s almost like he’s stoic, like a statue.

      • Alvarez is a perfect example of talent not being enough to make a player great, that want to is sure an elusive thing ain’t it?

      • DR: I think Pedro has passion for the game, but he does not have the type of personality to show it – everything seems to be internalized. He is in a bind because JHAY is finally making that trade with the Cubs a positive, and is currently carrying a 3.5 WAR. There are no other positions for Pedro, so he has been reduced to bench strength. It is frustrating to watch and no doubt worse for him to experience, but until he commits to seeing the ball and driving it straight out, his talent and strength are being wasted. Every team seems to have his number and he seems to ignore any possibility of making an adjustment. Good hitters adjust pitch to pitch. It is good to believe in yourself, but then again, if it is not working you have to return to the basics of hitting – weight back and balanced, see the ball all the way to the bat, and commit to hitting the ball straight out or gap to gap, whichever saying is preferred. When you start to see the ball better, and make better contact, then the power comes, and you can cheat on certain counts.

        • I don’t doubt that Pedro has passion for the game and I agree to most of what you said. He does internalize his emotions, whereas say McCutchen would celebrate after a hard fought victory. For example, McCutchen used to do the leap with the other two corner outfielders. Now they do the dusting of the shoulders, if that’s what you want to call it after a victory. Martin does something similar, where he used to hug Grilli and act like he was punching Grilli in the gut with a big grin on his face. I think what also goes into the way Harrison plays is that he never was a highly touted player but yet he was able to be a part of two minor league championship teams. Winners find a way to win. And managers love guys like Harrison, because they don’t come with the attitude that they should be starting over anyone else. They’re just happy to have their name in the lineup, whether it’s in left field, right field, second base, shortstop, third base, whatever. Even a guy like Barmes, who lost his starting role last season to Mercer, realized that he needed to accept that maybe his best days as a player were behind him and learn to play other positions besides shortstop, namely second and third base, which he has done. Unfortunately, a guy like Tabata never took the initiative to move outside his comfort zone of being a corner outfielder just to get playing time. Guys who have a decent bat who are willing to move around from position to position will have a longer life shelf on a MLB roster. Trying Alvarez at first base is a positive. He still has a very potent bat, though inconsistent. What really knocked him down a few pegs this year was the throwing errors. If he didn’t have the errors, I’d imagine he’d still be the starting 3B for the Pirates. My only concern is what do they do if they are moving Alvarez, and for that matter Tony Sanchez to 1B. Next season is likely going to see the callup of Alan Hanson. Where does that leave Neil Walker. Does he move to 3B. If he does, where does Harrison move to? What happens to the G. Sanchez and I. Davis platoon if Alvarez moves to 1B permanently? Where do Andrew Lambo and Josh Bell fit into all of this? All of these decisions are going to have to be made over the next 2-3 years. These decisions I believe are going to be what determines whether the Pirates short window of opportunity to be competitive or a long run of playoff runs beyond this season.

          • DR: JHAY is a ballplayer and has fought his way through some adversity. Unfortunately, I see the same thing in Pedro as I used to see in Adam LaRoche, who just had that constipated look on his face most of the time. Pedro needs to have a hitting instructor that he will trust, and I do not see that this year. Last year he was starting to go gap to gap in the last third of the season, and I expected to see a lot better approach in 2014. Instead, he has struggled and seems to have lost his confidence and that is the most important part of hitting. I think we will like Hansen a lot, because he gets into it and gets visibly upset when he lets his team and himself down. I thought a move to AAA at mid-season would help him mature, but playing at 2B may help him to relax a little more. But, I still think we will see him at SS in the majors in about 2 or 3 years.

  • Josh has reached the point in his career where he’s almost penalized for his versatility. If he could only play second base, for example, you could put him there every day and he’d be a perfectly acceptable member of any Major League lineup. But knowing he can do so many other things makes it too tempting for managers to view him as a Swiss Army knife in cleats.

    If I were running the Pirates, I’d move Alvarez to first in the off season and hope not having to make difficult throws would solve some of his woes at the plate. Then I’d move Walker back to third, where his 20-HR power would play perfectly well and not having to make the double play pivot might save the strain on his balky back. Lastly, I’d move JayHay to second and tell him it was his position as long as he could keep it.

    Ideally, of course, I’d be hoping Hanson would come along next season, or by 2016 anyway, and settle in as the second baseman, moving Harrison back into his super-utility role. He probably wouldn’t like it, but I fantasize about adding a legitimate leadoff man with speed at the top of the order, along with Cutch, Marte and Polanco, and having a guy like Harrison as insurance at virtually every position.

    • I agree. But I view Jay Hay’s defensive versatility while maintaining a .800+ OPS as a real plus. I would love to see him in the super utility role getting regular AB, resting the regulars more often. It would raise the whole teams production.

  • Tim,

    What is Harrison’s batting average on balls in play this year (BABIP) and how does it compare to previous years / at bats?

    Is everything he is hitting this year finding a hole where in previous years he was hitting right at someone?

    • This year it’s .338, for his career it’s .300, but honestly in so few plate appearances that I don’t put much stock in that. He’s been able to leg out a few more infield hits, his line drive rate is up, and his pop-up rate is very low. .338 might be a high water mark for him, but it doesn’t scream regression. At mid-season, he was actually underperforming his xBABIP.

      Would you be happy with an everyday .280/.320/.420 guy at 3B? Of course you would.

      • .280 .320 with less than 15 HRs? Not at 3rd. Which is why Harrison makes the most sense at 2B. If Walker can continue his increased power and sit at around 20 a year, its best for the team to take his below average defense off 2B and move him to 3rd. Harrisons offense gets more value at 2B and it allows Walker to play a position he is likely better suited for.

        • That would still rank #5 or 6 among NL 3rd basemen. Welcome to the new deadfall era.

          • Which is why my point wasnt that Harrison doesnt have enough power to be at 3rd, but that we maximize talents on the team by taking that “middling” power at 3B and switch it to 2B where it becomes one of the top overall hitters and we move Walker to 3rd, where his power ranks much higher than 6th and you take away his below average defense. There is no logical reason for wanting Harrison at 3B and Walker at 2B next year apart from “maybe Walker cant play 3rd well” which isnt backed by anything.

            • If you’re going to play both guys everyday, then the consideration should be who is better defensively at each respective position. You’re going to get the same production from each guy offensively no matter what configuration you choose.

              I guess I don’t understand your point.

              • I was just going to say that, Brooks. Lukas really makes no sense. Walker + Harrison at 2nd and 3rd= the exact same offense no matter who plays where. Only 2 things matter: Are they in the best place in the lineup, and are we getting a configuration which gives the best defense.

                • well you dont help yourself by saying best defense since Walker this year has been below average and Harrison profiles as an average defensive 2Bmen, with Walker having the arm to play 3rd. So defense favors Walker at 3rd and offensively you make both players better in comparison to the league by switching.

              • Walker plays below average defense at 2B and has more power. Moving him hides his faults on defense and allows the Pirates to have a top 3 hitting 3Bmen with power and still have an average defense top 5 hitting 2Bmen. As it is, Harrison has not great power at 3rd and Walker has below average defense at 2nd. When you switch them, it allows both players to hides their faults and maximize their strengths.

                • OK let’s try it this way. Two possible defensive configurations:

                  Harrison at 2B, Walker at 3B: Harrison 1 run above average per 150 games, Walker 24.6 runs below average. Net: -23.6 runs.

                  Harrison at 3B, Walker at 2B: Harrison 17.2 runs above average per 150 games, Walker 7 runs below average. Net: +10.2 runs.

                  What you are advocating – moving each of the players off his best defensive position – makes the Pirates 3 wins worse on defense and accomplishes nothing on offense.

                  Look, Neil Walker is a below average defensive player. That’s not an indictment, by definition half the league is below average, and most years he’s close enough to average that it doesn’t cost the team much. He’s certainly playable.

                  And if you think you can “hide” a below average defender’s deficiencies by playing him at 3B, then I direct your attention to Exhibit A, Pedro Alvarez.

                  • I look at this a little differently, and people can disagree it is all in how you interpret the information. First I reject the idea of positional stereotypes, and I think the Pirates do too, Neil Walker is a 6’3″ 2nd baseman, Starling Marte is under-powered for a corner outfield spot based on traditional standards.

                    Second, I put absolutely no weight on Walkers’ UZR rating at 3rd and and Harrison’s at 2nd, that is 100 innings and 370 respectively those samples aren’t telling you much of anything. Looking at Harrison’s numbers from 2nd for 2012-14 (doesn’t include 40 innings in 2011), by Inside Edge lists Harrison as having 21 opportunity in the 10%-90% range, a sample of 21 is nothing.

                    Looking at the defensive spectrum DH–1B–LF–RF–3B–CF–2B–SS, 3B is an easier position to play with a larger pool of potential players, Miguel Cabera played 3rd, no one would put him at 2nd. I think it is fairly sound assumption that Walker would be a better 3rd basemen than 2nd.

                    Harrison 700 innings at 3rd are about half a season, so again not a large sample and his rating should be heavily regressed toward league average, even heavily regressed he will be rated above average at 3rd, that combined with the willingness of the Pirates to use him at SS suggest that he could be around a league average 2nd basemen.

                    If I had to pick an ideal defensive alignment I would want Walker at 3rd (assuming he has the arm strength but if he didn’t, I think he would have been moved off the position earlier in the minors,) and Harrison at 2nd.

                    • We also have minor league data for Walker and Harrison at 3B, and it confirms what we’ve seen in the smaller sample sizes in the majors: Walker was 14 runs below average for his career at 3B, Harrison 6 runs above, in about half the games and half the chances. Harrison at 2B amassed 0 runs above average; Walker didn’t register at 2B, having only a few innings at Indy before his call up.

                      The magnitudes are smaller, but the direction is the same. Harrison at 3B > Harrison at 2B > Walker at 2B >= Walker at 3B.

                    • The error bars for those UZR samples cross zero, the critical value, they just aren’t telling you anything and should not be a starting point for any evaluation. Total zone ranking from A ball? I have no idea how to weight this and really not sure how what is used for league average and what the distribution is in the population.

                      I just think you need a much more robust sample to over turn the general principals based on the defensive spectrum.

                    • Now now, you know that most of the defensive stats for both players were accumulated in AA and AAA. Walker, as you know, was a catcher throughout A ball.

                      The general principles of the defensive spectrum are useful, but certainly not airtight. There are numerous examples of utility players who perform as well (vs. league average) or better at 2B than they do at 3B. Just from the past few years, Ty Wigginton, Jerry Hairston, Adam Kennedy and Omar Infante have all been better at the keystone, while Martin Prado and Maicer Izturis are equivalent within some margin of error. Plus, in a half-season sample, Neil Walker.

                      From the (admittedly limited) major league stats, minor league stats, eye test (you must admit, Harrison has been VERY good at 3B this year), “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” principle, and the list of players above who stand as exceptions to what we would expect based on the defensive spectrum principles, I think there is much to recommend the current configuration. I’m open to re-evaluating that based on the inputs from scouts/coaches/front office, of course.

            • I know walker seems to get a lot of flack for his fielding – but if you look at the numbers he is above average for the NL – not below. I think he is helped by shift placement and the fact that his range isn’t the best so some stuff that the top tier guys get he won’t but – he is a pretty solid glove when it comes down to it.

      • I wouldn’t be happy with a .740 OPS at 3b. I want .800+ over there. Not concerned about HRs there as Harrison can still deliver plenty of XBH to get to that .800.

    • This article is about a month old, but mentions Harrison directly, it is written from a fantasy perspective.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/updated-xbabip-values/

      Josh Harrison: I am sure people may expect his BABIP and then his AVG to decline, but right now he may be under valued. While he had a .297 AVG in the season’s first half, it has dropped to .211 so far in the second half. With at least 10 games at 2B, 3B and OF, he looks like he may be poor man’s Zobrist. He is a nice bench player in daily lineup leagues and can be plugged in at several positions on other players’ off days.

      Harrison is an enigma, there is no change in any of plate discipline numbers, the only real change is he stop pounding fastballs into the ground, and started squaring up more pitches.

  • I think we first have to come to agreement on what “legit” means in this context. Legit, as in able to repeat the numbers he’s put up this year? That’s almost certainly not happening. Josh Harrison (132 wRC+) is not the best hitting 3B in the National League. He’s just not.

    But legit as as league average? I don’t think that would be much of a stretch.

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