Josh Harrison delivered one of the best seasons by a Pirates hitter not named Andrew McCutchen in recent memory, and was justly rewarded with a four-year contract extension that could value as much as $50 million.
Around this time last season, Harrison became a regular for the first time in his career by taking advantage of the lackluster production in right field. He stuck in the lineup after Gregory Polanco’s arrival when Pedro Alvarez suffered from throwing issues and injuries throughout the season.
That’s not to degrade his performance, as his hitting helped spur a Pirates offense that was one of baseball’s worst in the first month of the season. In his age 26 season, Harrison proved his merits as an everyday baseball player by hitting .315/.347/.490 in 550 plate appearances.
But a year later, the now-everyday third baseman didn’t look like the same player he was the year before. Or, in other words, the one who earned his raise.
After he went 0-for-3 in the Pirates’ win against St. Louis in Pittsburgh on May 10, Harrison owned a .173 batting average and slugged .282 with a .209 on-base percentage. He was a far cry from the .837 OPS player that out-slugged hitters like Yasiel Puig, Todd Frazier and Adrian Gonzalez.
And it wasn’t just bad luck, either. The solid line drives he became known for were far and far between, ruling out a case of unfortunate outs when it came to his batting average on balls in play.
While Harrison struggled, so did many other Pirates hitters as Pittsburgh’s offense sputtered while the team got off to a 15-16 start after that Cardinals game. McCutchen and Harrison resided smack in the middle of the offensive plight.
General manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle chalked the punchless offense up to too many players trying to do too much, to be “the guy” that could break the team out of its slump and kickstart the team onto a winning track.
In Harrison’s case, his new contract seemingly didn’t bring him any respite.
“He’s trying to show that those that doubted him,” Huntington said. “He’s trying to show us for showing faith in him that it is deserving.”
“It’s no secret that I knew I was a contract guy,” Harrison said. “That doesn’t make me approach the game any different. I got off to a rough start.”
Whatever the reason was, the results weren’t what they needed to be for Harrison to stay in the leadoff spot.
A little over two weeks after that Cardinals game, Harrison finished 0-for-4 in a 4-2 victory against Miami. Monday’s 0-fer held a different meaning than many of Harrison’s earlier ones, though.
Harrison’s day at the plate ended an 11-game hitting streak in which he raised his average back over the Mendoza Line, peaking at .261 after Sunday’s game, and forced Hurdle to move him from the bottom third of the lineup back to the leadoff position. After Monday’s game, Harrison was hitting .255/.284/.398 — still not the best numbers, but respectable.
Over his last 12 games Harrison batted .431 and collected 22 hits, six multi-hit games, five doubles, and two home runs. His strong May numbers of .312/.333/.455 resemble the player that broke out last season.
Mentally, Hurdle shared a metaphor he thinks helped Harrison let go of his struggles and get back to focusing on just playing the game.
“As men, we carry things,” Hurdle said. “I always share with the players, you’ve got a little backpack, you keep putting stuff in it. There comes a time when you’ve gotta get rid of the stuff and put the backpack down.”
The mental help from the manager matches up with what the general manager saw over Harrison’s recent hot streak.
“You know what, it looks like a guy that’s having fun playing the game again and just showing up with energy every day,” Huntington said. “He’s trying to do everything in his power to help the club win versus justify and it’s fun to watch him get back out there and just be the guy he is.”
As Harrison put his “backpack” down, his numbers rose.
“I took full accountability,” Harrison said. “I knew it wasn’t going to last the whole time and I was going to work my way out of it and swing my way out of it.”
Like Harrison, hitting coach Jeff Branson didn’t buy into the idea that the third baseman’s new contract was forcing him to press at the plate. Branson noticed no change in the way Harrison prepared himself and worked every day.
Three days before Harrison’s batting average bottomed out, Branson and Hurdle were out on the field in the early afternoon getting extra hitting work in with McCutchen, Harrison and Jordy Mercer. So what’s better about Harrison since that day?
“Timing for one thing,” Branson said. “[He’s in] a better position to be able to put the foot down and get the barrel through.”
But Harrison and his mechanics aren’t the only variable in the equation leading to his cold start and subsequent turnaround. In fact, it’s a variable some seem to have forgotten.
“He’s an All-Star,” Branson said. “You get that All-Star status on you, now all of a sudden you’re one of the elite players in the league.”
That’s not to say Harrison’s turnaround would be inevitable. Rather, opposing teams now have a heightened sense of the impact he can make on a game — and even a season, as he did in 2014.
Opposing pitchers are now pitching Harrison tighter inside and trying to take away the middle and outside parts of the plate, which he dominated last season. Now he’s “counter-punching” as Hurdle likes to say and making the requisite adjustments to the adjustments made by pitchers across the league.
Naturally, pitches on the inside edge — especially lower in the zone — are harder to hit well, because even the best hitters are not able to fully extend and put the barrel on the ball. That’s not to say Harrison is only looking to hit those pitcher-friendly offerings, though.
“He’s also hard-headed and stubborn of what pitches he wants in the spot that he wants them,” Branson said. “It’s not just ‘okay, I’m going to try to swing at every pitch I think I can hit.’”
Between improved mechanics and dropping any sort of burden, Harrison has played like the player who garnered enough attention league-wide to finish ninth in the NL Most Valuable Player voting in 2014. But the operative word there?
He’s just playing.
“Regardless if it’s a strike or a ball, he trusts where he’s at now and he trusts his preparation.,” Branson said. “Now, he’s just going to play the game.”