PITTSBURGH — Josh Harrison made his feelings known. Boy, did he ever.
A day after getting the fifth metacarpal bone on his left hand broken by an errant pitch for the second time in a year, Harrison didn’t hold back on what’s wrong with today’s game, at least in his mind.
“Guys are throwing harder around baseball,” Harrison said. “They’re more throwers than pitchers. Guys are throwing it but don’t know where it’s going. I think that’s gotta be taken into account. You throw in guys who start slide-stepping … their job is to throw off our timing. At the end of the day, that’s what they’re supposed to do, but when you mix in guys who don’t know where it’s going, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Harrison’s frustration was palpable in the PNC Park clubhouse, and no one was begrudging him that. The man who usually has such an aura of positive energy struck a somber tone.
He discussed finding an “alternative batting glove” while he goes through his six-week rehab process. He gave a shoutout to Iván Nova for plunking a Marlin in retaliation for José Ureña’s lack of control, noting that last year’s Pirates pitching staff waited until Harrison’s final — and fateful — hit-by-pitch before striking back.
Harrison was also defiant about what he could do with his hitting approach to prevent a year like 2017, when he was hit by a league-high 23 pitches. Instead, he turned the responsibility on opposing batteries.
“As far as what I do at the plate, I don’t really want to change what I do, because I don’t think I need to change much,” Harrison said. “(I) just think it’s at a point that, if you can’t command in, catchers (shouldn’t) call it up and in. You can call in, but if you call up and in with a guy who can’t command it, I mean, something like this could happen.”
Harrison postulated that because he was having success hitting inside pitches early last year, teams started trying to bust him in on his hands more often. He accepts that side of the epic battle between pitcher and hitter, but he seemed to indicate that there should be some professional discretion shown by the men holding the ball.
If this trend continues, Harrison strikingly said he wouldn’t mind seeing more vigilante justice handed out by his teammates.
“That was something we lacked last year,” he said. “Like I said, I don’t wish this on anybody, but I got a family. I got kids. I want to play this game as long as possible.”
But how much should a pitcher really be concerned about the livelihood of opposing hitters? In some ways it seems like a quaint concept, since shying away from pitching inside is a quick way to become predictable, and thus hittable.
You don’t need me to tell you hittable pitchers don’t last long in Major League Baseball.
“You know, it’s one of those fine lines,” George Kontos told me. “I have to go out there and do my job. As long as there’s no malicious intent, as long as you’re not throwing at a guy’s head or somewhere up there, pitching inside is part of the game. Some hitters are looking for breaking balls down and away and they might be diving, and you have to keep them honest inside.”
At 32 and a veteran of eight major-league seasons, Kontos is the second longest-tenured pitcher on the Pirates, behind only Nova. Thus, Kontos isn’t new to this sort of dichotomy, seeing a teammate get hurt by a HBP yet realizing that varying location is crucial to almost every pitcher.
“Unfortunately, it’s just a part of the game,” Kontos said. “You never want to see that stuff happen, especially on our side where J-Hay is a big part of this ball club. For me personally, if I go inside and a guy gets hit, it’s unintentional. It happens. It’s just the way it is.”
As for Harrison’s contention that a catcher bears some responsibility for knowing which pitchers can go inside safely and which can’t, it appears there’s a difference of opinion between he and his teammate.
“It’s a little bit on the catcher, but you still have to pitch inside,” Kontos said. “If you don’t have control of your fastball that day, you might shy away from it, but pitching inside is crucial to opening up the outside part of the plate. If you’re not able to locate inside, you’d better find a way to get it in there before your day ends abruptly.”
Now, there are some pitchers whose stuff is good enough to allow them to succeed without boring in on hitters’ hands regularly. Kontos is not one of those pitchers, and neither is Steven Brault.
Predictably, Brault had similar thoughts on the Harrison situation. Basically, it’s a shame but not an indication of a larger problem.
“When you get scouting reports, we’re not trying to hit the guy or hurt anybody,” Brault said. “We’re trying to disrupt timing, right? Sadly enough, that means sometimes guys are going to get hit, which in the case of J-Hay, that’s too bad. It sucks because it’s happened before. It’s one of those things that’s part of the game and you hate to see it, but you’re not going to see people stop pitching inside, if that’s what the scouting report says. If a guy can’t get to an inside fastball or whatever it is, you’re gonna go there.”
Brault noted that, had Ureña’s inside heater caught Harrison in a different body part, the Pirates would’ve been applauding instead of lamenting their teammate’s bad luck.
“The guy was pitching inside,” Brault said. “Nobody’s perfect, but it just hit him in a bad spot, on the hand. It’s a fragile part of the body. If it hits him in the shoulder, he’s fine and we’re like, ‘Cool, we got an extra baserunner.’
“So, it’s too bad, but I wouldn’t blame (Ureña). The only time you blame someone is if they’re intentionally throwing at a teammate and then it’s different-level stuff. I didn’t see any intent there. It was just kind of a fastball that got away from him. It happens. J-Hay will be back soon and he’ll be OK.”
If that sounds flippant, consider the source. Brault is fighting for a big-league job just as much as he’s fighting for his team. The same goes for Kontos, who was waived by the Giants just last summer.
Both men know how fleeting the gig can be. Also, if they succeed, the Pirates’ hitters have a better chance of making a difference and playing for a winner. It’s a complicated ecosystem, for sure, one that leads to conflicting emotions.
When survival of the fittest is the rule, professional courtesy isn’t at front of mind. Kontos and Brault feel Harrison’s pain, but they’re not going to change because of it, nor do they expect opposing pitchers to adjust.
“I think these guys in the majors are good enough where, if you’re going inside, you’re going inside with conviction,” Kontos concluded. “If (the hitter) doesn’t get out of the way, he doesn’t get out of the way.”