Measuring Matt Harrison

Self-discipline allows a pitcher to feel his individuality, his inner strength, his talent. He is master of, rather than a slave to, his thoughts and emotions.”

— H.A. Dorfman
The Mental ABCs of Pitching

Matt Harrison spent the winter prior to the 2011 season reading his self-proclaimed first book, The Mental ABCs of Pitching, and had the best season of his career. As the quote says, Harrison found his inner strength and his talent and came into his own and really established himself as a groundball pitcher who can win consistently at this level. His mental toughness and maturity all came to fruition in 2011 and 2012, but most Rangers fans want to know what we can expect from him as his career continues. Is he a perennial All-Star or a reliable groundball pitcher that will eat up innings year in and year out, but never become a dominant “ace”?

By 2008, Harrison was a 23 year old lefty prospect battling injuries and unfulfilled potential from his days as the premier lefty in the Braves organization prior to the Teixeira trade. Harrison has never been labeled as a flame throwing strikeout machine, but the potential was always there for him to become a solid rotational arm because of his frame and his ability to command the strike zone. The two key components of what makes Harrison tick revolve around his ability to get groundball outs and his ability to limit his walks per 9 IP.

In 2011 Harrison finally showed Rangers fans his potential when he went 14-9 in 185.7 innings with only 57 walks and 126 strikeouts. His BB/9 was nearly cut in half from the previous season going from 4.5 in 2010 to 2.8 in 2011. He also decreased his HR/9 from 1.1 in ’10 to a very efficient 0.6 in 2011. Matt was throwing more strikes and decreasing his walks from previous seasons, but more importantly he was throwing more quality strikes within the strike zone and thus lowering the home runs hit per outing. But, what is the great equalizer in this string of statistics? His success cannot be solely attributed to throwing more quality strikes, but in his ability to develop a sinking fastball that results in more groundballs and more efficient outings. 

By looking at his groundball percentage rate from his first season in the big leagues (2008) to this past season (2012) we can see a steady increase in his ability to get more sink on his fastball and create more groundballs. (Information found at Fangraphs.com)

Groundball %:

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It’s important to note that in 2011 he threw 185.2 IP and logged 213.1 in 2012. Prior to those two seasons, his career high in innings pitched was 116.2 in 2007 in the Braves minor league system. Harrison had the 21st highest GB% among all starting pitchers in 2011-2012 (48.2%) with at least 120 innings pitched. As Harrison’s groundball percentage has improved so has his effectiveness as a starter, but to avoid burying my thesis I need to determine if he has the statistics to back up his effectiveness as a top of the rotation starter or if he is just a sinker ball pitcher who will always be a mid-rotation starter at best. 

I think it’s a safe hypothesis to say that the ability to strike out batters frequently is a must for a top of the rotation starter.  In the 2011-2012 seasons Matt Harrison ranked 67th among qualified M.L. starters in strikeouts per 9 innings. Below are the pitchers directly above and below Harrison in strikeouts per 9 IP:


K/9 2011-2012
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If you were even bouncing around the idea of Matt Harrison being a frontline starter this graph diffuses that theory fairly quickly in my opinion. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities for Harrison to sustain his production as a valuable starting pitcher for a playoff contender, but without the ability to miss bats more often; his role is better suited in the middle of the rotation. This issue has been following Harrison since early on in his career as an up-and-coming minor league starter. An excerpt from the 2008 Baseball Prospectus Handbook identifies this:

“There is a disconnect here, as Harrison has a power arsenal but confounds scouts with an inability to miss many bats”

Baseball Prospectus 2008

This isn’t the first time it has been written on this website or elsewhere that Matt Harrison isn’t an ace, but after having two great seasons for the Rangers, I think it’s important to re-evaluate his numbers and solidify his role. There is only one stat that matters and that is wins and Harrison wins at a high rate when he gets groundballs. In 2011 and 2012 Matt Harrison pitched 30 games where his groundball percentage was at 50% or higher. In those 30 games he was an astounding 20-5 with 5 no decisions. During that same stretch when Harrison doesn’t give up any homeruns he is 16-0 with 3 no decisions. The home run stat is probably very similar for all pitchers because when you don’t give up homeruns you usually pitch deeper into games and win more, but a 16-0 record is a fantastic winning percentage and a great indicator of identifying Matt Harrison’s success. When you combine a groundball percentage of 50% or greater and the absence of homeruns, you have a dominant pitcher that can win a lot of ballgames for the Texas Rangers. 

The problem of course is a pitcher who relies on a sinking fastball isn’t always “on”. His stuff is somewhat like that of the knuckle ball pitcher and often the pitcher is held hostage by that one pitch. When you combine a fastball that stays up in the zone and an inability to miss bats, you have a perfect middle of the rotation guy. He will be consistent enough throughout the course of the season to win 10-13 games and keep you in most of the ballgames he pitches. To be a top of the rotation starter, you have to miss bats so you can survive on days when you don’t have your best stuff, something Harrison lacks. His development could continue and he may find that strikeout pitch, but his trends have been far too consistent during his pro career to expect such a change. 

Jeff Johnson is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Jeff.Johnson@ShutDownInning.com or on Twitter @Houstonhog.
Jeff Johnson

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