Andrew McCutchen put up an MVP-caliber performance again in 2014. Russell Martin had a career year, both offensively and defensively, and provided a plethora of clutch hits. Neil Walker had a career high of homers and Starling Marte was Fukushima-hot in August and September.
But the real crowd favorite and rallying point for the playoff-bound Pirates was the breakout star in the form of Josh Harrison. Prior to last year, Harrison’s future looked like a decent bench player and a guy who would have to consistently fight for a roster spot. But apparently around May 1st, Harrison sprinkled unicorn horn dust on himself and then rolled around in sweet baby panda fur. How else can you explain his 2014 season line of .315 AVG/.347 OBP/.490 SLG with a wRC+ of 137 that was the 3rd highest wRC+ on the team and far above Pedro Alvarez’s 103?
Not only was he fantastic at the plate, but Harrison provided Gold Glove-caliber defense at every position he played last year — LF, RF, SS, 2B, and especially 3B, where he’s the undisputed starter going into 2015.
But what if last year was an aberration and the magic is gone? After all, this is the same Josh Harrison who in his first three seasons of 2011 to 2013 received a grand total of 532 at-bats and put up a triple slash line of .250 AVG/.280 OBP/.367 SLG. Quite a quantum step to the numbers shown two paragraphs above. Even more alarming is that his BABIP (Batting Average Balls in Play) last year was .353 and the league average is typically around .300 to .310. BABIP is batting average for anything in the field of play, so strikeouts and homers are taken out of the equation. I use BABIP as a ground-truthing mechanism, not as a hard-and-fast “Player X was lucky or unlucky.” Plenty of players exceed the league average because their batting profiles blend speed to beat out infield hits and the ability to drive the ball into gaps where a softer line drive may be tracked down.
Harrison’s three previous BABIP’s were .304, .259, and .253, so his .353 represents a significant jump up. His minor league profile, unlike Starling Marte who has always had high BABIP’s, doesn’t show a proclivity to beating the average. His last full minor league season was at Double A in 2010 and his BABIP was just .319.
So if Harrison regresses, there are three questions. One, what does that look like? Two, how much can the Pirates tolerate? Three, what’s the backup plan?
Assuming Harrison does regress (and this is an exercise that someone in the Pirates’ Baseball Operations Department has already done, I guarantee it), what could that look like? Harrison is age-27 during the 2015 season, so he’s in the midst of his peak years. But let’s regress that .353 BABIP back to something more like a .320 BABIP, still above average.
Let’s give him 550 at-bats for this exercise and keep his K rate at 14%, which is around his career average. I’ll assign him 10 homers, down from his 13 last year, and disregard sacrifice flies from the BABIP equation. Doing some fancy figurin’, that gives Harrison 157 hits. With 550 at-bats, that’s a batting average of .285. By working backwards using his career BB rate of 3.5%, that would give him 20 walks off of 571 plate appearances. Toss in 4 hit-by-pitches and now you have (157+20+5) 182 times on base for an on-base percentage of .317. For simplicity, I’ll take his isolated slugging percentage just a shade above his career average of .145 and make it .150. Here’s his “regressed” triple slash line:
.285 AVG/.317 OBP/.435 SLG
That’s not going to get him top 10 votes in the MVP balloting again, but I could live with that, especially if the defense is 90% as solid as last year.
THE PIRATES’ REGRESSION TOLERANCE LEVEL
I don’t think the Pirates bat an eye at the above level, but what if he’s hovering around .250 AVG/.290 OBP? I think they look for an alternative at that point.
THE BACK UP PLAN
The easy answer here is Jung-ho Kang, but he’s even more of an unknown quantity at this point. Having to rely on a Korean import (not named Kia) in his first year in the Majors, coming from a league generously described as Double A in quality, is a recipe for disaster.
That’s why I think Sean Rodriguez is a key component to this exercise. Anyone remember that the Pirates traded for Rodriguez early this offseason? He was the pre-cursor to the Kang signing, so he’s been lost in the weeds a little bit. But he’s like Josh Harrison before Josh Harrison was Josh Harrison. Rodriguez has played seven positions in his career, with just catcher and pitcher left on his list, including six last year for the Rays. He hasn’t played a lot of 3B, but he hasn’t had to with Evan Longoria in Tampa.
Rodriguez in his career has struck out more than Harrison, but also walked more than him. Not much in the way of batting average, though. His career line is .225 AVG/.297 OBP/.372 SLG. He’s not the kind of guy you want to play every day, but maybe he could spell Harrison for a little bit if his mojo leaves for a while.
I hope this whole article was 918 words of worrying about nothing come September. I hope that Josh Harrison continues to drink eye of newt, or sell his soul to Beelzebub, or wear underwear made out of actual rabbit feet, or whatever he did last year. But in my experience, there’s plenty of one-hit wonders where everything came together for one magical season. It’s always best to have an escape plan.