When the Pirates used to really suck (I realize they suck now too), every July would end with a fire sale. Each year numerous players would be shipped off to contenders in exchange for low-level prospects and borderline major leaguers. A majority of the guys they received in these trades never panned out and were released by the organization. But there was one deal in July 2009 that, at the time, looked like just another dump trade. Neal Huntington sent pitchers Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow for Chicago Cub pitchers Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart (not the comedian, but his 6.92 ERA with the Pirates in the rest of that season was pretty funny). The Pirates also acquired a little known infielder who was selected by the Cubs in the 2008 MLB Draft out of the University of Cincinnati. That little known infielder was Josh Harrison.
Fast forward to 2017, Harrison is days away from representing the Pirates in his second All-Star game appearance. This is a hell of an accomplishment, not just because J-Hay has been portrayed as an underdog for much of his career. A majority of the minor leaguers the team have acquired via trade, especially over the last 25 years, have either been wash outs in the minors or duds once they were called up to the majors (I would be here awhile if I started to rattle off some names). Of the minor leaguers who had yet to make their Major League debut who were traded to the Pirates, Harrison is the only one to ever make it to multiple All-Star games with the club. In fact, only two other players in the same category over the last 25 years have even made one All-Star. Those were Jack Wilson in 2004 and Jeff Locke in 2011, who both were never the same after their lone appearance in the mid-summer classic.
When Harrison debuted with the Pirates midway thru the 2011 season, no one expected this little infielder to be an immediate impact player with the team. In reality, the only reason he was called up in the first was to replace an injured Pedro Alvarez at third base. Despite the doubt, it didn’t take long before J-Hay became a spark plug in Clint Hurdle ?s lineup, finishing the season with a .272 batting average in 65 games. Harrison had become a fan favorite amongst Pirate fans, but the 2012 and 2013 seasons would test the loyalty of his new found fandom. Only playing in 164 games over those seasons including only 60 games in 2013, he failed to hit over .250 and only drove in 30 runs over that span. If it wasn’t for his versatility, the Pirates could have considered moving on from the super utility player. Then 2014’s campaign happened.
Not only was 2014 a career year for Harrison, it was his coming out party on the national baseball scene. And this had nothing to do with his bat or even his glove, but his base running. On multiple occasions during the 2014 season, J-Hay was able to mystify fans with his ability to stay alive during a rundown. As you know, the success rate for a player caught in a rundown is pretty low, with their only real saving grace being a mistake by one of the opposing players. But for Harrison, he was able to prove the impossible was possible and was able to stun both Mets and Rockies players with his almost wizard like ability avoiding their efforts to tag him.
Even when he isn’t in a rundown, J-Hay can still bust out his moves when needed, like this play he made against the Washington Nationals earlier this season.
Josh Harrison has the Best Base Running moves Ever Makes the defense look silly on this play. pic.twitter.com/30niCEQKCh
— Mean Mug Sports (@MeanMugSports) May 17, 2017
Many fans (and Kevin) criticized Huntington for inking Harrison to a four year contract following his breakout 2014 season. And prior to this season, those folks had a legitimate argument to make. He had failed to hit over .290 after hitting .315 in 2014 and failed to even equal his home run total from that season (14) in 2015 and 2016 combined (8). Also, his WAR in 2014, a ridiculous 5.0 after a previous high of 0.8 in 2011, never reached 2.0 in the two seasons following the new contract (1.3 in 2015, 1.5 in 2016). Some thought he was never meant to be an everyday starter especially during his first few months after replacing Neil Walker at second base. They are singing a different tune in 2017.
Right now Harrison ranks second National League second basemen in WAR with 2.3. He and the Nationals Daniel Murphy (who will start the All-Star Game) are the only second baseman in the league who have a WAR above 2.0. The next closest in terms of WAR in the National League is a full one point behind J-Hay with the Miami Marlins Dee Gordon coming in at 1.3. And its not just WAR where Harrison ranks among the best at this position. He is third in the national league in home runs (9), slugging percentage (.429) and on-base percentage (.358). Harrison is on pace to set a career-high in OBP thanks to getting hit by major league high 19 pitches. Not only that, he is 2 walks away from setting a career-high when he previously walked 22 times in 2014. Harrison seems to have taken a more patient approach to hitting this season after being known for jumping on the first pitch he sees. Though he still jumps on pitches from time to time, the patience is paying off.
Honestly, I love watching J-Hay play the game of baseball. The guy plays the game with so much energy that can be contagious not only to his teammates, but to the fans at PNC Park. He ?s just out there having fun and pretending he is still 12 years old playing on a little league diamond. And that is what some players forget about, not just in baseball, but across all professional sports. They are more worried about their next big contract or endorsement deal to remember to have fun in a sport they have been playing their whole lives. As long as J-Hay continues to play with the same heart and hustle he has played with since debuting the Pirates, he will be a fan favorite even when his days in Pittsburgh are numbered and he moves on to another team. Let’s hope that day never happens.