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August 11, 2014

The Buyer's Guide

Josh Harrison

by J.P. Breen

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As experienced fantasy owners, we’re all accustomed to surprise performers early in the season. We all react to differently. Some owners pepper the waiver wire with claims, hoping to ride the wave of success, while other owners wait for the wheat to separate from the chaff, if you will, before jumping on individual bandwagons.

Personally, I try to pick-and-choose my spots. I don’t prefer the claim-and-drop strategy that many owners employ, in which they claim hot-starters and quickly release them once their performance expectedly drops. I claim guys I plan to retain for a good portion of the season, investing in breakout performances I believe in. It perhaps takes a bit longer to make those decisions—and thus I can miss my chance to acquire those players—but it’s a bit more sustainable in the long term.

Josh Harrison wasn’t one of those guys. I don’t own him in a single league, while owners who took a shot on him are laughing to the bank. I didn’t believe in the early-season performance. After all, he hit .250/.290/.409 off the bench for the Pirates in 2013 and just .233/.279/.345 in 204 plate appearances in 2012. Who would reasonably expect the 27-year-old to be hitting .316/.353/.509 on August 10 and be the sixth-best fantasy third baseman, as well as the 21st-ranked fantasy outfielder?

And to be honest, I’m still not certain I believe in the performance. Thus, when Noel Baldwin (@FantasyBaldouin) suggested on Twitter that I feature Josh Harrison in this space, it resonated with me. It’s time we figure out what’s going on.

Y’all know the deal. Let’s do this.

*****

Josh Harrison stands out due to his impressive .316 batting average in mid-August; however, the Cincinnati native is also providing significant fantasy value in stolen bases (16), runs scored (53) and home runs (10). In fact, he’s one of only nine players with both double-digit homers and 15-plus steals. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t drafted in most leagues. I mean, his average-draft position was higher than 500, which means he was on the waiver wire in even the deepest of leagues.

Thus, we’re left to really answer two questions: (1) Is Josh Harrison worth targeting for the stretch run, and (2) should fantasy owners consider him to be a foundational piece in keeper/dynasty leagues?

Harrison has been a utility man throughout his big-league career, playing limited games at almost every position on the diamond. He’s played every defensive position but center field, first base, and catcher. Hell, he even has a scoreless pitching performance under his belt, a scoreless 0.1 inning in 2013 when he threw nothing but 69 mph changeups. Thus, the overall challenge has been for him to accumulate regular playing time, which has naturally come with his breakout 2014 campaign and has increased his fantasy value in itself.

One of the biggest draws to Harrison is that he has provided an elite batting average (.316) throughout the first four-plus months. That’s the first piece of the puzzle to tackle, as fantasy owners can deal with a dip in power if the batting average remains elite.

On the positive side, the 27-year-old has avoided all platoon issues, which has allowed him to remain in the everyday lineup. He’s hitting .314/.333/.465 with a 13.3 percent strikeout rate against lefties and .317/.360/.524 with a 16.2 percent strikeout rate against right-handed pitchers. He’s hitting for a bit more power against righties and even walking more against righties, all of which is good news for Harrison owners. Furthermore, he hasn’t experienced any sustained platoon trouble in previous years, so it’s not something we should feel comfortable projecting into the future.

However, I don’t expect the elite batting average to continue. For two reasons: (1) his extremely high BABIP and (2) his increased swinging-strike rate.

Harrison has benefited from a .353 BABIP through his first 356 plate apperances in 2014, something which is well-beyond his previous work at the big-league level. In roughly the same number of plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 combined, he struggled to break the .260 BABIP mark. While it should be noted that Harrison does have better-than-average speed and a history of lofty BABIPs in the minors, he doesn’t carry elite speed that would make me think anything above .350 is remotely sustainable. No projection systems project the BABIP to remain so lofty, either, with most revolving around the .310 mark. PECOTA, for example, has Harrison posting a .280 batting average the remainder of the season, which is hardly terrible but still a large decrease.

The BABIP argument is relatively common for overperformers, but it becomes even more concerning when one considers the elevated BABIP is paired with a significant increase in his swinging-strike rate.

Year

SwStr%

2011

7.5%

2012

8.3%

2013

8.0%

2014

10.0%

I don’t wish to overstep my bounds and pretend a 10-percent whiff rate is a death sentence for Josh Harrison. Plenty of successful big-league hitters swing-and-miss more often. However, it doesn’t easily follow that Harrison would suddenly post his best batting average by 44 points in the same season in which his swinging-strike rate spiked.

One may argue his larger swing-and-miss percentage could be misleading if his contact rate has stayed roughly the same on pitches in the zone, as missing more pitches outside the zone could lessen the amount of poor contact. That has largely been the case for Harrison this season. However, his contact percentage in the strike zone is still the lowest of his career by 1.4%, so I’m not comfortable with that counter-argument. The higher percentage of whiffs remains concerning when looking at his batting average, and when taking into consideration the unsustainable BABIP, fantasy owners should expect the batting average to fall as we move forward.

On the other hand, one may be tempted to ascribe his increased power output to a higher swinging-strike rate. That is to say, Josh Harrison may be lengthening the swing a bit to trade whiffs for increased power. On the surface, that has some merit. His .193 ISO is a professional best, majors or minors. He had never hit more than seven homers in a season, and he already has 10 with approximately 1 1/2 months to play. So, yeah, I fully understand the desire to look at the contact rate and the power numbers and to make the cognitive leap.

I’m admittedly concerned about the power spike being “real,” though. Five of his 10 homers are classified as “just enough” homers by Hit Tracker Online. While that’s not a damning statistic, it does get a bit worse when one considers that he didn’t even register a single “no doubt” home run this season. Again, those types of statistics aren’t to be taken as gospel, but when one sees a player enjoy an unexpected power spike and that power spike is accompanied by batted-ball distance numbers that suggest he’s not actually hitting the ball very far in comparison to his peers, one is understandably skeptical.

I don’t have a problem projecting the runs and stolen bases to remain somewhat stable, as long as the ample playing time continues. Harrison has stolen 15-plus bases in four of his past five seasons, and the runs should keep coming as long as he bats near the top of the Pirates’ batting order.

For me, the questions surround the batting average and the power, and I’m not willing to bet that either will continue near the same level. If the batting average and power start to tumble, one has to wonder if the Pirates will continue to carve out playing time for him. The outfield should be stacked with McCutchen, Polanco, and Marte. Second base is solid with Neil Walker. Harrison isn’t an everyday shortstop. The only real opportunity comes at third base, and the organization has seemingly played with moving Pedro Alvarez to first base, which would presumably be to clear playing time for Harrison at the hot corner.

Again, though, does Pittsburgh strive to make that defensive switch if Harrison is hitting .270-to-.280 with single digit homers? Maybe. Alvarez has always had question marks surrounding his glove at third base. Perhaps the org will decide to make the switch across the diamond regardless. If I’m someone holding Harrison and looking at him for the 2015 season, though, that’s not a bet I’m going to be willing to make when other pieces of his offensive profile are expected to decline.

Buyer’s Advice: SELL
I don’t have much against fantasy owners holding Harrison throughout the remainder of the season. He projects to get continued playing time with McCutchen on the DL and should remain a source of stolen bases and runs. He also has valuable positional flexibility. However, I do believe a decline in power production and batting average is in order, which keeps me from slapping a “buy” tag on him. Overall, though, I think it would be wise for fantasy owners to look at selling Harrison and reinforcing roster holes before his overall value starts to take a hit. It hurts to sell on a guy while he’s performing well, but then again, that’s precisely why few people legitimately sell high. You want to try and foresee the downturn in performance and sell, rather than wait for the downturn to start and then try to field trade offers. It’s a gamble, but I’m cashing out on Josh Harrison. I don’t like the odds.

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J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see J.P.'s other articles. You can contact J.P. by clicking here

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