August 16, 2012
Painting the Black
In Houston, an Unexpected Somebody
There’s a parlance in basketball analysis about the leading scorers on bad teams. It goes like this, “Someone has to score.” Efficiency hardly matters on poor teams; so a chucker, a player who shoots without prejudice, can boast gaudy points per game averages. The same thought process can apply to bad baseball teams. Someone has to drive in the runs, someone has to pitch the ninth inning, someone has to win games. Even Mike Maroth, owner of a 75 ERA+, won nine games for the 2003 Tigers (while also losing 21 times).
The Astros are the worst team in the majors. The someone wining games is Lucas Harrell. On Tuesday night, Harrell pitched eight innings against the Cubs and allowed one run. Houston has 39 wins on the season, and 10 have come with Harrell on the mound. Winning 10 games in a season is no longer impressive; however, winning 10 games and accounting for more than a quarter of your team’s total victories remains notable. When Astros fans sit down to watch a game, they know their team is going to lose, and lose easily on most nights. But their team has a chance when Harrell is on the mound. Those are the happy days.
Harrell joined the Astros during the unhappiest days. Ed Wade entered July 2011 with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Jim Crane was in the process of purchasing the Astros, and only the league’s approval stood between Wade and unemployment. Wade continued to operate as if his job were secure. He traded Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence for two packages of prospects, furthering Houston’s rebuilding phase. A lesser move made earlier in July has been the one to pay off for the Astros this season.
On July 8, Wade claimed the 26-year-old Harrell off waivers from the White Sox. You needn’t go farther than the MLB Trade Rumors post chronicling the transaction to find the tenor of the reaction. One user with an Astros logo for an avatar wrote, “YEAH!! Another AAAA pitcher—gotta love Ed Wade. I hope Jim crane fires him QUICK!” Another, also equipped with an Astros avatar, provided this prescient comment, “I see this as a good signing. He could become a good pitcher with the right instructor.”
The pessimism surrounding Harrell was understandable. Injuries and poor performance paved his departure from the White Sox system. He entered 2011 with an opportunity to make the big-league roster, but the spot went to Philip Humber instead (who had an ERA in the low-3.00s on the day Harrell changed squads). After being claimed off waivers, Harrell reported to Triple-A Oklahoma City. He’d pitch 52 1/3 innings with a 1.72 ERA and a 1.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Somehow, Harrell managed to avoid giving up a home run during his stay in the Pacific Coast League. A rare feat, but perhaps more likely to be a fluke than a portent of future greatness.
Starting Pitchers to Throw 40-Plus Innings in the PCL Without Allowing a Home Run
The Astros did eventually become Crane’s property. He fired Wade and installed a new front office. Harrell hung onto a 40-man roster spot throughout the winter, came to spring training, and won a rotation spot. He started the second game of the season for the Astros and hasn’t looked back. In the process, Harrell has become the anchor in the rotation. Some of it by default—the Astros traded most of their veterans—and some of it by merit. Harrell has the best ERA and FIP in the Astros rotation, and only Bud Norris tops him in FRA. Not bad for a pitcher whose player comment from Baseball Prospectus 2012 read:
Signed off waivers from the White Sox in July, Harrell will likely serve as a useful swingman. His fastball touches 92 mph and he has the ability to induce ground ball after ground ball. He doesn't gain enough effectiveness as a reliever to warrant a larger role at the end of games, nor would he be the worst fifth starter in baseball, given a chance.
Saying someone wouldn’t be the worst fifth starter in baseball is like saying someone wouldn’t be the craziest Roman emperor; it’s a compliment, but only in the vagueest sense. Harrell has pitched better than a normal fifth starter. He’s pounded the zone with his sinker and generated a high rate of groundballs while keeping the ball in the playing field. Amongst pitchers with 100-plus innings, Harrell has the fifth-best groundball rate and 10th-best home run rate. Harrell isn’t keeping runs off the board due to defensive support, either. The Astros rank near the bottom of the league in raw and park-adjusted defensive efficiency; Houston also ranks seventh-worst in batting average on groundballs in play.
Granted, Harrell is still a back-end starter type. He’s battled with consistency problems (his quality start rate is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent) and his upside is limited. On a good team, Harrell is filling out the rotation rather than leading it. Still, he’s shown the ability to get big-league hitters out, and he’s given the Astros a chance to win every fifth games. That makes him somebody.