Can Josh Harrison Sustain His Hot Start?

Apr 28, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison (5) hits an RBI single during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 28, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison (5) hits an RBI single during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Josh Harrison is off to a red-hot start this season, but is it sustainable?

During the 2014 season, Josh Harrison came out of seemingly nowhere to have a monster season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Entering the 2014 season Josh Harrison owned a lifetime .282 on-base percentage, .283 wOBA, 78 wRC+, and .117 ISO. He also owned a very poor 2.6 percent walk rate and his fWAR these three seasons was just a combined 1.0.

No matter how you want to slice it Harrison was a well below league average hitter for the first three seasons of his Major League career. But then, his 2014 campaign happened. During the 2014 season, it looked like Josh Harrison was bursting onto the scene as one of the Pirates’ best players.

Josh Harrison accumulated a career high 550 plate appearances in 2014. All of his offensive numbers in 2014 were career highs as he posted a .347 on-base percentage, .365 wOBA, 137 wRC+, and a.175 ISO. His 4.0 walk percentage, while still far too low, is the second highest of his career next to his 4.2 percent in 2015.

Harrison also emerged as a top notch defender in 2014. He had a postive defensive runs saved (DRS) at second base, third base, left field, and right field in 2014. This played a large role in him posting a career high 5.0 fWAR in 2014.

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While his defense has remained strong, since the start of the 2015 season Harrison has resorted back to being a below average league hitter. The past two seasons he owns a .318 on-base percentage, .307 wOBA, a 93 wRC+, and a .104 ISO in 971 plate appearances.

This left many people, myself included, to be inclined to believe that Josh Harrison’s 2014 season was nothing short of a fluke. A fluke season that led to him earning a long-term contract extension to boot.

However, Harrison’s 2017 season is off to a great start. Maybe the Pirates are getting 2014 Josh Harrison again in 2017? But is his hot start sustainable?

Through the season’s first 22 games Harrison has 81 plate appearances. He owns a .329/.407/.457/.864 slash line, a .379 wOBA, 137 wRC+, and a .129 ISO. Harrison’s walk rate is also a career high 4.9 percent, his 11.1 percent strikeout rate is the second lowest number of his career, and he has been hit by a National League leading six pitches.

Josh Harrison also already has an fWAR of 0.9. This comes after it was just a combined 2.8 the past two seasons. Once again, a big reason for this is due to Harrison being a strong defender at multiple positions in 2017.

One area for concern with Harrison thus far in 2017 is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Currently, his BABIP is .350 which is much higher than the league average of .300. This indicates that Harrison has been the benefactor of some good luck and/or poor defense as a hitter this season.

This may not be as concerning as it first seems, though. Some hitters can maintain despite a high BABIP and in the past Harrison has been one of those hitters. In his career-best 2014 season his BABIP was .353, during the second best season of his career (2015) his BABIP was .336.

One thing that helps to offset Harrison’s high BABIP is that his hard contact rate is currently a career best 33.9 percent. He is also hitting fewer balls on the ground this season. His ground ball rate is currently 37.7 percent, which is the second lowest of his career next to 2014.

More often than not ground balls turn into outs. So it is reasonable to assume that a big part of Harrison’s early season success is due to him hitting fewer balls on the ground.

Additionally, Josh Harrison’s launch angles this season have been encouraging. His average launch angle this season is 18.78 degrees, launch angles between 10 and 20 degrees occur when hitters hit line drives. And line drives turn into base hits.

Next: Pirates 12, Marlins 2

Despite a high BABIP, Josh Harrison should be able to maintain his early season success. He is walking more often, striking out less often, making more contact, making better contact than in the past, and hitting fewer ground balls.

If Josh Harrison can continue this offensive pace, or at least close to it, throughout the rest of the 2017 season the odds of the Pirates making the postseason increase substantially. Especially as the team looks for hitters to step up in the absence of Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte.

*- stats via FanGraphs and