After pitching well for Low-A Bradenton last season, Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitching prospect Ryan Harbin was burnt by a high batting average on balls in play at the High-A level
In the 17th round of the 2019 MLB Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates selected right-handed pitcher Ryan Harbin. Harbin was selected out of Bartow High School in Bartow, Florida. As is typically the case with 17th-round picks, Harbin began his professional career without much attention.
Harbin pitched in 4 games in Rookie Ball in 2019 and did not pitch in 2020 due to the pandemic cancelling the minor league season. He then made 5 appearances in the Florida Complex League in 2021, and 8 more in 2022 in addition to making an appearance with Low-A Bradenton.
Last season, it looked like Harbin may finally be starting to put things together. Harbin started the season with Low-A Bradeton, and pitched 32.2 innings in 21 relief appearances for the Marauders. In these 32.2 innings, Harbin posted a 0.83 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 11.5% walk rate, and a healthy 3.6% strikeout rate. He limited opposing batters to a .167 batting average and allowed just 1 home runs (0.28 HR/9).
This performance earned Harbin a promotion to the High-A level. On July 6th, he made his first appearance with the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Unfortunately, with the Grasshoppers, Harbin would struggle.
In his first trip to the High-A level, Harbin posted a 6.65 ERA and a 5.53 FIP in 21.2 innings pitched across 14 outings. Harbin's opposing batting average rose to .291, his walk rate rose to 13.7%, and his strikeout rate dropped substantially to 23.5%.
The overall stats do not tell the entire story for Harbin at High-A, however. The 22-year-old was burnt by a .373 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with the Grasshoppers. A BABIP that high indicates that Harbin was burnt by poor luck and/or defense, that he likely pitched better than his overall results, and that he is due for some positive progression toward the norm in 2024.
Harbin throws a sinker/slider combination that can be very difficult for opposing hitters to handle. His slider averaged 85 MPH in 2023, his sinker averaged 95.8 MPH, and both pitches had above average spin rates. The pitches contributed to him posting a 70% ground ball rate at Low-A and a 53.3% ground ball rate at High-A.
All of this sets up an important season for Harbin in 2024. If Harbin can take a step forward with his performance at the High-A level, he could find himself at Double-A Altoona by the end of the season and as a legitimate relief pitching prospect in the Pirate farm system. If not, he could quickly fall into the organizational filler category.