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Josh Harrison: Black & Blue Instead Of Black & Gold

Harrison has been taking one for the team over and over again lately. Photo by AP.

If you have watched a Pirate game the last couple days, you probably have seen Josh Harrison get plunked a couple times.

In Harrison’s last two plate appearances Sunday, he was hit in the foot and then the leg. On Monday, he took a pitch off the knee and then the foot in his first two trips to the dish. According to the Root Sports’ broadcast, no player has been hit in four straight plate appearances since at least 1974. Elias says Harrison is also just the third player in the last 80 years to be hit twice in consecutive days.

Before this week, Harrison was not known for getting hit by pitches. He does not crowd the plate, is a smaller target than a lot of other players and never provokes a team to retaliate. His nose is clean, and until recently, his leg was baseball indent-free.

He was hit by five pitches in 487 plate appearances in 2016. In 2014, he got on first the hard way just four times in 520 plate appearances. In 40 trips to the plate in 2017, he has been hit six times.

That sharp jump up, while painful, has done a wonder for Harrison’s OBP, which sits at .378 after play Monday. His wRC+ is up 30 points (87 to 117) from last year. Perhaps he has a future as a Biggio-type scrapper. Starling Marte has made up for his poor walk rate by getting hit, so Harrison could do the same. It may just cost a lot on shinguards, bags of ice and baby aspirin, but it is a sure fire way to contribute on offense.

But it is probably not the right long term solution. Harrison’s value is mostly tied up in his defense and his baserunning. Playing with a limp will not serve him well.

So why is he getting hit? Was it something he said? Did someone tape a “Hit Me” sign to his back? Did he find the first real life baseball magnet, and if so, why did he put it in his shin? More importantly, is this an anomaly or a permanent trend?

Bob Walk theorized during the broadcast Monday that Harrison’s foot is getting close to crossing over the chalk. To the naked eye, it looks like the same step he had in 2016.

 

Perhaps it is a tad closer to the plate, but that may just be the off-center camera view from Wrigley. Either way, it is certainly not enough to see such a spike.

I do not think Harrison is getting nailed more because of his mechanics, but rather the league attacking him based off of his tendencies at the plate last year.

The four pitches Harrison were hit by also have two things in common. The first is the catcher wanted the pitch low and in. None of these HBPs was an egregious miss as much as it was poor location with little room for error.

That location was his weak spot in 2016 and throughout most of his career. A batter struggling with the low, inside corner is hardly a new development, but Harrison has bit at offerings in that location enough times that teams know to exploit it. In the rectangle outlined below (from catcher’s perspective), it is pretty clear that he is going to go after more than half of the pitches thrown in what is a trouble area for him. He still has good contact rates in that area, but it generates a ton of swings and misses across the rest baseball.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Those four pitches were also all fastballs. In that lower section of six boxes, Harrison’s contact percentage on heaters was at least 84%. He never missed contact or got a hit on a fastball in the low, inside corner of that rectangle. He hits other pitches in that spot well, but not the heater. With the bases empty every time, playing for contact suited the pitcher fine.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Courtesy of Fangraphs

The pitch count also played a role. When the count was even in 2016, Harrison went after fastballs in the lowest, furthest inside part of the rectangle 71 percent of the time. He was hit both Sunday and Monday on a 1-1 count. It’s in the scouting report that he will go after that pitch in that situation, but both pitchers missed and he got a free base out of it.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

So he got his free base. Now what? There is no way he is going to keep getting hit at this rate. If he did, his left leg would be Jell-O before Memorial Day.  The old baseball mantra is that if you are going to miss, miss low. Right now, pitches are missing low. J-Hay might be wishing they were missing him.

Harrison’s willingness to take one for the team may make pitchers approach him differently. If they go up and inside, they are going right into his wheelhouse, which would probably be the start of a hot streak for him. The more logical point of attack would be on the outside part of the plate, where he has a lower career average and swing rate.  And if that happens, at least J-Hay’s shins will live through the season.

About Alex Stumpf (53 Articles)
Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.
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