From the mailbag, one of several similar questions over the last few weeks:
"What's up with Josh Harrison in Pittsburgh? He steals bases, has some pop, and is hitting over .300 and I'd never thought of him as anything more than a scrub. Explain where he came from please. I admit I only noticed him at first because I live in a town called Harrison."---Corey in Harrison, Ohio
Corey is not the only person asking about Josh Harrison, a player worthy of some attention. So let's give it to him.
Josh Harrison played college baseball at the University of Cincinnati (there's another synchronicity for Corey right there, given that Harrison, Ohio is in the Cincinnati metro area). He had a particularly good junior year in 2008, hitting .378/.437/.559 with 32 stolen bases in 40 attempts, which got him drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the sixth round. He kept hitting for Boise in the Northwest League (.351/.462/.509 in 33 games) but was less effective after moving up to Peoria for August (.262/.286/.336 in 31 games).
I saw him late for Peoria and liked his athleticism, but worried about the lack of power:
The Cubs drafted Harrison out of the University of Cincinnati, a sixth round pick in 2008. He performed very well in the Northwest League after signing, but he was overmatched after being promoted to the Midwest League in August. Harrison is very fast and athletic, but is undersized and lacks power. He controlled the strike zone well at Boise, but it was a different story at Peoria: pitchers weren’t afraid of him in the Midwest League, making it harder to work the count. He still made contact and didn’t strike out much, but unless he shows enough pop to make the pitchers respect him a bit, his other skills won’t matter enough. Grade C.
He had a good year in 2009, hitting .337/.377/.479 with 16 steals in 79 games for Peoria, then was traded to the Pirates in July for Tom Gorzelanny. He finished for Lynchburg in the Carolina League at .270/.289/.362 in 34 games. I did not put him in my 2010 book and to be honest I don't know why. He played well enough to be included and had been involved in a trade, so I should have written him up.
The Pirates sent him to Altoona in 2010 and he adapted well, hitting .300/.345/.398 with 33 doubles, four homers, 32 walks, and 52 strikeouts in 520 at-bats. He also stole 19 bases and played multiple positions with some measure of success. Scouting reports praised his hustle but criticized his lack of physical tools. He made the 2011 book:
He is a speedy line drive hitter and a "baseball rat" type who plays above his tools. He played mostly third base last year in Double-A, although he doesn’t have the power to play that position regularly in the majors. He’s a good defender at second base, and has experience in the corner outfield spots as well, being groomed as a utility player. He is a good bunter, too. Grade C
Harrison spent half of 2011, all of 2012, and part of 2013 on the Pirates bench, performing well enough to hold down a roster spot as a utility infielder. All of a sudden this year we see a surge of performance: .308/.347/.496 with 25 doubles, 10 homers, 17 steals, and a 3.5 fWAR. Add in the ability to play third base, second base, and the corner outfield spots and you have a perfect super-utility player.
So what's up here? Michael Barr at Fangraphs broke down Harrison's splits a couple of weeks ago, looking at batted ball and Pitch F/X data. He concluded that "there’s certainly no smoking gun here to suggest that Josh Harrison is due to turn into a pumpkin."
Looking at it from the historical prospect development perspective, Harrison turned 27 in July, so he's at the exact classic spot on the age curve for a career year. Although he is showing more isolated power this year than he normally does, it isn't like he was hopeless in the minors; he hit .308/.358/.437 during his minor league career. The 2014 surge season is at the upper bounds of expectation but it is not entirely out of career context.
Harrison has always made contact well. My research over the years has shown that these contact-hitting utility infield types can show "unexpected" offensive development when they get into their late 20s and are finally mature physically. I think that is what happened here.
My guess for Harrison: this will be the best season of his career, but it will solidify his hold on a job as a super-utility type. I would expect him to stabilize as something like a .280/.320/.420 hitter over the next few campaigns.