Self-discipline allows a pitcher to feel his individuality, his inner strength, his talent. He is master of, rather than a slave to, his thoughts and emotions."
— H.A. Dorfman
The Mental ABCs of Pitching
Matt Harrison spent the winter prior to the 2011 season reading his self-proclaimed first book, The Mental ABCs of Pitching, and had the best season of his career. As the quote says, Harrison found his inner strength and his talent and came into his own and really established himself as a groundball pitcher who can win consistently at this level. His mental toughness and maturity all came to fruition in 2011 and 2012, but most Rangers fans want to know what we can expect from him as his career continues. Is he a perennial All-Star or a reliable groundball pitcher that will eat up innings year in and year out, but never become a dominant “ace”?
By 2008, Harrison was a 23 year old lefty prospect battling injuries and unfulfilled potential from his days as the premier lefty in the Braves organization prior to the Teixeira trade. Harrison has never been labeled as a flame throwing strikeout machine, but the potential was always there for him to become a solid rotational arm because of his frame and his ability to command the strike zone. The two key components of what makes Harrison tick revolve around his ability to get groundball outs and his ability to limit his walks per 9 IP.
By looking at his groundball percentage rate from his first season in the big leagues (2008) to this past season (2012) we can see a steady increase in his ability to get more sink on his fastball and create more groundballs. (Information found at Fangraphs.com)
I think it’s a safe hypothesis to say that the ability to strike out batters frequently is a must for a top of the rotation starter. In the 2011-2012 seasons Matt Harrison ranked 67th among qualified M.L. starters in strikeouts per 9 innings. Below are the pitchers directly above and below Harrison in strikeouts per 9 IP:
“There is a disconnect here, as Harrison has a power arsenal but confounds scouts with an inability to miss many bats”
Baseball Prospectus 2008
This isn’t the first time it has been written on this website or elsewhere that Matt Harrison isn’t an ace, but after having two great seasons for the Rangers, I think it’s important to re-evaluate his numbers and solidify his role. There is only one stat that matters and that is wins and Harrison wins at a high rate when he gets groundballs. In 2011 and 2012 Matt Harrison pitched 30 games where his groundball percentage was at 50% or higher. In those 30 games he was an astounding 20-5 with 5 no decisions. During that same stretch when Harrison doesn’t give up any homeruns he is 16-0 with 3 no decisions. The home run stat is probably very similar for all pitchers because when you don’t give up homeruns you usually pitch deeper into games and win more, but a 16-0 record is a fantastic winning percentage and a great indicator of identifying Matt Harrison’s success. When you combine a groundball percentage of 50% or greater and the absence of homeruns, you have a dominant pitcher that can win a lot of ballgames for the Texas Rangers.
The problem of course is a pitcher who relies on a sinking fastball isn’t always “on”. His stuff is somewhat like that of the knuckle ball pitcher and often the pitcher is held hostage by that one pitch. When you combine a fastball that stays up in the zone and an inability to miss bats, you have a perfect middle of the rotation guy. He will be consistent enough throughout the course of the season to win 10-13 games and keep you in most of the ballgames he pitches. To be a top of the rotation starter, you have to miss bats so you can survive on days when you don’t have your best stuff, something Harrison lacks. His development could continue and he may find that strikeout pitch, but his trends have been far too consistent during his pro career to expect such a change.