Over the 2011-2012 seasons, there was no more valuable pitcher to the Texas Rangers than Matt Harrison. During those two years, Harrison led the team in innings pitched (399), games started (62), wins (32), and WAR (8.2 fWAR). In fact, Harrison had the 17th-highest fWAR among pitchers in baseball from 2011 to 2012, just behind Jered Weaver and ahead of Ian Kennedy.
Harrison finished 2012 with an 18-11 record, and an ERA of 3.29 over 213.1 innings pitched. He was the glue of the Rangers pitching staff that endured injuries and wild performance swings from Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. Harrison was the most consistent contributor, managing to stay healthy for the whole season, his second straight year of making 30 or more starts.
The reason that trading Harrison is an option that should be explored is that his success may not be sustainable.
Harrison’s success is dependent on inducing ground balls and keeping the ball in the yard. Harrison got a 48.3% groundball rate from 2011-2012, which trailed only CJ Wilson’s 49.3% rate in 2011 among Rangers starters. Harrison also only allowed 0.79 HR/9 over those two years, good for third-best among Rangers starting pitchers.
One thing that Harrison does not do well is miss bats. Among all 30 pitchers that pitched for the Rangers over the last two years, there was no pitcher with a lower strikeout rate than Harrison. Harrison’s 5.87 K/9 from 2011-2012 made him one of just six pitchers with a K/9 lower than 6.0 and an ERA lower than 3.50 in that span. Conversely, there were 41 pitchers with an ERA lower than 3.50 that had a K/9 higher than 6.0.
For most pitchers, at some point missing bats is an important skill to possess. The thing about relying on balls being put into play in order to get an unusually high percentage of outs is that in some ways, defensive performance, and a bit of luck become crucial keys to success.
In 2012, Harrison had a 3.29 ERA, but his FIP was 4.09. By comparison, Yu Darvish had a 3.90 ERA, but his FIP was 3.29. FIP attempts to remove the impact of defense and luck on a pitcher’s performance to provide a truer indicator of the pitcher’s contributions. For Harrison, it suggests that in 2012 he benefitted greatly from factors outside of his control.
There are the rare individuals that carve out long and successful careers without striking many batters out. Mark Buehrle is the poster child, and should be viewed as the best case scenario for what Matt Harrison’s career could be. Buehrle has a career K/9 of 5.11, but has logged 47.5 fWAR over the past 12 seasons. The biggest factor that has played in Buehrle’s favor is his health, as he has hit the 200 innings pitched plateau for 12 straight years.
Maybe Harrison can be the next Buehrle, but that is the exception, not the rule.
Trading Matt Harrison this offseason would be selling high on the 27-year old left-hander in a market that is desperate for starting pitching. The time it takes to run through the list of available and desirable free agent starting pitchers this offseason is only dependent on how long it takes you to say “Greinke”.
Rumors have been mongered regarding the Tampa Bay Rays looking to move one or more of their starting pitchers, but the Rays have been historically stingy to deal with in trades. By dangling Matt Harrison, a top-20 pitcher the past two seasons, the Rangers could court several suitors with valuable pieces to barter with. One possibility would be the Kansas City Royals, who have reportedly determined they would be willing to part with Wil Myers in return for a frontline starter. Another possibility would be using Harrison in a package to send to the Miami Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton.
Harrison is an asset to the Rangers, whether he is used in a trade or still a member of the rotation on Opening Day 2013. But in order to maximize the value of that asset, the Rangers should pursue what sort of return they could get on Harrison this winter, because the odds are that he’ll never have another year close to his 2012 again.
Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM