With the 2017 season now officially in the rearview mirror, and with the Houston Astros first-time champions, we turn our attention to the 2018 fantasy baseball season. Each week, I will be evaluating one player’s stock for next year. This week, we look at Josh Harrison, a former All-Star whose stock had fallen somewhat in recent years but who demonstrated some encouraging signs of a turnaround in 2017.
Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2B/3B
2017 statistics: .272/.339/.432, 16 home runs, 12 stolen bases
Known primarily for his breakout season and his reputation as a versatile defender, Josh Harrison slogged through two underwhelming seasons from 2015-2016, removing the shine built up during a 2014 season in which he slashed .315/.347/.490 while starting games at five different positions. On the surface, his 2017 season was not particularly encouraging, either, as his batting average fell .010 points from last season, with an on-base uptick more a reflection of hit-by-pitches than an increased walk rate. That said, Harrison’s underlying skills, particularly a massive power spike, offer some reason for hope that he can be a valuable five-category contributor next season. Like quite a few other players profiled recently, his fantasy stock also could change dramatically — in his case, for the better, based on his employer’s offseason course of action.
Up until 2017, Harrison had always had immense success on balls in play, including a .353 BABIP in the aforementioned 2014 season. While a figure at that level was always likely to be unsustainable (and indeed was), he does have the profile of a player likely to run high BABIPs. Although his batted-ball authority is subpar (his 84.1 MPH average exit velocity in 2017 was below the league-average), he rarely pops up and has above-average speed, avoiding easy outs and, theoretically, putting himself in a position to beat out infield hits. Last season, Harrison’s line drive rate also bounced back to a 22.7% mark that was right in line with his career-average, as opposed to an outlier 19.5% the year before. Despite the uptick in line drives and the highest hard-contact rate of any full season of his career, Harrison’s BABIP fell to a career-low .303 mark. Even a slight positive regression in that department next season would do wonders for Harrison’s batting average productivity.
Despite the BABIP drop-off, Harrison’s batting average in 2017 sat at a respectable .272 thanks to his above-average bat-to-ball skills. Harrison has had strikeout rates below the league-average and contact rates above that in every season of his MLB career, and, while his contact rate in 2017 did hit a career-low, it was still three percentage points higher than average. He has always been a very aggressive hitter, depressing his walk rates but limiting his strikeouts, and his out-of-zone swing rate in 2017 was the lowest mark of his career. While drawing walks will never be a strong suit, he manages to keep his on-base percentages respectable by running high batting averages, and a reasonable uptick in BABIP in 2018 would help to keep that afloat. So long as Harrison continues to swing at strikes and make contact at an above-average rate, his chase rate will not be a major problem for fantasy owners, beyond the fact that merely average on-base percentages can limit his run scoring and stolen base opportunities somewhat, but not to any devastating extent.
Most importantly, Harrison’s power ticked upwards this season, as he joined the rest of the baseball in setting a career mark in home runs, with 16. Of course, this is not some sort of elite total; his below-average exit velocity limits his power upside, as does his pitcher-friendly home park (more on that later). He has, though, eclipsed 25 doubles in four consecutive seasons, and his 2017 fly-ball rate was the highest mark of his career, so that 15-20 home run range may be sustainable. In many respects, Harrison’s batted-ball profile closely mirrored his 2014 profile, and, while the results that he produced that year were somewhat inflated by luck, his true talent level likely lies between the .365 and the .332 weighted on-base averages (which synthesizes all batting results into one metric) that he put up in those respective seasons. It is worth noting that, as mentioned, Statcast was not particularly bullish on Harrison’s output, estimating that he “should have had” a .310 wOBA this year that does not even match up to the .332 mark that he actually produced. In all three years that the technology has been in place, however, Harrison has outperformed that number substantially, perhaps because his speed allows him to beat out singles and leg out extra-base hits more often than his batted-ball quality would indicate that he should. With the average major-league hitter in 2017 sporting a .255/.324/.426 line, Harrison seems poised to best all of those categories (substantially in the case of batting average and on-base percentage) with a simple uptick in his batting average on balls in play next year.
While somewhat depressed, Harrison’s main calling card, his versatility, remains to some degree. He logged only enough innings for immediate eligibility at second and third base for next season and his time at shortstop is long over, but he did draw some time in the outfield for the sixth consecutive season. As a result, it is possible, albeit unlikely, that he could accrue eligibility there, as well. While the lack of shortstop eligibility undoubtedly hurts his value, an ability to play multiple positions is useful for bench options, which is likely how Harrison is going to be deployed next year, at least initially. Harrison’s speed, as mentioned, also gives him another advantage, going beyond its impact on his ability to beat out infield hits. He has tallied double-digit stolen bases in each of his four full seasons, remaining a productive overall baserunner in that time. While he has never eclipsed 20 steals in a season and will never be mistaken for a true burner, he offers some stolen base value at a time where only 46 players both stole at least 10 bases and were above-average hitters in 2017, making Harrison somewhat of a rare commodity.
Additionally, the course of the Pirates’ offseason could impact Harrison’s fantasy value; specifically, a trade to a team with a more hitter-friendly park could drastically improve his power output. According to RotoGrinders, PNC Park is 14 percent more difficult than the average MLB park for right-handed power hitters (only six other parks rated as less friendly), and Harrison’s career HR/FB rates have reflected this difficulty. Despite having batted ball authority data at or slightly-below the league-average, he has always had extremely low home-run rates, ostensibly because PNC Park has worked to take away some of that power potential. With the Pirates’ organization potentially facing a crossroads this offseason, a move for Harrison seems plausible, if not likely, and it would almost certainly work to his benefit.
Because the luster has largely worn off from his unsustainable 2014 season, Josh Harrison seems to have fallen into fantasy baseball oblivion. To be sure, he is not on the realm of some massive breakout; his Statcast data cast legitimate doubts on his level of power upside, and, barring some massive BABIP spike, he is unlikely to have much of a ceiling remaining at age 30. That said, there are many reasons to believe that Harrison is again trending upwards as a fantasy asset thanks to a 2017 season that was probably more productive than his surface numbers would indicate. Upticks in his hard-contact and line-drive rates were not rewarded with any sort of batting average spike, and, although his power levels reached unprecedented heights, he could very plausibly repeat that level of power production next season, particularly if he is indeed moved this offseason. Regardless, Harrison profiles as a high-end bench piece, a legitimate contributor in all five categories with some positional versatility and an expected batting average and power production likely higher than most people realize, making him an intriguing mid-round target.