30 Rangers In 30 Days: Matt Harrison
By Eric Reining
As we continue on our downhill march through 30 Rangers In 30 days, next on the list is Matt Harrison, the Rangers’ expected #2 starter in 2013. Harrison, 27, recently signed a 5-year, $55 million extension, buying out the last two of his arbitration years (for a combined $13 million), along with his first three free agent seasons (for $39 million). Given Anibal Sanchez‘s 5-year, $80 million contract earlier in the offseason, the Harrison signing was universally considered a shrewd commitment by the Rangers. And, really, for all intents and purposes, he is the Rangers second-best pitcher, absolutely performing like it over the last two years.
According to Fangraphs, over the last two seasons Matt Harrison has generated 8.2 WAR — 4.4 fWAR in 2011, and 3.8 fWAR in 2012. That’s easily the most Wins Above Replacement from anyone on the Rangers pitching staff in that fragment of time. More impressively, he’s been a symbol of consistency, totaling 399.0 innings along that wrinkle.
If we’re talking about the highest ceiling of Ranger starters since Harrison became a member of the rotation, we might very logically be able to say all of C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland have better “stuff.” There is an argument to be made for Harrison, so if you can make it I will be all ears. But then again, what is “stuff,” exactly? You hear it all the time. It’s become a lazy word in the baseball lexicon. The truth is, it’s a made up description given to pitchers whom you can’t quite figure out, a lot like saying a talented but nonathletic white basketball player shows “hustle,” or how a gritty football player has a “high motor.”
The word stuff is the purportedly definitive explanation for what cannot be explained nor quantified, which is why often times we breakdown Matt Harrison’s game to a tiny atom in a league of players with higher ceilings, and more god-given talent than he possesses. Yet, at the end of the day, the pitcher’s job is to prevent runners from crossing home plate, so perhaps the means in which Harrison consistently accomplishes this feat is an anomaly, but it nonetheless doesn’t change the results.
However, there are signs that show Harrison’s success can be attributed to luck. In 2011, Matt Harrison had an xFIP of 3.85 and SIERA of 4.09, which basically says his 3.39 ERA was a fluke in some regards. That’s the plausible rationale, at least. Then 2012 happened. That year (last year), he again outperformed his peripherals (peripherals are predictive stats like xFIP and SIERA, and what are considered “luck dragons,” such as BABIP and LOB%), outdoing his 2011 by a whole tenth of a run, laying down an ERA of 3.29. One year of data can be an aberration; back-to-back years develops a trend. Though despite a highly-impressive 2011, his duplicated success in 2012 was not as pretty from a metrics standpoint. His xFIP sat at 4.13 (.28 higher than ’11), and his SIERA an even more robust 4.27 (.16 higher than ’11). Bettering his predictive metrics by nearly a full run suggests he was, in fact, a very lucky boy.
This is the main conundrum fans have with Matt Harrison. If you look on the surface, he’s gone a combined 32-20 over the last two years, and if you split his ERA somewhere down the middle, you’re looking at a pitcher with a sub-3.35 ERA, which in the American League is considered elite. Taking that into account, if you analyze from the perspective of a Sabermatrician, they would say it’s unlikely he maintains the pace he’s set for himself over the last two years. Because although that whole sub-3-point-something ERA is great, objective metrics such as xFIP and SIERA illustrate a more realistic picture moving forward. The devil is in the details. Perhaps Matt Harrison is just one of those pitchers who continually outperforms what the metrics say (a la Jered Weaver), but deductive reasoning tells you that most pitchers’ xFIP’s and SIERA’s tend to balance out with their ERA’s over the course of a career. The question is, when will it start happening?
I’m siding with the analytics, if for nothing else that they have a strange way of being right most of the time. I didn’t invent math, but I don’t hesitate to apply it. Matt Harrison’s ERA’s have been 3.39 and 3.29 in the last two respective seasons. That’s great. I would sell my first unborn child if he could repeat those performances over the next two years. But if I’m being fair, being balanced (but not like Fox News), I’m agreeing with the metrics which say he’s been lucky the last two seasons, and that his ERA’s should have closer reflected the 3.85 xFIP he produced in 2011, or the 4.13 xFIP he generated in ’12.
The reason? Well, for starters, (a) he pitches half his games in a sweatbox in Arlington, (b) he doesn’t strikeout very many hitters (6.11/9 IP in ’11; 5.61/9 IP in ’12), and (c) his left on base % was unsustainably high in 2012 (78.5%). That figure is like hitting a couple thousand dollars on a scratcher and expecting the next one to be the same; it’s just not going to happen.
So if you’re asking me, which I don’t know why you would, I’m expecting a good but not great year from Matt Harrison in 2013, but nothing like his last two. An ERA in the range of 4.00 seems reasonable — particularly in Texas — which roughly translates to a 3.0-3.5 fWAR pitcher. We will gladly take that from our slated #2 starter, and if he performs as such, we may very likely see him starting in Game 2 of the ALDS.