Matt Harrison Has a Night

By Peter Ellwood

Matt Harrison isn’t the most well-known pitcher on the Texas Rangers pitching staff. He isn’t flashy, doesn’t have much of an off-field personality, hasn’t been dominant in big games, doesn’t have a big contract, and most projections for his career wouldn’t place him higher than being a #3-type of a starting pitcher. In fact, entering the 2012 season, Harrison’s name was the one that most pundits and fans were the quickest to point to as being an option to trade or move to the bullpen, if a spot needed to be opened up in the Rangers’ pitching rotation.

Friday night, on a night when the Rangers needed it badly, Harrison twirled a gem on the pitcher’s mound against the San Francisco Giants. He pitched a complete game shutout, throwing 111 pitches (77 for strikes), scattering five hits, walking none, and striking out four. Additionally, he got 18 outs on groundball outs, as the Texas defense provided strong support behind him. The groundball outs are key to Harrison’s success. On this cool night by the bay he had his sinking fastball working to induce those outs on the ground. The Giants hitters were off-balance all night, highlighted by the seven bats that Harrison broke during the game.

This was just the third complete game, and the first complete game shutout thrown by a Rangers starting pitcher this year. It came on the heels of a four-game series in Oakland in which the bullpen was taxed heavily. It also comes on the eve of back-to-back Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando starts, two pitchers who have spent most of the year in the Rangers bullpen, and cannot be expected to pitch very deep in the ballgame. Harrison’s complete game couldn’t have come at a better time for this Rangers team. Not only did it give the bullpen a much needed night off, it also helped snap a 2-8 slump the Rangers have been suffering through.

As I wrote before the season started, the Baseball Prospectus projection system (PECOTA) expected Harrison to have the lowest WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) of any of the Rangers six possible starting pitchers (Lewis, Darvish, Feliz, Holland, Ogando, and Harrison). PECOTA projected Harrison to collect 0.6 WARP over the entire season. Even before Friday night’s game, Harrison had 0.5 WARP, a total that will surely go up, and likely surpass the full-season projected value. For the season, Harrison now has an 8-3 record with a 3.87 ERA.

It is not the right moment to mention this, as the accomplishment of the night for Harrison should stand on its own. So before reading further, pause to make sure it has soaked in. Now that you have done that, I will say that Harrison has two more years of arbitration eligibility under the Rangers control. Prior to this season, the Rangers signed Harrison’s fellow left-handed rotation-mate Derek Holland to a 5-year contract extension. Over the last season and a half, Harrison has arguably generated better results than Holland. Harrison is a great fit for the Rangers because of his ability to force groundball outs, especially to the left side of the infield which is patrolled by Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre. Harrison is not a big strikeout pitcher, and he likely never will be. However, he is still a very effective big league pitcher, still two months away from his 27th birthday. One has to wonder if a contract extension could be coming soon for Harrison as well.

He’ll never headline a starting rotation or be the star of an entertaining between innings interview, but Matt Harrison showed up in a big way for the Texas Rangers. So far in his career, he has been an under-appreciated starting pitcher, but in his own clubhouse that isn’t a problem, especially tonight.

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