Will Matt Harrison be a Game 1 Starter in the Playoffs?

Matt Harrison has been the best starting pitcher on the Texas Rangers, the team with the second-best record in Major League Baseball. He continued that quest on Sunday, firing his second complete game, five-hit shutout of the year against the Seattle Mariners in a 4-0 Rangers victory. Harrison leads the Rangers’ starting staff in innings pitched (122.1), ERA (2.87), FIP (3.50), and WAR (2.8 fWAR) in 2012. Entering the season, there was some speculation regarding whether Harrison would even be a member of the starting rotation on Opening Day, or if he would begin the season in the bullpen instead of Alexi Ogando. Now, Harrison has been perhaps the only Texas starter that could be classified as dependable or consistent all season long.

When it comes to discussing a potential 4-man playoff rotation for the Rangers, Harrison is typically listed as the third or fourth option, falling somewhere behind or in between Colby Lewis, Yu Darvish, and Derek Holland. Harrison is not as proven as Lewis, and his stuff is not as flashy as Darvish or Holland. Despite being the team’s best pitcher for the season, it is unlikely that Harrison would ever find himself toeing the rubber in a Game 1 of an American League Division Series in 2012, but given his success, should he?

One of the first reasons that Harrison is not considered a Game 1 pitcher is strikeouts. Harrison just doesn’t get them. In 2012, Harrison has had incredible success despite only inducing 5.4 K/9. Among 99 qualified starters around the league, Harrison ranks 92nd in K/9. Strikeouts are the calling card of any top of the rotation pitcher because missing bats and getting strike threes cannot be defeated by luck, bad bounces, or errors the same way that balls put in play can. Harrison lives off of pitching to contact, which is a scary way to make a living when it comes to facing a potent offense in a playoff game.

To make up for the lack of strikeouts, Harrison has effectively mastered the art of being a groundball pitcher. His 51% groundball rate is the 10th highest in the American League. When he’s not inducing groundballs, Harrison is keeping the fly balls inside the park; his 7.0% HR/FB rate is 5th best in the AL. Harrison doesn’t hold opponents to a particularly low batting average (.256), nor does he get unusually lucky (.289 BABIP), but he improves his odds of success by not walking very many batters (2.28 BB/9) and by inducing double plays.

In 2010, Harrison was left off of the Rangers playoff roster. That learning experience gave him the motivation to have the best season of his career in 2011. After disappointing results in the 2011 postseason, including Game 7 of the World Series, Harrison has returned in 2012 to top his 2011 effort. Following the trend, Harrison could be a key contributor in the 2012 postseason for Texas. One key for Harrison will be to avoid late-season fatigue. In 2011, he wore down in the late months of the season, and finished with 185.1 innings. He has already thrown 122.1 innings in 2012, on pace to easily set a new career high.

Sometimes ground balls and line drives are caught, and sometimes they’re not. So far, for Harrison, most of the contact off of him has not done much damage. Harrison will likely not be a Game 1 starter again this year, because of that uncertainty. In the playoffs, a dependence on good fortune and luck is not a viable strategy. Harrison is an excellent pitcher, but at any time his luck could run out. However, he becomes a critical weapon for the Rangers deeper in a series. Few teams would be able to send a pitcher to the mound in a Game 3 start that has generated the same kind of results that Harrison has. If Matt Harrison continues to progress and succeeds in the 2012 postseason, he may yet one day find himself starting a Game 1, he’s just not there yet.

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