Exceeding Expectations: The Matt Harrison Story

By Peter Ellwood

The Texas Rangers are the best team in the American League. Matt Harrison has been the best pitcher on the best team in the American League all year. On Sunday, Harrison once again proved his value to the Rangers, getting 26 outs against the Seattle Mariners in a 2-1 victory, providing the Texas bullpen with some much needed rest. Harrison’s 2012 now consists of a 17-9 record, 193.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, and a 3.90 FIP. He is not in the conversation for the AL Cy Young, but will finish 2012 as the Rangers’ best starter, a feat that very few could have predicted before the start of the season. Of course, when it comes to Harrison, his results exceeding expectations is nothing new.

As a prospect, Harrison was classified as arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the Atlanta Braves farm system. One of the main issues that scouts had with Harrison was that his strikeout rates were low, and that he missed very few bats. It was a bit confusing, because Harrison’s pure stuff seemed dominant enough to induce strikeouts, but they never came. The belief was that eventually Harrison would grow to tally strikeouts, as that would be key to his future success. Those waiting on Harrison to start striking hitters out must still be waiting, as he has a 5.6 SO/9 rate in 2012, the sixth-lowest among qualifying pitchers in the American League.

At the time that Harrison was traded from the Braves to the Rangers, he was flagged as a good prospect with a health risk, as he had been shut down in the 2007 season due to shoulder tendonitis. Were it not for that additional risk, he is likely considered too good of a prospect to be dealt as a piece in “the Mark Teixeira trade”. As it was, the shoulder tendonitis knocked him down a couple of pegs, and precluded the Braves sending him to the Rangers along with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, and Neftali Feliz. It is now five years later, and except for thoracic outlet surgery in 2009, Harrison’s shoulder has not been an issue, now registering over 180 MLB innings pitched in consecutive seasons.

As a part of the Rangers’ farm system, Harrison has seemingly been constantly overshadowed, most frequently by Derek Holland. On top of Harrison’s prolonged inability to miss bats, his results and velocity lagged behind Holland’s. Harrison finished the 2008 season with a fastball that averaged 91.3 MPH. Harrison’s fastball has averaged 93.2 MPH in 2012, nearly a full two MPH increase. In Sunday’s start, Harrison hit 96.1 MPH on pitch number 109 out of 119. He has shaken off any previous misconception that he is a soft-tossing southpaw.

In 2010, Harrison was left off of the Rangers’ postseason roster. In 2011, he had a forgettable playoff performance, particularly as the starting pitcher of a World Series Game 7 that saw the Rangers returning to Texas empty-handed. With that memory burned in the minds of Rangers’ fans, there was speculation entering 2012 that Harrison’s role may be in the Rangers’ bullpen, considering the availability of Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Yu Darvish, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, and Scott Feldman to factor into the starting rotation. Now, as the season nears its end, Harrison has been superior to his peers, and is in the conversation to be the Rangers’ Game 163 starter.

Matt Harrison has been categorized in many ways throughout his career, and very few of those categorizations have turned out to be correct. He has continued to find ways to succeed beyond expectations, a rare accomplishment for a prospect in baseball. Most people don’t view Harrison as a Game 1 starter of a playoff series, and with good reason. However, that hasn’t stopped Harrison from proving the majority thought wrong before, and he might just end up doing it again.

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