It is unfair to judge a young pitcher like Lucas Harrell solely on their struggles. They are going to happen. Harrell is not going to have a dominating outing in each start.
Harrell, who will be turning 28 in a few weeks, is beyond the point of being a prospect like Jordan Lyles, but in his second full major league season, he is also not a veteran. You are also going to evaluate Harrell a little differently even from someone like Bud Norris, because he was not a full fledged prospect.
However that is not to discount Harrell and his long term potential as a very good middle of the rotation starter on a contending team. Last season the right-hander was the best Astros starter with a 3.76 ERA, pitching 193.2 innings and compiling an 11-11 record.
Entering this season, Houston was counting on a repeat of that performance from Harrell as he and Norris are now the mainstays of the pitching staff. So far this season, Harrell has been somewhat inconsistent as he tries to duplicate his success from last season.
Before looking for another season like 2012, it must be noted that now Harrell is pitching in the more difficult American League and he had never thrown that many innings before in his career.
After his strong start against Pittsburgh on Sunday, Harrell’s ERA now sits at 4.63 which is not terrible unlike his WHIP of 1.65. That right there is the symbol of his problem this season which boils down to one thing, command.
Perhaps it is due to the stress of the innings increase last season or the pressure to do more, but Harrell has been struggling with his release point and his command. It is then only natural that he would put more runners on base who would then in turn score.
Even after his seven inning outing against the Pirates, Harrell is still only averaging 5.6 innings per start this season. Last season he averaged 6.04 innings per start, so its not much worse, but in a year when you want him to take a step forward and become more of an innings eater, Harrell is going in the other direction.
Also, Harrell is not a strikeout pitcher. This is fine, but it does hurt him when he needs to escape some trouble. What does allow him to have success in that department, is his sinker. Harrell uses his sinker to induce ground balls and double plays to avoid further damage.
Before getting too down on Harrell, which was pretty easy after his second to last start, against Detroit, his game log warrants a closer look. In reality he has only had three bad starts, and two of those came against the Tigers. Those starts account for 21 of his 29 earned runs allowed. Harrell has only allowed eight earned runs in his other seven starts. Now that is a good start to the season, and looks more like the pitcher we saw last season.
However, what was a little troubling, was the frustration Harrell showed after the Detroit start last week. We all know that the Astros have placed an emphasis on data and tailoring their approach to said data. The problem though, is overusing and overreacting to the information at hand. That is and will be one of the biggest challenges for Bo Porter as a rookie manager.
After his start, Harrell was not happy about some of the defensive shifts the Astros put on during the game. Based on Porter’s comments, it seemed like the pitcher for each game has some say in how the defensive shifts will be utilized. Whether Harrell, Porter, or both (likely the answer) are to blame, it is a moot point. It happened, let’s move on.
And move on Harrell did against the Pirates. He took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and a Pedro Alvarez solo home run was the extent of the damage. Between starts, Harrell worked with pitching coach Doug Brocail to correct some mechanical issues, and it showed.
I give Harrell a lot of credit for rebounding in the way he did after a poor outing. He was frustrated after the start and lashed out a little bit in the press. Harrell then made some adjustments in the bullpen and gave the Astros exactly what they needed. If Jeff Locke was not just as good, then we would be talking about a series victory.
Harrell is often overlooked among the Astros prospects and young players. In reality though, he has been one of the best performers since the beginning of last season. Maybe it is time we start to pay a little more attention to Harrell. In the next few years when we start to talk about the Astros and making the playoffs, Harrell might be one of the few holdovers from this year’s team.