What can I say about Lucas Harrell? The Astros Pitcher of the Year in 2012 turned into the exact opposite in 2013. What went wrong… and which one is the real Lucas Harrell?
I became a big fan of Lucas Harrell the first time I saw him toe the slab in an Astros uniform. Acquired as a waiver claim from the White Sox during the 2011 season, Harrell made his Astros debut that September. Although his command wasn’t that great, I marveled at the fact that Harrell had such tremendous movement on all of his pitches. He wasn’t getting a lot of swings and misses, but he was inducing some seriously weak contact. I jumped right onto an extremely empty Lucas Harrell bandwagon and began singing his praises to anyone that would listen.
In 2012, Harrell was making me look like a genius. Pitching out of the #2 spot in the Astros rotation, Lucas was holding his own against some of the league’s best hurlers. Command was still a bit of an issue, as high pitch counts were preventing him from pitching deep into games. Still, Harrell showed a lot of toughness and a knack for winning. Harrell would finish the season with more wins (11) and a lower ERA (3.76) than any other Astros starter. His 1.358 WHIP was second best on the starting staff. Harrell’s 2012 performance gave Astros fans plenty of reasons to be excited about his future.
At 27 years of age, Harrell entered the 2013 season in the prime of his career, seemingly poised to have another outstanding campaign. In his familiar #2 spot in the Astros rotation, Lucas began the season with a solid outing, allowing only one run and six hits in six innings against a powerful Texas Rangers lineup. Unfortunately, Yu Darvish was on the mound for the Rangers and the Astros failed to get a runner on base until there were two outs in the ninth inning. It was the beginning of a long, difficult season for our man Lucas.
Harrell had a rough second start of the year but pitched pretty well for the rest of April. A couple of poor starts against the Tigers in May were understandable. But then, things started to go bad in a hurry. Harrell was getting clobbered on a regular basis. Harrell had lost his mojo and he wasn’t taking it well.
To make things worse, Harrell began complaining openly about defensive shifts being used while he was on the mound. He quickly found himself in the managers doghouse and it wasn’t long until he was pulled from the rotation. A clubhouse brawl with Jordan Lyles would soon follow and it looked like Harrell’s days in Houston could be numbered.
But Harrell wasn’t going anywhere. A once promising trade market for the starter had all but dried up now that he was struggling. The deadline had passed and the Astros were stuck with him. Harrell would finish out the season in Bo Porter‘s bullpen, making a couple of spot starts along the way. In what has to be considered a complete disaster of a year, Harrell would pile up more walks (88) and losses (17) than any pitcher in the league.
In trying to put my finger on exactly what went wrong for Harrell, I came up with a few stats that might help tell the story. Command seemed to be the biggest issue. Harrell’s zone percentage took a substantial drop. In 2013, Lucas threw only 38% of his pitches in the strike zone — compared to 44.6% the previous season. Due to his lack of command, hitters were able to exercise more patience against Harrell. His swing-and-miss rate dropped from 6.1% to 5.1%. The league average was 9.3%. Harrell’s ground ball to fly ball ratio was down a bit, but at 1.88 was still excellent. An increase in his HR/FB% from 9.7% to 14.3% is one of the most eye-opening stats I could find.
But, all in all, I think most of Harrell’s problems originated between his ears. And, it is possible that the Astros are of the same opinion. It was Lyles, not Harrell, that was traded away this offseason. That move sends a signal that the Astros are still considering Harrell for a spot in the starting rotation for 2014.
If he can get his head screwed back on straight, Harrell just might rekindle the magic that made him so successful in 2013. I think new pitching coach Brent Strom will be a key factor in getting Harrell right again. In addition to the newly acquired Scott Feldman, the Astros are going to need another veteran starter to take some of the pressure off of the youngsters. Is there any chance that Harrell can step up and be that guy?