Believe it or not, but the Astros best relief pitcher in 2016 came to Houston via the waiver wire in 2015.
Harris has arguably been the Astros top bullpen arm in a group that has been a letdown of sorts in 2016. Giles has been demoted from setup to the sixth or seventh inning duty most games. Gregerson has blown three of his last four save opportunities. Tony Sipp has had his fair share of struggles. Josh Fields is back in the minors. Harris, on the other hand, has thrived and in a way he has become the glue that holds together the Astros bullpen.
But how good has Harris actually been when compared to some other top relievers in the game today? Well, let me show you.
0.84 ERA, 1.40 FIP, 86.4% LOB%, 41.1% GB%, 0.9 WAR
0.46 ERA, 1.36 FIP, 92.3% LOB%, 72.5% GB%, 0.8 WAR
If you had to take a guess, which of the two players statistics listed above belongs to Will Harris? Well, if your answer was Player B then you would be correct. But who was Player A? If you guessed Kelvin Herrera of the Kansas City Royals, you would be correct once again. So Harris is arguably having just as good a season that one of the top relievers from one of the best bullpens in baseball is having as well. In fact, in just 19.2 innings pitched this season, the Astros right-hander has managed to surpass his WAR total in 2016 compared to his 0.5 WAR in 72 innings pitched last season. And we only passed the quarter mark of the season a few days ago.
There seem to be a few areas where Harris has experienced improvement, which explains his incredible numbers up to this point. His strikeout rate for one has increased from 24.6% K% to 27% K%.
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But even more incredibly, and I am curious to see how long this lasts, is Harris’ minuscule walk rate. Last season Harris finished with a walk rate of 8.0%. Not the best, but definitely better than average. Thus far in 2016 though, Harris has seen his walk rate drop to just 2.0%! That’s right, a 6.0% drop. Of course, this current rate may not be maintained for very long. But this kind of production is just simply incredible when taking into account that he pitched a career high of 72 innings last year. Harris has also experienced improvement in other areas, such as ground ball rate, which has climbed from 50.5% to 72.5% thus far in 2016. These areas would seem to be the primary reasons behind his improved performance in 2016.
But what is Harris doing this year to see such a change? Well, for one, it appears that Harris has concentrated on just two pitches: his cutter and curveball. In seasons past, he has toyed around with a changeup, which wasn’t used very often. In fact, per Brooks Baseball, Harris only used his changeup at a frequency of 0.93% last season. His cutter and curveball usage rate was 79.12% and 19.95% respectively. Still, the fact that he has dropped the changeup completely is noteworthy.
And his usage of his cutter and curveball has also changed. So far this season, Harris has thrown his curveball 30.14% of all his pitches. The cutter makes up the remaining 69.86% if you adhere by Brooks Baseball data. That is 10.19% difference of curveball usage between the two seasons, even though one is still a small sample size. And it seems that his increased curveball usage is the primary behind his vastly improved ground ball rate.
And look at the sample from the 2016 season.
The question remains whether Harris will continue this level of production going forward. The early results have been positive, but we are talking about a reliever who still only has one proven year to his credit. And in regards to his ground ball rate, the Astros right-hander experienced months of high ground ball totals in 2015. But not at the high level he has produced this year.
Regardless, the Astros best reliever isn’t a pitcher that they traded multiple top prospects or given million dollars. No, instead it was a pitcher that who was never expected to perform at this level after hitting the waiver wire.
**Statistics provided by Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball**