The bullpen is often overlooked when a team is successful, yet quickly blamed when a team fails to secure tight wins. So when a talented reliever comes along, it’s wise to take notice and give him his due. Justin Gorman takes a look at Houston Astros reliever Will Harris.
After losing to the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals in the ALDS, there was considerable buzz around a young Houston Astros team, who finished second in the AL West in 2015. Boasting a potent offense and a rotation anchored by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, the Astros were an unsurprising favorite to win the West this year.
However, Houston is in the process of recovering from an abysmal beginning to the 2016 season while alone in third place in the division. The Astros hold a 31-35 record, a distant 9.5 games back from the first place Texas Rangers, and only 3 games ahead of the last place Oakland Athletics. While their offense and rotation have mostly underperformed their expectations, they have found a bright spot at the back-end of their bullpen in the form of Will Harris.
Entering spring training, the presumptive frontrunner for the closer role was 25-year-old Ken Giles, who was acquired via trade from the Phillies for Mark Appel, Brett Oberholtzer and Vincent Velasquez, among others. Despite the tremendous volume of names the Astros sent to Philly, the decision was made to begin the season with Luke Gregerson closing games. Gregerson notched 13 saves on his way to a subpar 4.13 ERA over 28 1/3 innings.
In the past week, Houston publicly stated that they will be using a “closer-by-committee” approach, except they just gave the ball to 31-year-old Harris, who proved in 2015 that he could be a bona fide closer. In 68 appearances, Harris struck out 68 batters and walked 22, while only giving up 15 earned runs in 71 innings of work. That was good for a 1.90 ERA, 0.775 WHIP, and an impressive ERA+ of 210.
Fast forward to 2016, and Harris has been nothing short of absurd. To date, he has toed the rubber for 29 2/3 innings, striking out 31, walking six, and only allowing two earned runs. Your mind can’t handle these numbers: 0.61 ERA, 0.802 WHIP, and an ERA+ of… 684.
Our good friends at Brooks Baseball report that Harris relies upon two primary pitches to get the otherworldly results noted above – a cutter (around 93-mph) which they describe as “a real worm killer that generates an extreme number of groundballs compared to other pitchers’ cutters, is blazing fast, generates more whiffs/swing and has good ‘rise.’” His secondary pitch (if you want to call it that) is a similarly tantalizing curveball, described by Brooks as “much harder than usual, [with] a sharp downward bite.”
While the descriptions of Harris’s two pitches clearly espouse a level of dominance, the deeper numbers back those descriptions up nicely – his whiff/swing rate on his cutter has increased steadily over the course of the year. In April, Harris was getting just shy of 20% whiff/swing, in May that increased to just a tick over 30%, and so far in June, he’s sitting around 41%. In 2015, the league average whiff/swing for all starting and relief pitchers combined on cutters was 21.5% according to PitchF/X data.
When batters have the good fortune of making contact, they often find themselves driving the ball into the ground. Harris’s groundball rates are astonishing – to date in 2016, Harris’s curve has induced groundballs on exactly 2/3 of those hit in play, and his cutter has generated a groundball rate of 65%. According to FanGraphs, the 2015 league average for all pitches was a 45.3% GB%, and so far in 2016, that has remained remarkably consistent, at 45.2%.
Will Harris has converted his last four save chances, and on June 11, allowed a run for the first time since April 7. His microscopic ERA and WHIP should put him on every fantasy player’s radar, and he seems to be a much better bet in the short-term than Gregerson, Giles, Pat Neshek, or Tony Sipp. Presuming the Astros are able to correct their early-season woes and start carrying leads into the late innings, expect Harris to be piling up more and more saves as the season moves forward.
Justin Gorman has written about manager tirades, baseball contracts, an illegal delivery, and the case for expansion.
Follow Justin on Twitter @j1gorman.
Special thanks to Ian York for the fantastic gifs.