As the trade deadline approached, Pittsburgh Pirates 2B Josh Harrison’s name surfaced in several trade rumors.  Most prominently, he was said to be a target of interest from the Boston Red Sox, who would have likely traded several promising prospects for the all-star infielder.

Ultimately, the Pittsburgh Pirates elected to keep their all-star utility player lovingly known as Jay Hay.  This was a wise decision for the club even as they will likely finish the season mired in mediocrity.

He’s a Keeper

At the start of the season, we profiled Josh Harrison in our Keep or Trade series, recommending the Pirates keep the infielder and move him to the top of the batting order.  It was not a slam dunk decision though.  We noted that after a breakout 2014 season where he slashed .315/.347/.490, he followed it up with injury-shortened campaigns of .287/.327/.390 and .283/.311/.388 in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.   We speculated that Harrison’s career batting average of .284 is what the Pittsburgh Pirates could expect from him in general.

We also pointed out the one area where Harrison could improve greatly is his career OBP of .316.  During the 2016 season, Harrison ranked dead last among all qualified NL hitters with only 18 free passes in 2016.  With an added emphasis on drawing more walks and swinging at less pitches outside the strike zone, we felt that Harrison could be one of the better second basemen in the National League.

We also noted that Jay Hay had a hidden talent.  His career performance as a leadoff hitter is much better than his overall stat line.  As of the end of the 2016 season, his career batting average in the #1 spot was an impressive .308.  This caused us to believe that Harrison would thrive in the leadoff spot, or at the very least, somewhere in the top of the order.

2017 Results

We all know by now that Harrison has enjoyed a renaissance at the plate in 2017, slashing .277/.354/.427 to go along with 11 home runs and 11 steals.  Harrison carried the Pirates’ offense (with a little help from Adam Frazier) through the first two months of the season while Andrew McCutchen was still finding himself.  He’s done the lion’s share of damage at the plate hitting in either the #1 or #2 position, proving our thesis that he thrives there.  His performance drops off to a .243 average when he is any other spot in the batting order.

He has drawn 26 walks so far in 2017, already eclipsing his mark of 18 for all of 2016.  However, he has also been hit by a pitch 21 times already this season.  If you look at walks and HBP combined, Harrison ranks in the top 20 of qualified National League hitters in getting a free pass.  This is a huge improvement from last season.  His strikeout rate has increased slightly, but this is more than made up for by his increased on-base percentage.

Still Defending at a High Level

Harrison has reverted back to more of a utility player this season with the loss of Jung Ho Kang.  His peripheral fielding statistics have suffered a bit as a result.  His FanGraphs Ultimate Zone Rating in 2017 is 0.4 as a second baseman versus 1.2 last season.  His errors per inning played has slightly ticked up, but this is common when a player moves from a single position to a utility role.  Harrison still shines in his defensive range, making “unlikely” plays 42.9% of the time as a 3rd baseman.  Every year he has been in MLB, Harrison has been a leader in the range portion of UZR.

Looking to the Future

The Pittsburgh Pirates were smart to hang on the Jay Hay as their everyday second baseman.  He has delivered a lot of value to the club for the contract extension he signed in 2015; making $7.5M in 2017 and will make $10M in 2018.  If he continues to slash .280/.350/.420 with an increased walk rate he will be a steady presence at the top of the Pirates’ order.  This, combined with his stellar defense, will make him an asset on future Pirate teams.

Photo credit – Flickr Creative Commons

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.