Josh Harrison Returning to the Super Utility Role For Now

MIAMI — At the start of the 2015 season, Josh Harrison was the everyday third baseman for the Pirates. Harrison broke out in a big way in 2014, getting a lot of work as a super utility player. However, his ability to play third base, combined with no good options at third, led to the everyday role.

As Jung-ho Kang started emerging as an everyday player, Harrison started moving around more, with Kang getting more playing time at third base. But Harrison went down with a thumb injury in early July, which means we really didn’t get a long look at how the Pirates would treat his situation with Kang performing so well, and with Jordy Mercer picking up the pace in the second half.

The recent Miami series shed some light on how Harrison will be used going forward. He entered the series with two games under his belt — one at second and one at third. In Miami he started one game at second, one in right field, entered another as a pinch hitter and a defensive replacement for Neil Walker, and finally entered as a pinch runner and a replacement at third on Thursday.

It looks like Harrison is moving back to the super utility role, at least for the time being.

“That’s the way we’re going to start it, and that’s what we’ve talked with Josh about coming back in,” Hurdle said on Harrison moving around. “There’ll be some reps at third, some reps at second, some reps in the outfield. Based on the cast of players that we’ve put together, based on some of the successes that some of the players have had in certain roles.”

A lot of this approach is in order to get Harrison adjusted to the majors, and to get him eased back in to where he was before the injury, when he was hitting for an .811 OPS from mid-May until his injury happened.

“He was playing pretty good baseball when he got hurt,” Hurdle said. “And the hard part in this game is to plug back in at that level. Usually it takes some time. I believe the best way for us is to get him involved in a variety of different ways, and bundle some at-bats, and get the legs back underneath him by using him in different roles. It’s helping the team as well.”

Harrison said that it’s hard to simulate the Major League experience down in the minors, and that six weeks away can be a long time to come back from.

“The speed of the game up here is a lot different,” Harrison said. “But it is definitely good to be out there and getting back into the flow of the game. I feel with each day I’m getting more adjusted and back to where I was before I got injured.”

As Sean McCool wrote earlier today, the Pirates are using Harrison as a model for a lot of their minor leaguers, trying to develop positional flexibility with a lot of their prospects in order to give more options in the future. So this approach of getting Harrison back in a utility role isn’t just to get him back in the game. It’s a role that the Pirates seem to place a high value on throughout their organization. And that goes against the stigma that is placed on the term “utility player”, which suggests that this role is much lower than an everyday starter.

“When you think of a utility role, most people think you play once or twice a week,” Harrison said. “That’s not the case here. Since I’ve been back, I’ve played two games here, two there. So it’s not like I’m just rotting. They’re doing things that keep me in the flow of the game, let me get back adjusted. We’ve got a long stretch here. And it’s going to take us all. I’d be naive to think that I’d miss six weeks and come back and just hop back in where I left off. It’s going to take some games. But that’s one thing that they’ve done really well with me, and communicated with me, just to be ready everyday.”

Harrison isn’t just a model player for the minor leaguers. Clint Hurdle has raved about him for years, and continued that this week when discussing his versatility.

“It’s one of the reasons that we love this guy so much, is the versatility, the selflessness that comes with it,” Hurdle said. “He works out of every spot. He’s ready to go anywhere…It’s just good to have a guy like that, that understands the game, and how he can help impact in different spots, whether it’s giving guys off, or just because he’s in a good place and we want to move him around and keep him in the lineup.”

As for whether he prefers the everyday position, or the super utility role, Harrison said that he’s comfortable bouncing around, and that the Pirates having a team full of guys who can play multiple positions leads to lesser defined roles. With his approach to the game, it’s not a surprise that he’d be open to the team-first role, rather than going for the personal goal of an everyday position, even if that might be more desirable.

“You definitely like to play one position everyday,” Harrison said. “Even before I got hurt, there were times I found myself back in the outfield. I always knew that I was still going to be bounced around, depending on guys needing days off, guys getting banged up here or there. I never threw my outfield glove completely away. I always knew there was an opportunity. Baseball is a long season. You’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

  • This is clearly a pretty good group of guys. Everyone has bought into this idea of rotating players, playing different positions, playing match ups, and doing whatever they can to make the team better. I don’t know if they just got lucky with the types of people on the team, guys who are inclined to just do what’s best for the team irrespective of ego, or if Hurdle and his staff have done a great job of selling it, or both, but I do think that this team mentality has gone a long way to their success.

    I tend to avoid “INTANGIBLES!!!!” as a talking point, but buying into the analytics and doing the preparation necessary to be ready to play any day in any role has been essential to the team’s success, I think.

    • Amen. And it seems like they’re even extending this trait to the guys they’re drafting lately. Tucker and Newman both seem like the quintessential baseball rat, to say nothing against the others.

  • My only concern is that too much rotation and plug ‘n play could prevent everyone from getting in a groove in the final stretch. As much value as Harrison and Mercer offer to the club, the team was on a roll having a relatively fixed lineup everyday in their absence. It’s not easy to come off the bench one day, start the next, and maintain consistent production. Harrison can do it, but that doesn’t mean the guys he’s rotating with can.

    • Rather simple solution.

      Kang-Mercer-Harrison against LHP.

      Harrison-Kang-Walker against RHP.

      Everyone has a firm idea of their roles, and it doesnt really change Walker much. Kang plays most days, Harrison plays most days so long as he hits well.

      • Makes sense. And Polanco and Alvarez aren’t as embarrassing against lefties for the time being so you’re set. But in this scenario how will you bat Ramirez 4th?

      • Yeh but you know Clint. He’ll want the outfield in that regular rotation as well. Before you know it everyone is sitting once or twice a week, even when they are hot.

        • Which is fine when you have many options that can play well. Nothing wrong with sitting Harrison once a week, Mercer a few times, Walker a few times. Even Kang once a week isnt awful.

    • If Harrison rotated between 2nd,3rd,lf, rf the regulars at each position would play 4 of every 5 games. That’s not an excessive amount of time off, especially this time of year.

  • Waiting till next year when 2nd base opens up. Can’t see Walker be kept.

    • I’m still holding out hope that Hanson wins that spot. His ceiling is much higher.

      • Than Josh Harrison?

        • Yeah… I think so.

          • Harrison has an already-established 5 WAR ceiling and Hanson is barely an average AAA hitter. I’ll comfortably take the under.

            • That must of been hard. I know you are not a card carrying member of Team JHay. 🙂

              • You pick up on these things quickly, sir. 😉

              • Now Kozy might be able to talk me into an argument that says Hanson has a higher *probable* upside going forward. Pitchers have pretty clearly adjusted to Harrison in a way that’s killed his pull power, which was essentially what led to his monster season in the first place. You’re not going to see any more .150 ISO seasons from him, let alone .175.

                You could argue that Hanson could squeak out a little more value up the middle, a little more value on the bases, and match Harrison’s likely league-average production at the plate and that would seem reasonable to me.

                But that season last year, already established by Harrison, was just insanely better than anyone could expect going forward for either, IMO.

                • I think your discounting Harrison’s ability to counter punch to the pitchers adjustments a little too quickly. Let’s see him next year before deeming last season to be an anomaly.

                  • Well its not just last year vs this year vs next year. When you look at his profile in the bigs, its not likely he has many years like last year. Thats his best, but he doesnt walk enough to make him a good bet to have it all go well consistently year to year.

                    Which isnt to say he’s bad this year, he’s surely not. Just not an all star.

                    • Last year was his first opportunity for consistent AB, and he responded well. It’s unlikely he’ll ever have a high OBP. So I don’t see him as a perennial All Star. But he might become the best Super utility guy in baseball, which is pretty valuable.

  • I think that’s the best way to maximize his value to this team. Take advantage of the versatility while rotating Kang, Mercer and Ramirez on the left side of the infield.