Pirates sign Josh Harrison, Achieve Contentment

When discussing contract extensions like the four-year $27 million deal with two team options the Pirates signed with Josh Harrison, especially for those players three years or more away from free agency much of the focus is on how many free agent seasons a team has purchased by offering a substantial guarantee. The Miami Marlins and Chicago White Sox each received three free agent years from Christian Yelich and Adam Eaton, respectively. The New York Mets received one free agent season from Juan Lagares, and the Minnesota Twins did not receive any free agent years from Brian Dozier when they signed his extension. The Pirates have bought potentially three years of free agency with a relatively small guarantee, but given Harrison’s age and track record prior to 2014, those years will not likely be as valuable as those for teammates Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte.

The recent contract extensions for players with between three and four years and in their first year of arbitration have incredibly wide variance.

Contract Options FA Years
Devin Mesoraco 4/28 0 1
Kyle Seager 7/100 1 5
Michael Brantley 4/25 1 2
Freddie Freeman 8/135 0 5
Nick Hundley 3/9 1 1

The Freeman and Seager deals are for franchise cornerstones, Hundley’s deal has already run its course after his option was declined while the Indians appear to have gotten a huge bargain in signing Michael Brantley right before a big breakout. Harrison sits closer to Brantley, but Harrison looks to be a backup plan for the Pirates. Pittsburgh has made multiple attempts to sign 23-year-old Gregory Polanco to a long-term contract, but those negotiations have not been fruitful, and now the Pirates have turned to an older, more proven player in Josh Harrison. The Pirates signed Harrison to a fair deal potentially buying out three free agent years and guaranteeing one of them, but with those options covering Harrison’s Age-32 and Age-33 seasons and the lack of star potential make those options potentially less valuable to Pittsburgh.

Here are the position players the Pirates have now signed over the past few seasons.

Date of Signing Service Time Prior Year WAR Contract Options Age at Signing Age after Options
Starling Marte 3/26/2014 1.070 4.8 6/31.0 2 25 32
Andrew McCutchen 3/4/2012 2.123 5.5 6/51.5 1 25 31
Josh Harrison 4/8/2015 3.033 5.0 4/27.5 2 27 32

There are a lot of similarities to the three deals with the years of free agency purchased the same and the prior year WARs look similar, but the service time and age are big differentiators. The closer a player gets to free agency, generally the higher the guarantee. McCutchen was a burgeoning star and he had two free agency years guaranteed. Marte was still two years from arbitration and he received a higher guarantee than Harrison despite Pittsburgh potentially reaping savings in arbitration. The Pirates received a very good year from Harrison, but his potential is not near McCutchen, Marte, or even Polanco.

Prior to 2014, Josh Harrison had roughly a full season’s worth of plate appearances with 571. He hit very poorly in those plate appearances, with a .248/.280/.366 line with a 77 wRC+ and a 2.6% walk rate. Last season, Harrison’s walk rate remained low, at just 4%, but with a .353 BABIP and a .175 ISO that included 13 home runs, more than double than in any other professional season, Harrison hit .315/.347/.490 with a wRC+ of 137 that ranked ninth in the National League.

From 2000-2013, there were 16 players with between 500 and 650 plate appearances through age 25 with a wRC+ between 70 and 90. Of those, Harrison’s five win season at Age-26 is by far the leader with Leonys Martin the only other player to surpass three wins. Also on the list were Shane Victorino, who had his breakout at Age-27, and Jose Bautista, who had his first great season at Age-29.

Harrison is expected to have another good season in 2015, although not quite to the level of last year. The FanGraphs Depth Charts project a drop in BABIP from .353 to .312. Harrison could have a hitting skill that leads to a high BABIP, but of the 177 active players with more than 2000 plate appearances, just 10 have BABIPs at .345 or above and only 30 are above .330. A high BABIP is necessary for Harrison to be very good, but a big drop still makes Harrison a decent player. The projected drop in BABIP for 2015 causes a .281/.317/.434 projected line with a solid 112 wRC+ leading to a three-win season. Neil Weinberg discussed Harrison in January and wrote the following:

He had a high quality, consistent season, and while it’s good practice to follow Steamer in projecting certain types of regression, the consistency of the performance and one particular change in his approach might offer us a reason to believe that Harrison is actually an improved player to some meaningful degree.

What we can say for sure is that Harrison had a great season and probably did genuinely improve at the plate. We don’t know for sure that he’s a true talent 135 wRC+ hitter, but it’s unlikely that a true talent 80 wRC+ hitter put together that kind of season. In all likelihood, he probably became something resembling a 110 wRC+ hitter and wound up in in the right tail of the distribution.

We do not yet have enough information to be confident in Harrison’s future for better to worse, but 2014 was likely Harrison’s career year and in 2018-2020 when Harrison is 30-32 he is likely to be in decline. Harrison keeps his $2.8 million contract for 2015 that he agreed to when he and the Pirates avoided arbitration, and pay him $5 million and $7.5 million instead of going to arbitration, not gaining Pittsburgh any significant savings. If we assume that he is a 3.3 WAR player for ages 27-29 and begins to decline at 30 his WAR for the free agent and option years looks like this:

Year Age WAR Salary $/WAR
2018 30 2.8 $10.0 M $3.6 M
2019 31 2.3 $10.5 M $4.6 M
2020 32 1.8 $11.0 M $6.1 M

The last two seasons are options so Pittsburgh is under no obligation to pay them, but the chances that Pittsburgh gets a great deal on those years are not large. Given the low cost, the deal is not likely to hurt the Pirates, but going year to year with Harrison would have been an equally acceptable decision that would guard against regression going forward. Harrison is not young, like Christian Yelich, in possession of an elite skill like Lagares’ defense, and he even lacks the prospect track record of the slightly younger Adam Eaton. The contract extension is a lot like Eaton’s in terms of money and age when it finishes. The deal is a defensible one for both parties and if Harrison proves that 2014 was not a fluke and he continues to hit with a very high BABIP, the Pirates could have a great deal, but the most likely outcome for both parties is contentment.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Jim S.
7 years ago

Don’t forget, Neil Huntington and his staff have an awfully good record of late.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Does he? Jose Tabata and Charlie Morton aren’t quite as negative as Cutch and Marte are positive. This is a pretty par for the course signing for the Pirates but they aren’t golden.

Alice Cooper
7 years ago
Reply to  sdot

Morton put up 1.6 WAR in the first year of his deal where he only earned $4m.

I don’t think it’s fair to lump him in bad contact land with Tabata until we see what he does over the next year or so. Granted, he’s starting off on a bad foot this year but I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that he will at least live up to his contract, although might not get enough innings to produce excess value.

Tabata, on the other hand, has almost 0% chance of coming even close to providing value equal to the deal he signed.

7 years ago
Reply to  sdot

“Jose Tabata and Charlie Morton aren’t quite as negative as Cutch and Marte are positive.”

That’s an enormous understatement. You can’t just look at it as two hits and two misses (even if you count Morton as a miss) — the whole point of the Pirates’ approach is that it’s low-risk/high-reward. The hits are going to be more valuable than the misses are costly. If you packaged those four players together, there’s not a team in the league that would think twice about taking them at what the Pirates are paying them.