Will Harris Can’t Beat Them, Joins Them

The Washington Nationals didn’t set out to win the World Series in spite of their bullpen. Before the 2019 season, they made two high-upside moves by signing Trevor Rosenthal and trading for Kyle Barraclough. They also added lefty help in Tony Sipp. During the season, they took fliers on Fernando Rodney, Javy Guerra, Brad Boxberger, and Jonny Venters, while also inexplicably trading Austin Adams. And they added three relievers on deadline day, including postseason stalwart Daniel Hudson.

Those moves may not have worked out for the most part, but they showed the team’s intent to build a solid bullpen. And with Hudson leaving in free agency and the other lottery tickets long gone, they were back at square one. Enter Will Harris, who yesterday signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the team that spectacularly beat him in Game 7 of the World Series.

That’s a compelling narrative, so let’s at least give it a little space. Harris will be sharing a locker room with Howie Kendrick, whose foul-pole-scraping home run flipped a deficit to a lead the team would never relinquish. The first time he walks into the locker room in spring training after batters have reported, he’ll probably get a mock cheer from Kendrick and the rest of the Nats hitters. He’ll almost certainly get a big ovation the first time he appears in DC, and that will be weird for him for a second.

And then, of course, it’ll be over. The World Series wasn’t Kendricks versus Harrises; it was Nationals versus Astros, and the guys wearing the red and white pajamas won. Harris, now wearing those same red and white pajamas, is emphatically a good guy now as far as the team and its fans are concerned. Will the club have a little fun with the weird quirks of fate that unite former opponents? Most definitely. But that’s all it’ll be — a little fun — before they get down to business.

From a baseball perspective, beefing up the bullpen makes a ton of sense for Washington. They’re perpetually in need of quality relief innings, and reliever is the position where adding a new player is most straightforward. Harris is an upgrade at every rung of the bullpen below Sean Doolittle’s top seat. Harris bumps Tanner Rainey down to third in the hierarchy, Rainey in turn bumps Wander Suero and Roenis Elías down a peg, and so on. Before this signing, we’d projected huge chunks of innings for the likes of Kyle Finnegan, Fernando Abad, and James Bourque. Harris is eating into those innings, not Rainey’s.

There’s a point where bullpen additions do have diminishing returns: when you’re slotting elite relievers into low-leverage roles. In a bullpen of eight Mariano Riveras, the eighth Rivera, pitching in blowouts and extra innings, will be significantly less valuable to the team than the top two Riveras. But let’s be realistic with our assessment of the Nationals. They don’t have eight Riveras. They have a Doolittle, something like 2 1/2 okay guys, and then some really fervent prayers. Displacing people out of high-leverage roles here is a feature, not a bug.

Of course, it’s only a feature if Harris is still what he was on the Astros: a durable, consistent reliever who gets out lefties and righties with equal aplomb (he has a sizeable reverse platoon split over his total career, but after regressing to the mean, he is only slightly better against lefties than righties). From 2015 to 2019, his rate and innings pitched numbers were consistent and excellent:

Steady As She Goes – Will Harris Since 2015
2015 71 24.6% 8.0% 1.90 3.66 3.31
2016 64 27.1% 5.9% 2.25 2.35 2.83
2017 45.1 29.4% 4.0% 2.98 3.33 2.94
2018 56.2 27.8% 6.1% 3.49 2.44 2.77
2019 60 27.1% 6.1% 1.50 3.15 3.04

Just for funsies, I compared him to the Nationals bullpen in each of those years: he would have been their fourth-best, best, fourth-best, second-best, and second-best reliever by WAR, respectively, over those five years. Harris, in other words, has been delivering the performance that the Nats have been attempting to acquire through endless signings and trades.

But the key in that phrasing is the tense. Harris has been excellent — but he’s also 35, indisputably on the downswing of his career. Steamer projects him for a higher ERA, FIP, and xFIP than any of his previous five seasons. Some of that is era adjustment — his 2015 was less excellent than it appears due to the lower run environment — but most of it is time inevitably progressing.

Want a more tangible example? Harris is a two-pitch reliever; he throws a hard cutter that he complements with a two-plane, low-80s curveball. The cutter is where he butters his bread, and its velocity is inexorably falling, from 93.1 mph in 2016 to 91.4 mph in 2019.

That decline hasn’t shown up in the pitch’s results yet. He’s compensated somewhat by varying the shape of the pitch, adding horizontal break at the expense of ride. In fact, the pitch looks a lot like Jacob deGrom’s hard slider — it has two more inches of ride, but roughly the same velocity and horizontal break.

But deGrom’s slider is a lot more intimidating when it sits 92-93 mph. The cutter still plays, and it’s a solid reason that Harris is so tough on lefties. But as it heads lower in the 90s and then into the 80s, whiffs turn into fouls, and soft contact gets squared up with more authority. Losing velocity is a slippery slope, and not in the bad-rhetorical-argument sense.

If you’re desperate, and maybe a little delusional, you can convince yourself that the velocity loss doesn’t matter. For his career, Harris has a 26.8% whiff rate on cutters delivered below 90 mph. That rate actually falls to 23.3% above 90 mph. But that comparison isn’t apples to apples. His cutter has changed shape over the years, and he’s thrown the bendier, and therefore likely more whiff-prone, version of the pitch as his velocity has slowed. The sample size is also quite small on the below-90 cutters; he’s never really thrown that many.

More likely than Harris being a unicorn who misses more bats as he slows down is that this is simply a sample size quirk. Throwing hard is a virtue, clearly. And Harris really has lost bat-missing prowess as he’s slowed down; not precipitously, not in a way that destroys his value, but measurably nonetheless. His swinging strike rate in 2019 was its lowest since 2015. Batters chased outside the zone at their lowest rate since 2015. And when they did chase, they made contact more than half the time, up from 45.5% and 49.7% in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

For the moment, it hasn’t mattered. Harris may not miss as many bats as he once did, but he still gets the ball to the right places. Last year, 49% of his cutters were in the “shadow” zone as defined by Baseball Savant, the edges of the strike zone and the area just outside that. Only four pitchers in all of baseball put more fastballs in that Goldilocks zone (minimum 500 fastballs), and that’s all fastballs, which leaves out the added difficulty of commanding a cutter. Limit it to pitchers with 300 cutters, and only Cole Hamels did better. Limit it to 500 cutters, and no one did better.

But again, command is less intimidating at lower speeds. That might not be a concern in 2020, but it certainly will be by the time 2022 rolls around. The Nationals employed Greg Holland, Rodney, and Rosenthal in 2019; they had an excellent bullpen from five years ago. Harris might fit that mold by the time he’s 37.

Think of the contract instead as a two-year deal for $12 million a year, with $8 million deferred until year three, and you’re getting closer to what the Nationals might expect out of Harris. Kiley projected him for two years and $20 million, which is right in the same neighborhood. The Nationals absolutely should be looking for relievers at on-market deals, but this isn’t some sweeping coup, despite Harris’s sparkling numbers over the past five years.

Most likely, Harris will be in 2020 what Nationals fans thought Hudson was in the 2019 playoffs: a reliable righty who can face lefties and co-anchor the bullpen with Doolittle. Harris is better than Hudson, even; if the team had given this contract to Hudson, it would smack of World Series glory blinding the front office.

When 2022 rolls around, we can relitigate this signing. And if the team sticks with Harris even in the face of a sharp decline, giving him important innings with an 89-mph cutter and veteran gumption, then it will be reasonable to question why they gave him a third year instead of just biting the bullet and paying up over two.

But for 2020, this helps the team. In a division with four legitimate squads and the Marlins, every win counts. To frame the signing in terms of results the Nationals achieved against Will Harris in Game 7 of the World Series, this isn’t a lead-flipping home run. But it might be a groundball single to center; a totally satisfactory result, if uninspiring.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Nationals wore their alternate blue pajamas during the series.