On a lazy Sunday afternoon about a month ago, I received a text message from Mike Hindman that I found very difficult to wrap my head around: "We could be one year away from an all-lefty, all-homegrown rotation." Clearly it wasn't the syntax of the sentence that confounded me; it wasn't jokingly tinged with the Ron Washington-style dialect that has almost become a source of pride for baseball fans around these parts. No, it was the content. In order for the hypothetical rotation Mike was referencing to become a reality, C.J. Wilson would have to re-sign with Texas following the 2011 season, and (among other things) Martin Perez would have to break out, Michael Kirkman would have to take the logical next step forward in his development, and both Derek Holland and Matt Harrison would (for the lack of a better term) have to "grow up."
The thought process that ensued in my head was a good example of how dangerous it can be to think you've ever really got any player figured out (and especially a comparatively young player), regardless of how well he's performed in his career to date: C.J. Wilson? Not somebody I'd be sprinting to the cashier's window to place a heavy bet on as far as him actually re-signing with the Rangers, but you can at least envision things playing out that way -- especially if Texas opts to divert their longer-term resources away from Josh Hamilton. Perez? Maybe a bit of stretch, but maybe not. The same goes for Kirkman. Holland? Even if you're a skeptic at heart, you have to admit the odds may be higher of him being in next year's rotation than any of the other three hurlers I already mentioned.
And it's funny that after going through all of those guys, and after striving to nail down the likelihood of each one cracking next year's rotation, I arrived at the conclusion that Harrison just might be buried by the longest odds of them all. Compelling raw stuff is great, but his demonstrated inability to translate it into anything more than a barely passable ratio of strikeouts to batters faced, his deficiency in command, and his complete and utter lack of any kind of killer instinct or, for that matter, genuine confidence on the bump had me thinking "borderline No. 5 starter" from now until eternity. Of those who appeared to be in the gravest danger of being surpassed quickly in the Rangers' rotation pecking order, Harrison struck me as the most obvious choice, and those are the kinds of pitchers who don't usually last too long in an organization once their days of indentured pre-arbitration servitude have ended.
I want to emphasize that that may indeed still be the case, that three starts isn't a sufficiently large sample to extrapolate outward from (see also: Pedro Astacio ca. 2005, and the premature love he received after three great starts to begin the season), and that I still haven't completely bought in. I may not completely buy in all season long. But each start constitutes another data point, another small piece of evidence that progressively enlarges and strengths the greater body of evidence, and right now that evidence is making it increasingly difficult to resist the notion that we really are watching Matt Harrison grow up right before our very eyes.
There are a virtually limitless number of different tests with differing variables (e.g. different game states, teams, stadiums, defenses, pitch counts, and so on) that you could subject a pitcher to, but I think a lot of people would agree there's one particular type of test that may say more about a pitcher than all of the others: how does a given pitcher respond when his best stuff/command are not only not there, but he's also pitching against a good offense in hostile territory -- and not just any hostile territory, but Yankee Stadium? Will he successfully make the adjustments that he needs to make? Will he maintain his composure in stressful situations of his own doing? Will he figure out how to compensate for the lack of his best weaponry?
I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say it was a quantifiably great start, despite the eight-inning, two-run (one earned) outcome; between the seven hits and the three walks, the Yankees were not exactly hurting for potential scoring opportunities, and there were only three strikeouts (and three swinging strikes) to be found scattered amongst his 104 pitches. The various flavors of his fastball sunk back into the 91-92 mph range that had been more his M.O. before this season, and he struggled to locate some of his pitches (primarily of the breaking variety), leaving him handicapped in terms of being able to outright overpower or deceive New York ... and leading to this approach:
[Pitch charts courtesy of ESPN.com's Inside Edge scouting service. Red dots are hits; yellow dots are swinging strikes or foul balls; blue dots are outs; green dots are chases; white dots are balls.]
Gone was the relentless diet of fastballs on the inside third of the plate to opposite-handed hitters that were so integral to his success in his two previous seven-inning efforts, but it was replaced by a similarly fascinating approach -- an unyielding assault on the outer third, with "fastball away and then away some more" being the driving dictum in this start. You could conceivably look at this as pitching cautiously, though I think there's more nuance here than what that tells us; I find it likelier that Harrison realized his best stuff wasn't there, that he was facing a dangerous lineup on a cold night, and decided to try and let his defense help him out as best as it could could rather than gunning aggressively for the inside corner and risking major damage. I'm not sure the Matt Harrison of a year ago would have been able to pitch this smart.
And what defense it was, too. Unless you had your head buried in the sand, you no doubt heard that the six double plays Harrison induced tied the modern American League record (move over, 1972 Dick Drago and 2009 Mark Buehrle), but there's something else worth noting here -- in the nine highest-leverage moments Harrison encountered during the night (ranging from a 1.39 LI on the low end all the way up to a 1.90 LI on the high end, or 1.9 times more important than the average game situation), he recorded two strikeouts, a fly out, and all six double plays, including in five of his six highest-leverage moments. To phrase it another way, Harrison found a way to secure an out literally every single time he faced any real semblance of trouble. I don't care if most of those escapes were defense-dependent; that simply impresses the hell out of me.
The day is still coming when Harrison gets shelled from here to Middle Earth and back, and though this will strange on the surface, I'll be looking forward to that day as much as any of his other starts in the meantime. Because if we really are watching the real deal unfold before us, and if he proves capable of shrugged that inevitable bad start off and adheres to what has made him successful up to this point in the season ... well, then Mike's dream all-lefty rotation might not be all that far-fetched after all.