"There is every chance that this [7.0 IP, 1 ER vs. BOS] was, in fact, a very pleasant fluke, and that [Matt] Harrison's larger body of performance will reflect something more along the lines of a borderline No. 5 starter on a first-division ballclub. Or he could be a few ticks better than that." - 04/04/11
It was supposed to be a lot easier than this for the Rangers ... or so our idealistic little sports minds tell us on a regular basis. The first 14 games of the regular season's easiest 19-game stretch -- all of which were slated against sub-.500 teams at the outset of each individual series -- are now safely tucked away in the record books, and this team has only eight wins to show for its efforts, with only a rare late-inning comeback last night forestalling what would have been one of the most disappointing losses of its 2011 campaign.
And despite their good fortune in being the most talented ballclub in a mere four-team division rife with mediocrity, the Rangers have squandered repeated opportunities to separate themselves from the pack, with the popular perception being that they are only their own worst enemy.
It was supposed to be easier than this. But it's not. It certainly hasn't been to this point, and even though this team does, for all of its faults, remain the odds-on favorite to win this division, I have a sneaking suspicion that this is going to come down far closer to the wire than a lot of people believed was going to be the case three months ago.
And things were supposed to turn out very differently for Matt Harrison last night as well, but they didn't. This entire season should probably be turning out differently for Harrison, but it isn't. Where last night was concerned, Harrison pulled off a by-the-skin-of-his-teeth-type pitching "feat" that baseball has only seen about twice per season on average over the last decade, and only about once per season over the last 30 years -- that is, logging 18 or fewer outs while allowing 11 or more hits but only two or fewer runs in a single start. (For the sake of context, there are 4,860 individual starts made in the typical 162-game season.)
And in this strangest of seasons where offensive levels in the American League -- on a runs-per-game basis, at least -- have plummeted to their lowest depths since 1981, Harrison now boasts an ERA (3.28) that conforms best with that of a good No. 2 starter.
I don't think I have to tell you just how much this all throws me off my preconceived notions. That's the thing, though. If you want to do this right, you have to be willing to constantly question and re-evaluate what you believe to be true. The truth isn't static.
Along the way, we've been captivated by the breakout success of Alexi Ogando (who, by the way, Marlins manager Jack McKeon thought boasted the best stuff of any pitcher Florida had faced in 2011 during his effort last Friday night), furrowed our brows at Derek Holland's command problems, twitched nervously as Colby Lewis has tried to discover some consistency, beamed at the sustained brilliance of C.J. Wilson (and fretted about the prospect of him walking after 2011) ... but we really haven't paid all that much attention to Harrison, who's just been sitting back there at the end of the rotation kind of doing his own thing. Or perhaps that "we" should be modified to say "I." Maybe it's all on me.
Why the lack of attention, you ask? For my part, it goes back to the issue of sustainability, or whether what we've seen to this point matches up with what we should expect to see going forward. That gleaming ERA, for example, has been built upon the foundation of one of the worst strikeout-to-walk ratios (1.64) in the American League (sixth-worst out of 50 qualifying starters, in fact), and after yielding two homers last night in his six frames, his home run rate on the season (0.94 HR/9) now appears to have also dipped below the league-average benchmark. Those are all disturbing indicators, but, on the bright side, they're still good for his best career marks, and things become a tad more forgiving when you're a cost-controlled innings-sponge who has, for whatever reason, mostly been able to avoid the dreaded meltdown this year.
To put it another way, his run-preventing ways this season (or the ERA) may paint him as something closer to a top-tier starter, but his supporting statistical backbone is more indicative of a No. 4-type starter -- and yet, neither his BABIP (.273) nor his left-on-base rate (76.1 percent) are really huge beneficial outliers. It makes me feel as though I'm missing something here. And maybe one of you knows what that something is. Or maybe my lingering distrust of Harrison -- a product of my frustration at his stuff superseding his results for years on end, at the lack of a killer instinct up until this season, and my disinclination towards low-strikeout pitchers -- is clouding my judgment and preventing me from being able to see something that is actually very obvious.
If things play out the way I think they're going to play out the rest of the way, his rest-of-season ERA will much more closely reflect his present-day FIP (4.14) and xFIP (4.19), which would still render him very usable, but perhaps not somebody I'd feel all that comfortable starting in a short playoff series; if they play out the way the rest-of-season projection systems like ZiPS (4.82) and PECOTA (5.43) expect, that ERA is due to begin soaring into a territory where it would no longer be feasible to carry him in the rotation. I very much doubt we're going to see the latter scenario unfold, however, and as for the former -- well, I'd happily take that, and though I still adamantly believe this team is one good starter short of what it needs, I can definitely say that Harrison has been more of an asset than a liability this season.
After three frustrating years, it feels good to be able to say that.