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The Three-Batter Minimum Should Only Reinforce Will Harris’ Value

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The free-agent reliever is likely to have plenty of the suitors this offseason, thanks in part to his overall effectiveness in 2019.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Starting next season, Major League Baseball will implement a new three-batter minimum rule designed to cut down on the number of pitching changes and improve the pace of play during games. From MLB.com, the new rule “requires pitchers to either face a minimum of three batters in an appearance or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions for injuries and illnesses.”

At its core, the new rule will aim to improve the pace of play in baseball, although to what extent is still to be determined. It is only one factor among the many on the issue. For the normal starting pitcher, however, the rule change doesn’t mean much, if anything. Strategy from managers will need to adapt when it comes to openers and relievers as the potential risk of haphazard pitching changes will count more than ever. Consequently, organizations are surely going to invest more in relievers who can generate outs against both left- and right-handed batters while the one-out specialist is left out in the cold as a dying breed.

Love or hate it, the new minimum is going to be an interesting process to watch unfold, no doubt. It should also have an impact on how organizations approach free agency with relievers this offseason. Lefty Drew Pomeranz, for example, cashed in on a resurgent second half as a reliever to receive a four-year, $34 million contract from the Padres last month. One of the driving forces behind Pomeranz’s value centered around his ability to effectively generate outs against both left- and right-handed batters in one appearance, which will help San Diego in light of the incoming minimum batter rule change.

Numbers as RP against LHH

TBF ERA BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
TBF ERA BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
38 2.38 0 18 0.162 0.158 0.351 0.203

Numbers as RP against RHH

TBF ERA BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
TBF ERA BB SO AVG OBP SLG wOBA
68 1.56 8 32 0.167 0.265 0.233 0.230

Teams will spend more time and resources searching for relievers who perform well against both left- and right-handed batters as opposed to one-out specialists. One of the Astros’ own free agents, Will Harris, should even see his own leverage and value rise on this year’s open market thanks to the new rule. Multiple teams, including Houston, would benefit by having Harris on their staff as he can face multiple batters in a row without much of a worry about their handedness. Combined with consistency since arriving in Houston before the 2015 season, the thirty-five year old should have plenty of suitors this winter.

Will Harris’ Numbers Since 2015

IP TBF ERA FIP WHIP K% BB% fWAR
IP TBF ERA FIP WHIP K% BB% fWAR
297.0 1,167 2.36 2.99 0.987 27.0% 6.2% 5.2

Harris arguably had his best season as a major leaguer at the right time, too. Across sixty innings in 2019, the right-hander posted a terrific 1.50 ERA with a 0.93 WHIP as he evaluates where will be his next stop. Harris’ overall .235 wOBA allowed was in the top two percent of the league this year. He also held opposing right-handed batters to a .263 wOBA while limiting left-handers to an impressive .212 wOBA. The most notable pitch of Harris’ arsenal, the cutter, was particularly effective against lefty hitters in 2019, especially under the scope of expected wOBA (.270 wOBA - .232 xwOBA).

Due in part to his contributions, the Astros were never really in need of a left-handed reliever last season. His ability to generate outs against all batters was incredibly valuable, especially once fellow reliever Ryan Pressly fell to injuries and ineffectiveness in the season’s second half. Out of all of Houston’s relievers, there arguably wasn’t anyone more valuable than Harris.

That said, there is an element of risk here, as in most relievers on a year-to-year basis. For example, Harris’ .245 BABIP this past season seems rather unsustainable when compared to his career average mark of .282. Both his FIP (3.15) and xFIP (3.04) in conjunction with a career-high 88.2 percent left on base rate indicates sequencing and some luck were involved in his results. After all, we also saw his strikeout rate (27.1 percent) dip to its lowest level since 2016 while his home run-to-fly ball ratio nearly doubled from 8.6 percent in 2018 to 16.7 percent this year. He is also thirty-five years old, which is likely a factor to some. The overall numbers are still really good, but there is enough there to realize that he may not repeat his 2019 results. Well, unless the baseball is changed for a pitcher’s benefit next season.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts Harris to sign a two-year, $18 million contract this offseason, which seems like fair value for a reliever with his track record over the latter half of this decade. There are a slew of teams who could use his services, including the Astros. As a result of the incoming rule change, Harris’ market is most likely reinforced. Honestly, it should be.