Gotta give some credit to the top relievers in the South Atlantic League as well as the starters. We’ll stagger between starters and relievers over the next few days and today we’ll talk about right-handed reliever Stephen Harrold.
Name: Stephen Harrold
Age: Turns 23 in March
2011 Teams: Augusta Greenjackets (SAL-SFG), San Jose Giants (CAL-SFG)
Basic Pitching Stats: 4-3 record, 1.54 ERA, 39 strikeouts (8.6 K/9), 17 walks (3.7 BB/9), 4 homers allowed (0.9 HR/9), 16 saves, and 35 games finished in 38 relief appearances and 41 IP for Augusta, 1-0 record, 5.79 ERA, 24 strikeouts (9.4 K/9), 13 walks (5.1 BB/9), 3 homers allowed (1.2 HR/9), and 7 games finished in 19 relief appearances and 23 IP
Harrold was selected by the Giants in the 12th round of the 2010 Draft out of UNC-Wilmington and signed early enough to get 22 relief appearances in before the 2010 season was over. Harrold also pitched in relief at UNC-Wilmington, which is a the Colonial Athletic Association in Division I, although he did have an excellent senior season, posting a 3.26 ERA and 6 saves in 23 relief appearances, but posting a nice 10.7 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9. Essentially Harrold was one of the many mid-major college pitchers who were drafted because they figured something out the year of the draft.
Harrold’s ERA was awfully shiny in the Sally League in 2011, but his 3.74 FIP lagged quite a bit behind. However, he was able to generate a nice amount of swings and misses as hitters connected on just 51.0% of their swings against him compared to the 59.2% league average (combining the SAL and CAL stats). Harrold’s strikeout rate was indeed nice, but his walk rate and home rate were pedestrian. But when you factor in that Harrold is a pitcher who forces a lot of groundballs, he looks a lot better is a relief prospect.
During his time in the Sally League, Harrold forced hitters to hit the ball on the ground on 51.5% of their batted balls well ahead of the 42.8% league average. His combination of getting swings and misses and weak groundballs helped him be so successful. However once he moved up to the High-A California League, his groundball rate went into a free-fall down to 38.6% (the league average was 42.9%). Was Harrold simply overpowering the young South Atlantic League hitters but the California League hitters were able to hit him harder, or did he just pitch badly once he moved up to High-A?
We’ll need a tiebreaker to answer that question. Luckily we have one: Harrold’s performance in the Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpians. People thought it was interesting that the Giants sent Harrold to the AFL after his struggles at High-A, but once he got there he was very successful going 3-0 with a 1.76 ERA, an 8.8 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, no homers allowed, and a save in 12 relief appearances spanning 15.1 IP. It seems pretty suspicious that Harrold didn’t allow a single home run, but he was able to force 2.5 times as many groundouts as flyouts (for some perspective, Harrold’s GO/FO was 1.73 at Augusta and 1.00 at San Jose). We are also lucky enough to have some Pitch F/X data for Harrold from the AFL. I got the data from Brooks Baseball here, but the graph is of my creation. Let’s take a look.
You probably have no idea what you’re looking at and even if you’ve seen my Pitch F/X graphs before, I’ve reworked them, so let me explain. My previous graphs compared the movement each individual pitch to a zero point which was the top of the pitcher’s mound. That made the net movement on many pitches look like it was up when in reality each pitcher generates a downward angle on their pitches that generates downward movement no matter what. It also made the pitches look much less impressive. So now we’re going to track the flight of pitches from their release point until the catcher catches them.
The view you’re seeing is view that the the batter would see. Rather than viewing this graph as three lines going towards the bottom of your screen, picture them as 3D lines which start at a point 60 feet, 6 inches away from the beginning of the gray rectangle out away from you and also on a surface higher than the rectangle, the 10-inch pitcher’s mound, before they end by being caught by the catcher just after they pass through the rectangle. When you’re thinking about the lines in that way, it’s not that the red line goes farther than the blue or purple lines, just that it has more movement before it’s caught.
Each line is one of Harrold’s pitches from the data we have on him from the AFL. The key tells us that the purple line is his sinker, the blue his fastball, and the red his slider. The key tells us how often he threw each pitch and what each pitch’s average velocity was. The movement shown in the graph the average net movement, meaning the total movement from where the ball starts, at the pitcher’s shoulder in the mound, until where it finishes, in the catcher’s mitt. Each line depicts how the pitch would move in the air. For example, we see that Harrold’s sinker would have movement nearly a foot down and over a foot away from a right-handed batter and the slider would move over two feet down and about 7 inches in towards a righty batter. Each line is just showing the movement on the pitch, disregarding location. (If Harrold threw any of his pitches up in the zone, he would get hit and hit hard.)
We have a limited sample here as Harrold threw just 33 pitches in Pitch F/X enabled ballparks in the AFL. Nevertheless, let’s see what this graph tells us. Looking at the key, we see that Harrold primarily used his sinker, the purple line. He was able to generate ground balls with its nice downward breaks along with its velocity (around 94 MPH), and it’s horizontal movement away from right-handed batters just made it a little bit harder for hitters, albeit while occasionally messing up Harrold’s control of the pitch. His fastball was easily Harrold’s worst pitch as it featured not very much movement in the vertical and horizontal directions. It was most useful as a get-over pitch when Harrold was behind in the count, and to set up his slider. Harrold’s slider didn’t really behave like a slider except for its velocity, around 85 MPH. It wasn’t quite loopy like a curveball, but it had some 1 to 7 movement (on a clock) down and in to righty batters. It was a pretty nasty pitch, making hitters sitting dead-red look horrible when they swung and misses by a longshot, but it’s sharp movement also makes it harder to throw for a strike. But as a reliever primarily working with a sinker, Harrold was able to use his breaking ball to force swings-and-misses in big spots and prevent hitters from looking fastball all the time.
It’s pretty clear what happened between the three different sample sizes we have for Harrold, his time in the Sally League, his time in the California League, and his stint in the Arizona Fall League. In the Sally and the AFL he was able to establish his sinker and get a nice amount of groundballs, and that also allowed him to mix in his slider and fastball with effectiveness. In the CAL meanwhile, he was timid and nibbling at the corners, putting him behind in counts and forcing him to use his fastball, a decent pitch only because of its velocity. That made his walk rate go on the fritz, and even though he was getting more strikeouts and hitters were putting the ball into play less, when he was hit he was hit a lot harder because his fastball simply wasn’t a good enough pitch for him to lean so heavily on.
Stephen Harrold was excellent when he was on but absolutely horrible when he fell apart in the CAL. But we see that he has a couple nice pitches in his sinker and breaking ball, and overall his 2011 performance was positive.
With two very nice pitches in his plus slider and above-average breaking ball, Stephen Harrold has the ability to be a good reliever in the big leagues, probably in the late innings as well. But the key for him is locating his sinker and building off of that. After Harrold’s impressive showing in the AFL, expect Harrold to start 2012 at Double-A, and with a nice season, he could be in the big leagues by September.
For more on the San Francisco Giants, check out Around the Foghorn.