2023 stats: 7 games, 34.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, 102 ERA+, 5.53 FIP, 35 K, 1.154 WHIP
Noteworthy: Left-handed batters hit .333/.429/.639 with 3 HRs and only 2 Ks over 42 PA.
What do the San Francisco Giants have in Kyle Harrison?
It’s a legitimate question that feels impossible to answer after the small sample size of 2023. Inevitably, we lean towards the positive, the favorable historical comparisons. The best pitching prospect for San Francisco since Madison Bumgarner. Pure stuff that reminds us already-inclined of Tim Lincecum. Of course, we want him to be up in the pantheon of those legends: A gunslinging, mound-barking Championship F-150 like Bum, or a lithe savant like the Freak, or a feisty, ruddy-cheeked Cy Young finalist like Logan Webb—we get giddy imagining a rotation headed by him and Webb until 2028.
Plucked in the 3rd round of 2020, Harrison pitched 279.1 innings over two and a half seasons on the farm before making his MLB debut ten days after his 22nd birthday. A much quicker progression than other notable high-round pitching picks like Tyler Beede (Round 1 in 2014), Chris Stratton (Rd. 1, 2012), and Zach Wheeler (round 1, 2009). Bumgarner (Rd. 1, 2007) was a hair faster (273 innings before debut) but after that quick cup of coffee, he brewed for 85 innings more in Fresno before getting the call for good in 2010. Logan Webb threw 302 innings over parts of 6 seasons before debuting in 2019.
Given that context, what Harrison has already done is impressive. Or at least, noteworthy. He blew through the minors—he didn’t blow them away. There was no Lincecum level dominance, limiting Triple-A hitters to 1 earned run over 31 innings while K-ing 46. No urgent pounding at the Majors’ door. Harrison struggled with command. His ERA and WHIP were much higher in Triple-A than in lower levels, and a hamstring issue delayed his debut. But he did lead the minors in 2022 with a 14.8 K/9 and a near 40% whiff rate. His numbers in the minors aren’t eye-popping, but he’s always been more about raw materials than end results. His repertoire: a riding fastball, a shapely slider, a burgeoning change-up—all from a low release point that gives him a funk to hitters and generally makes up for lack of precision. He’s got the goods—on paper at least.
Kyle Harrison's first three batters in SF ...— SFGiants (@SFGiants) August 29, 2023
are also his first three strikeouts in SF. pic.twitter.com/moQ6yeJecE
Ask Tyler Beede, an organization’s #1 prospect ranking ain’t worth much in the Show. The transition from touted player-to-watch to MLB star is highly fraught, with success seemingly doled out at random. For all the buzz that abounds the Harrison Hive, he’s still a mystery player, a silhouette of a baseball Joe with a big ol’ question mark where his face should be. He could be an arm that helps carry a franchise, or he could be Ty Blach—who really took us on a ride at the end of 2016. It depends on your birth sign whether you think Harrison gravitates towards one pole over the other. For some pundits, this is the exact moment to trade him. He’s got a high upside and hasn’t been around long enough to undermine it. That kind of unproven but unblemished player with a high organization ranking will excite the excitable and give the Giants some bargaining power in deal talks.
It makes sense to be open to offers, but it doesn’t make sense to feel pressured into taking one. The Giants need starting pitching, why trade away one that is young, cheap, talented, and eager to prove himself?
Some #SFGiants Kyle Harrison pitch data:— Giant Prospective (@giantprospectiv) August 29, 2023
FB: 94.4 MPH (above-avg), 98% active spin, 15.6" drop (above avg), 13.2" run (plus).
SL: 83 mph (below avg), 43.9" drop (plus), 7.5" sweep (above avg)
CH: 86.7 mph (above avg), 33.1" drop (avg), 18.5" run (top 5 in baseball)
Ace stuff. pic.twitter.com/obtK7EYhIW
35 innings across 7 games isn’t enough to make us feel solidly one way or the other about Harrison, but it’s not nothing. It’s a head start, and his experience in 2023 means a hell of a lot more to him than it does to us.
If he’s smart (it’d be nice if he was smart), Harrison will use these winter months to put each pitch he threw last season under a microscope—poking them, prodding them, asking them why. That 1-0 slider to Bryce Harper that he lined over the fence in right-center—why? That 1-2 fastball to Juan Soto he jumped on—why? Was it great hitters being great hitters, or did it have something to do with my release point, where my hand was on the ball, my mechanics, my mix? What was I doing with my fastball when I struck out 8 of 11 Reds with it in my home debut? What changed in the week between that 11-K performance and the 4-homer bashing I was given by the Padres? And what the hell was going on against lefties?
Harrison has got a lot of questions to answer, and it’s really impossible to predict how long, if ever, he’ll take to answer them. Lincecum was given the keys in 2007, throwing 2387 pitches over 146.1 IP and basically did everything you’d expect a teenager to do with a driver’s license, a car, and this new found freedom: shock, inspire, confound, disappoint, worry, intrigue. Then he came back and put together one of the most memorable 4-year stretches any starting pitcher has had in baseball history. Bumgarner seemed pretty stoic from the get-go. After his brief debut in 2009, he allowed 4 runs over 5 starts in his first postseason chase as a 20 year old before kicking off one of the most dominant postseason pitching resumes of all time.
This isn’t the scale Harrison should be measured on because, well, it’s a ridiculous scale to measure any player on; and Bumgarner and Linecum were starting out in a different century in terms of the role of starting pitchers and how young arms are handled. If we want to twiddle our thumbs and try to crystal ball Harrison’s future trajectory as the days darken and temperatures drop, we could look to a contemporary like Webb’s career beginnings.
Webb had a similar workload and was the same age as Harrison in his debut in 2019. Called up in mid-August, he mostly struggled but was able to mix-in some positive starts among his 8 that season, throwing 676 pitches over 39.2 innings. Harrison tossed 588 in 5 less innings—a comparable rate. Webb remained with the big league club for the entirety of the shortened 2020 season, but due to its clipped nature, he only threw 15 more innings while starting 13 games. He threw more than 100 pitches only once and only threw 90 or more in 3 other starts.
There was an extended period of acquainting Webb to the league, not particularly helped by global pandemic and strike-restricted off season. Expect Harrison to be treated with a similar level of care in 2024 but with (hopefully) a lot less external obstacles in terms of adjusting to the rhythm of the 162 game season. The on-boarding should be smoother. But as much as we want a breakout year from the rookie, patience should win out with the lefty, and ‘24 will be more of a runway than a launchpad. There will be growing pains, short leashes followed by long, searching looks into the dugout iPad. The Giants will have enough arms to spread the innings around and keep from burdening the lefty while providing him ample opportunity to get used to the life of a big leaguer.
Prudence now will ultimately serve Kyle Harrison in the long run... if there is one.