Last year Willie Harris posted a .653 OPS (a drop of 104 points from a year ago) and it looked like his career was in jeopardy. He hooked on with the Mets and got off to a hot start in 2011. But by the third week of May, Harris was back to his 2010 ways, as he had a .203/.308/.304 line and a demotion/release seemed imminent.
But the Mets ran into some injuries – or is that the other way around? – and Harris got time to prove he still belonged. In his last 31 games, which includes nine starts, Harris has been on fire. He has a .358/.460/.434 line. What’s even more amazing is that Harris has struck out 14 times in 53 at-bats during that stretch. That means when he puts the ball in play, he has a .487 BABIP.
Obviously, no one can maintain a .487 BABIP over an extended period and it would be silly to assume that this was his true talent level. On the flip side, Harris had a .199 BABIP in 2010, which goes a long way towards explaining his dismal .653 OPS. That wasn’t indicative of his true talent, either.
Now Sandy Alderson has to decide if Harris is still an asset to the club. The veteran backup already survived one hurdle when the Mets decided to demote Ruben Tejada when Jose Reyes was activated from the disabled list. But what happens when David Wright returns?
Harris will be in the mix along with Lucas Duda, Nick Evans and Jason Pridie for the players the Mets consider moving to make room for Wright. Pridie seems like the most logical candidate to go but as a natural center fielder and a good defensive player, Pridie offers something that no one else does among the team’s reserves.
If Angel Pagan gets banged up, Pridie can step in and handle CF. Harris could, too, in a pinch but he would not be an ideal solution. So, it comes down to how highly Alderson and the Mets value defense in a bench player. Does CF defense outweigh Harris’ versatility and recent hot bat? Most likely the answer is no.
Still, we should look at what Harris has done this year and how likely he is to keep it up going forward.
Overall, Harris has a .378 BABIP this year while his lifetime mark in the category is .286, meaning he is vastly outperforming what we would expect. The alarming thing is that even with this good fortune on balls in play, Harris carries just a .265 AVG, due to those strikeouts we mentioned earlier. Harris has a 26.6 K%, easily the highest mark of his career. His lifetime mark is 17.8 percent and the trend is not favorable, as Harris established a career-worst last year with a 22.9 K%.
The hits are falling in for Harris now because he is ripping line drives. He has a 23.6 LD%, his highest mark since 2003. Last year his LD% was 16 percent. Since more line drives result in base hits than any other batted ball type, this is an extremely important item. His groundball rate is essentially the same as last year. So Harris has traded fly balls – the batted ball most likely to result in an out – for line drives, the best possible outcome a player could have.
Unfortunately, Harris has had a LD% over 20 just once in the last six years, back in 2007. He’s unlikely to keep up this pace, and when the pop-ups replace the line drives, we’ll see that .265 AVG drop pretty quickly.
As more of the regulars return, Harris will see fewer chances to start and more pinch-hitting opportunities. And the veteran has really struggled as a PH this season. In 38 PA in this role, Harris has a .182/.289/.242 mark for a .532 OPS.
It seems fair to say that Harris has two main advantages: defensive versatility and his OBP. In his last five years, Harris has posted a BB% in double digits, including this year’s 12.3 percent mark. So, even once the BABIP regresses and his AVG plummets, Harris should maintain a good OBP due to his good batting eye.
Ultimately, the Mets should keep Harris over Pridie, even if Harris is unlikely to keep up his current pace. Pridie has not done much better than Harris as a PH this year (.552 OPS) and if Pagan has to go on the DL, they can simply recall Pridie to take his place.
Having already moved Tejada, the Mets need a reserve capable of playing on the infield more than another extra outfielder. This gives Harris his greatest advantage in maintaining his roster spot. Harris might be in trouble should Ike Davis return, but that seems more doubtful each passing day.