Matt Harrison and Josh Collmenter weren't expected to be playoff pitchers back in the spring, but both are on the mound for elimination games today.
Even if you had guessed back in February that both the Rangers and Diamondbacks would make the postseason, there's no way you also assumed that pitchers Matt Harrison and Josh Collmenter would be handed the ball in elimination games. Harrison takes the mound for the Rangers today as they attempt to advance to the ALCS, while Collmenter is in the opposite scenario, looking for a W to keep the D'backs alive in October -- this despite both being relative unknowns heading into the year.
Harrison was a reliever on last year's American League champion Rangers squad. In 2008 and 2009, Harrison was a starter, throwing 147 innings over 26 starts, but he wasn't a successful one: Harrison had an ERA of 5.76 in that stretch, and his 1.41 K/BB ratio put him among the 25-worst with as many innings as he had. Harrison's control wasn't great, but it was the lack of strikeouts that caused problems. Harrison punched out fewer than five batters per nine during seasons where the average hovered around seven.
That wasn't much different than his minor league years, though, as Harrison struck out just 6.5 per nine in 2007 and six per nine in 2008, relying instead on his excellent control. He was considered the best lefty in the Braves' organization prior to coming to Texas in the Mark Teixeira trade, despite the inability to miss bats, but it was clear he wasn't ready for the majors upon his arrival.
He finished more games than he started in 2010, and, even with a career-low ERA of 4.71, it was his worst season to that point. He walked 39 batters against just 46 strikeouts in 78-1/3 innings pitched. It wasn't just because of his time as a starter, either, as Harrison's K/BB in relief was 1.1. About the only thing he did well was keep the ball in the park -- the groundballing lefty held opponents to a HR/9 of 0.8 in relief, easily his best work in that regard since arriving in Texas.
The 2011 season saw him stuck back in the rotation, and with an altered arsenal at his disposal. Whereas in the past Harrison had mainly focused on his four- and two-seam fastballs with cutters mixed in, his change-up and curveball got a lot more play in 2011. This change has worked for him, as Harrison set a career-high in K/9 with 6.1 per nine -- in part thanks to that change, which sees swings-and-misses 17 percent of the time -- and lowered his walk rate to 2.8 per nine. His cutter was previously his go-to swing-and-miss pitch, but he only threw it for a strike half the time thanks to iffy control of it. The homers have dropped even further, too, good news for a pitcher whose home park is an offensive paradise.
Thanks to that change in approach, Harrison stuck in the rotation throughout the year, and now could be the pitcher to send Tampa Bay home for the winter. That's a long way from a career ERA well over five.
As for Collmenter, he wasn't even a legitimate prospect like Harrison. Kevin Goldstein rated Collmenter as the #19 prospect in Arizona's system heading into 2011, while Baseball America didn't mention him at all in their pre-season review of the farm, or within the top 30 prospects in the organization in their annual book. This isn't a surprise, given Collmenter relied entirely on deception and his command to succeed rather than stuff, and those guys can put up quality numbers in the minors until they face better (and smarter) hitters.
While Collmenter pitched well in his first trial at Double-A last season, striking out 8.3 per nine with a K/BB of 3.3 over 79 frames, Triple-A didn't go nearly as well, as his walks increased (26 in 57 innings) and he allowed over a homer per nine while seeing his strikeouts drop further.
The Diamondbacks were desperate for pitching help, though, and Collmenter, as a 15th-round selection back in 2007 without much of a prospect pedigree to worry about, was the one to get the call, as their other options were at the lower levels or in need of more seasoning. Even if the Diamondbacks and new general manager Kevin Towers like Collmenter better than the prospect experts, they have to be surprised with his results in 2011: thanks to holding opponents to 1.6 free passes per nine, Collmenter was able to post an ERA of 3.38 despite pitching in a hitter's park.
He lost even more strikeouts, whiffing under six per nine, but his control has been phenomenal, and is the key to his success. He throws all of his pitches for strikes at a league-average rate or better -- his change is a strike 73 percent of the time, compared to the average of 60 -- and even though none of those offerings induce swings-and-misses (besides the change-up), he gets outs thanks to controlling the count. With two strikes, he's been deadly, performing 33 percent better than your average pitcher in that situation. His OPS+ when ahead in the count is 17 percent better than the league average, and, thanks to his exceptional control and deception, he's been able to put hitters away even when behind.
He may not be able to succeed like this forever -- while his control in the minors was considered great, it was never this good -- but the Diamondbacks just need him to keep it up for one more night. They can worry about the rest later, as it's one more loss and out for them.