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Washington Nationals’ reliever Will Harris; 2020 struggles; getting straightened out late + more...

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Will Harris signed a 3-year/$24M free agent deal last winter, coming off an impressive 2019 campaign, but things didn’t go as planned in 2020 (for anyone, really).

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Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Will Harris made two appearances at the start of the 2020 campaign in late July before he landed on the 10-Day Injured List, with a groin issue, which kept him out of action until the middle of August.

“We just want to get him right,” manager Davey Martinez explained after Harris was placed on the IL.

“He tweaked his groin a little bit and I just felt like, we talked, talked to the doctors, training staff, him. Just want to get him right. We could use — we used a couple days to back date him, so we’ll see. Hopefully we get this issue resolved and he can get back on the mound.”

Coming off a 2019 campaign with the Astros which saw the 36-year-old reliever put up a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, 14 walks (2.10 BB/9), 62 Ks (9.30 K/9), and a .196/.246/.294 line against in 60 IP in his fifth season with Houston, Harris got a 3-year/$24M free agent deal from the Nationals, against whom he’d competed in the World Series the previous October, giving up Howie Kendrick’s big home run late in Game 7 of the Fall Classic at the end of a dominant season and solid postseason run.

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

His first two outings with his new team (3 H, 1 HR, 2 BB, 3 R, 1 ER in 1 13 IP) were a bit shaky, but as Harris explained before he came off the IL, he was trying to pitch through the groin issue, and it had an impact.

“I think any pitcher will tell you,” Harris told reporters, “... when you have a groin injury you can still kind of do it, but you obviously favor it a lot, and you don’t want to feel that pulling anymore, so I’ve done it so many times over the past [seasons], I kind of know how to still get the ball to home plate, but that one was by far the worst one.

“The mechanics of it get too technical, but just really early on everything, really getting into my left side and getting off my right side because I didn’t want to put pressure on it, and it changes everything. I can tell by the way the ball is moving. Obviously by the velocity, that it wasn’t very good.”

After ramping up in Spring Training 1.0 in March, before the coronavirus pandemic forced baseball to shut down, then building back up again in late July as the start of the 60-game campaign, Harris said he wanted to take things slowly once he returned so that it wasn’t a continuing issue, after he’d dealt with groin tweaks for a few years.

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“Being in my history of it,” he said, “and this one being worse than any one I’ve ever had in the past and having to actually miss time, was kind of a, hey, I need to make sure that I get this right, because I don’t want to hurt it again and be dealing with it in the offseason, and things like that, and then maybe miss more time. So, I’m trying to be real patient, take it a day at a time, and as long as it’s responding well like it has, then I’m going to keep pushing forward at the pace that everybody seems to agree with.”

Harris built back up slowly, Martinez worked him into the regular bullpen rotation, and the nine-year veteran finished the 2020 campaign with a 3.06 ERA, a 4.55 FIP, nine walks (4.58 BB/9), 21 Ks (10.70 K/9), and a .280/.357/.440 line against in 20 games and 17 23 IP.

The veteran right-hander talked in early September about what was an up and down season for the pitcher and his new team.

“It seems like a couple of good outings and kind of take a step or two back,” Harris said as the first year of his three-year deal wound down.

“It’s been a little bit of a grind,” he added at another point, and frustrating for the club and the pitcher, who had pitched in the postseason in four of the previous five seasons before joining the Nationals, who were on their way to missing the expanded playoffs at that point.

New York Mets v Washington Nationals - Game One Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Harris said continuing to go out and work hard even when your club isn’t winning is part of what it means to be a professional.

“I thing you can be overwhelmed if you look at the big picture all the time,” he said. “I think it’s better to take the small, incremental battles, especially as kind of like a reliever, that’s usually how I like to do it. So for me tomorrow, it’s just a matter of trying to be better than I was today.”

As the end of the season approached, Nationals’ catcher Kurt Suzuki said, Harris, and other pitchers on the roster, were just starting to get to where they would be a few months into a regular campaign.

“I think Will is starting to get back to where Will Harris usually is,” Suzuki said.

“He’s throwing that cutter, he’s moving it to all quadrants of the zone, throwing that good snapping curveball.

“His last few outings he’s been lights out and I think now you’re seeing — too bad we’ve only got a couple weeks left, but in a normal season he’d be finding his groove now heading into the summer of the season and off you go. But everything kind of gets magnified in a season like this, and with Will obviously having the late start and all that kind of stuff he’s working his way back and like I said, the last four outings, he’s been like the Will Harris that we’ve been seeing for the last few years that has been one of the most dominant relievers in the game.”

Will the Nationals get “one of the most dominant relievers in the game” in 2021, with time off to heal up after Harris threw a lot of innings with the Astros prior to signing his deal in D.C.?

Harris’s Hard Hit % in 2020 (46.3%) was up significantly from previous seasons (29.3% in ‘18 and 31.8% in ‘19), his BB% was up (10.7%, up from 6.1 in both ‘18-19), as was his Barrel% (9.3% in 2020, up from 5.3% and 5.9%, respectively, in ‘18-19). His velo was off a bit (but he was not alone in that), with his cutter averaging 90.4 MPH (down from 91.2 in 2019), his curveball at 80.8 MPH (down from 81.3), and his four-seam fastball averaging 91.3 MPH (down from 92).

Opponents’ batting average on his cutter wasn’t far off (.259 in 2020, up from .238), though his curve got hit (.375 AVG; up from .151). [ed. note - “He rarely throws a straight fastball.”]

Will Harris be back to his old self in 2021, with a full Spring Training and return to routine if things are back to “normal” for the reliever and everyone else?