Coming off a 2019 campaign with Houston’s Astros in which he put up a 1.50 ERA, a 3.15 FIP, 14 walks (2.10 BB/9), 62 strikeouts (9.30 K/9), and a .196/.246/.294 line against in 60 innings pitched, Will Harris signed on in Washington D.C., agreeing to a 3-year/$24M free agent deal with the Nationals.
The first year of that three-year deal didn’t go Harris’s way, however, as he struggled with an injury early in the 60-game COVID campaign, and didn’t comfortable in his new home until deep into the truncated season.
Harris finished 2020 with a 3.06 ERA, a 4.55 FIP, nine walks (4.58 BB/9), 21 strikeouts (10.70 K/9), and a .280/.357/.440 line against in 20 games and 17 2⁄3 IP.
His manager in the nation’s capital, Davey Martinez, said this weekend that he’s confident the right-hander will bounce back given a full Spring Training to build towards the opener after last year’s start-stop-and-start-again experience during the first months with COVID spreading around the U.S.
“The reason why we signed him is because we know what he can do,” Martinez told reporters over the weekend.
“Last year was just one of those crazy years where we didn’t know what to expect, and he was hurt, he tried to come back and things were just achy for him all year long. I watched him throw today and he’s already way ahead of the curve.
“He feels good, so I’m expecting big things from him. He understands his role. He’s going to pitch in the back end of the bullpen when I need him, whether it’s the seventh, eighth, or even the ninth inning some days.
“He looks great, he really does, and I’m excited to watch him go out there and compete.”
Harris pitched through a groin issue that led to an IL stint early in the season, as mentioned, and the issue lingered throughout the 2020 campaign.
“I think any pitcher will tell you,” Harris told reporters last September, “... 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.”
Harris’s velocity on his cutter dropped from an average of 91.2 MPH in 2019 to 90.4 MPH last season, and he threw it more than he had in previous seasons too (76.5%; up from 56.9% in 2019), which was at least in part a result of his struggles with his curveball (against which opposing hitters had a .375 AVG last year, up from .151 in 2019), but also a result of his issues with his command overall.
“I didn’t know the numbers, but I can tell you it was because of the way I was feeling,” Harris said when his increased cutter usage last season was pointed out to him in a Zoom call with the D.C. press corps on Sunday.
“I walked probably more guys than I’ve ever walked per nine [innings] in my career last year, I have no idea what it is but I would assume it’s probably the most,” he said. It was.
“I just was searching for a lot of things physically and mechanically, trying not to injure myself, or pitching away from things that may hurt, and fell behind in a lot of counts.
“If you’re behind in a lot of counts you’re going to throw a lot of fastballs. So, that’s kind of where I got, and didn’t have a good feel for my breaking ball until later on in the year, and then my strikeout numbers went up, my walks went down, everything kind of fell into place of how I was used to.
“But yeah, the first month was a struggle, and I limited — I probably should have given up a lot more runs than I did, and that was a tribute to guys coming in and picking me up and saving me a few times, but yeah, it was definitely a struggle for me the first three or four weeks of the season last year, and once I kind of clicked it in gear then everything was pretty normal the rest of the way, and got the outcomes I’ve been accustomed to getting.”
How much of what he struggled with in 2020 was tied to the months-long shutdown in mid-March and quick ramp-up for the eventual season in July?
“Definitely a factor,” Harris said. “Not all the things. I could have been stronger in a few areas that I’ve learned working [on] with the guys here.
“The timetable definitely was a factor, and obviously quarantining, and just things being very abnormal last year, I think played a factor in a lot of that I think, throughout the league, it’s not just me, but a lot of players, a lot of guys that I know around the league that I talked to dealt with a lot of similar things, so I’m expecting those to be in the past moving forward.”
For Harris, who pitched in the postseason for four of the previous five seasons before the Nationals fell short in 2020, having the extra time off this winter was different, but he said he still got back to work on the same schedule he usually does.
“I would say the only thing that changed in my approach was like not having — like the first time not being in the postseason in a while, and not pitching pretty late into October was the big difference for me. So, I probably started throwing at the normal time that I normally do, but there was more of a space between those dates. So, I was looking to — everybody is looking to tweak things, maybe get a little better, so I didn’t take quite that much time off, but as far as my intensity level and when I started throwing, it was about the same that it always is.”