Prior to the start of this season, Ben wrote a piece lamenting reliever Ryne Harper’s seemingly endless condemnation to the world of Double-A ball despite posting good numbers throughout his minor league career. While not receiving an invite to the big league club’s spring training, Harper was nonetheless promoted to AAA-Tacoma (LL Bump? MY COLUMN), where in 16.1 innings he’s given up four runs and twelve hits, for an okay-ish FIP of 3.73. His BB/9 of 5.40 is yucky, but influenced by one rough early-season outing he had where he walked three batters in one inning; expect that number to regress back to his career average of about 3 as the season continues. The real impressive number, though, is his strikeouts: he has 21 of them, good for a K/9 of about 12. Furthermore, Harper has an ability to deliver multiple innings when necessary; in 9 of his 12 outings for Tacoma, he’s pitched more than one inning. He can also work in a fireman role, and has collected a save and two wins on the season This past Sunday he closed out the game for the Rainiers, getting the final four outs; he needed just eleven pitches, ten of which he threw for strikes. The only real blemish on his record this year, aside from the walks, is a slightly inflated HR/FB total, because he gave up a homer to Sacramento’s Orlando Calixte in the middle of a rough stretch he had towards the end of April, where he gave up runs in three consecutive appearances. Since then, he’s snapped back into form, and has given up no runs and just one hit in his last four appearances, while striking out four. He has recorded at least one strikeout in every appearance he’s made.
Harper doesn’t have traditional, high-velocity strikeout stuff—his fastball is low 90s—but he does possess a plus pitch in his curveball. He’s described in scouting reports as having a fastball, curve, and slider, but Harper told me he actually considers himself to have a fastball and three different curveballs, thrown at three different speeds: one high 80s, one low to mid 80s, and one high 70s. Harper also has a relatively unconventional wind; here’s a slo-mo version of his last out, a called strike three, from yesterday’s game against Round Rock (apologies for video quality, I shot this on my phone):
Harper keeps his body turned away from the plate with his arm tucked behind him until the very last moment. His arm action is also deceptive thanks to the deep bend in his plant leg as he prepares to release the ball, staying low to the mound throughout his whole motion. It almost looks reminiscent of a sidearm pitcher, but then that right arm shoots up and releases the ball. Here’s what it looks like at speed:
It makes sense that Harper would dominate at the lower minors, where batters face very few pitchers who rely almost exclusively on off-speed offerings. But at Tacoma he’s facing MLB veterans alongside the prospects who have moved up to AAA with him, and still having success. The difference is, at 28, he’s one of the very few in that age range who’s never had a taste of MLB. For his part, Harper is amazingly Zen about the time he’s spent toiling in the minors. “You can’t think about that, you can’t think ahead like that,” he says in his gentle Tennessee accent, “or that will mess up your game. You have to look at each day and do your best that day, help put your team in the best position to win.” The one gift of having spent so long in the minors is Harper knows himself as a pitcher inside and out. He knows his routine and how to be consistent in it, he knows his stuff and how to command it or compensate when he doesn’t have one pitch working for him, and he knows how to get batters out. He will get hit and occasionally will get hit hard, but he will also limit damage, get batters to put the ball in play for his defense, and strike batters out. In a Mariners bullpen that’s struggled with consistency all season, Ryne Harper could bring some much-needed stability.