Tigers' Josh Harrison thinks he's found key to cracking early slump

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Josh Harrison

Boston – Talking to Josh Harrison in the Tigers’ clubhouse, just minutes after Game 1 of the four-game set with the Red Sox was postponed Monday. He’d already done his hitting work and he was, given his struggles at the plate recently, remarkably upbeat.

“I had a little breakthrough,” he said. “Just going back to the drawing board, looking at video, I’ve just been a little disconnected and I’ve been trying to figure it out. We’re getting closer every day. I don’t want to say for sure, but I think I’ve broken through.”

Harrison is hitting .122. To say that is uncharacteristic would be under-playing it. He’s never hit less than .240 in any month of his career. After going hitless in four at-bats Sunday, he’s riding a 2 for 30 drought. He’s swinging and missing at a career-high rate of 31.5 percent.

More puzzling, he’s getting beat primarily with fastballs, seeing them 65 percent of the time and hitting .149 against them. When it was suggested that it was strange to see him getting beat with low-90s fastballs, Harrison chuckled.

“Right now, 70 mph is beating me,” he said. “You put a ball out in front of me, it’s beating me. It’s not due to pitching. It’s just due to my body compensating for being in the wrong spot.”

This is what Harrison has discovered: It’s not his swing. It’s not his plate discipline. Yes, his chase rate is 38 percent, but he has always had a relatively high chase rate and he’s always been considered a good bad-ball hitter.

“Talking to my wife, she said, ‘You’re not swinging at any different pitches than you normally swing at,’” Harrison said. “I was like, ‘I know.’ That’s the frustrating part about it, when you are missing pitches you shouldn’t miss.”

The problem, he said, unwilling to divulge too much, is in his set-up.

“A lot of it for me has to do with set-up and where I am at the plate,” he said. “Like I said, I went back to the drawing board, looked at the video, tried this and tried that. But a lot of it is -- my swing is the result of where I’m at on the plate.”

Harrison has hit a lot of fly balls – a career-high 27.6 percent of the balls he’s put in play have gone up in the air. That, as manager Ron Gardenhire pointed out on Sunday, is not conducive to productive hitting from his lead-off man, especially at Comerica Park.

It’s a symptom of the same problem.

“A lot of times we think it has to do with the swing,” Harrison said. “But the swing is the result of timing or where we are directionally (in the batter’s box). It’s the set-up and where I stand at the plate that’s going to take care of it.”

In his final at-bat Sunday, facing the upper-90s fastballs from White Sox right-hander Nate Jones, Harrison popped out to the right side of the infield. And that swing, as unproductive as it was, felt right.

“I fouled off a slider with two strikes and then I popped up a 97 or 98 mph fastball on the inner half,” Harrison said. “I was like, ‘All right. With the little adjustment I made, I was a little closer.’”

The result was an out, but that he was able to get the bat to a pitch in that location at that velocity was progress.

“That was the first time I felt like I broke through,” he said. “Even though I hit a home run the other night (Friday), something in me was like, ‘That didn’t feel natural.’ I knew I’d hit the ball well and it was just a relief to know I had hit a ball hard that didn’t get caught.

“But I knew it still wasn’t where I’m supposed to be. I have hit some balls hard, but for the balls I haven’t hit hard, there is a reason why – and it’s not because I can’t hit. Something was off. I am just glad I figured it out sooner than later. I already know what the fix is and I’m excited.”

The Tigers and Red Sox will play a split double-header Tuesday. The Matthew Boyd vs. Chris Sale matchup that was rained out Monday will take place at 1:10 p.m. Then, in the regularly-scheduled 7:10 p.m. game, the Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull will face Red Sox right-hander Hector Velazquez.

Tigers at Red Sox: Game 1

First pitch: 1:10 p.m. Tuesday

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report:

Sale (0-4, 8.50), Red Sox: Rough start, to say the least. His fastball velocity is down to 92 mph and it’s been getting clobbered. Opponents are hitting .524 and slugging 1.098 off the fastball through four starts.  

Boyd (1-1, 2.96), Tigers: He’s fourth in the American League with 36 strikeouts and his 13.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate is second to Gerrit Cole. He’s got the lowest fielding independent pitching average in the league. Against his two primary pitches, opponents are hitting .233 (fastball) and .222 (slider). He made his first ever start at Fenway last June and pitched six strong innings (four hits, two runs).

Tigers at Red Sox: Game 2

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Tuesday

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report:

Velazquez (0-1, 2.84), Red Sox: He’s been a swing man for the Red Sox, and this will be his third start – though in the other two he was used for only three innings, like an opener. He’s a sinker (91 mph)-change-up pitcher and of the 36 balls put in play against him, none have been considered barreled by Statcast.

Turnbull (0-2, 3.43) Tigers: This will be his eighth career big-league start and he’s still searching for his first win, but it hasn’t been for a lack of solid pitching. His was stingy against the Pirates in his last outing, allowing just one unearned run and two hits over six innings. He had six strikeouts and nine ground ball outs.

Twitter @cmccosky