When Lucas Harrell takes the mound this weekend against the Tigers, batters can expect to see a lot of two-seam fastballs. The Houston Astros right-hander has thrown his signature pitch 61.8 percent of the time this season. In his most recent start — a shut-down effort against the Yankees — 75 of his 105 pitches were two-seamers averaging 92.4 mph.
Harrell has been specializing in shut-down efforts. In five of his six starts he has allowed two or fewer runs. The 27-year-old doesn’t get much national attention, but outside of a brutal outing against the A’s in early April, he has pitched like an ace. It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Last year — his first full season in the big leagues — he had a 3.76 ERA in 193 innings.
Harrell lives and dies with his sinker, but he has solid command of four other pitches. He is also throwing a four-seam fastball 9.3 percent of the time, a cutter (13.9%), changeup (8.5%) and curveball (6.5%).
Harrell talked about his repertoire — including his heavy sinker — last weekend at Fenway Park. Also weighing in on his game were catcher Jason Castro, manager Bo Porter, pitching coach Doug Brocail, and Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves.
Harrell on his two-seamer: “I throw a lot of sinkers. That’s my main pitch and my other stuff I basically just work in. It’s been my go-to pitch ever since high school. I’ve always had movement on it and I can also throw hard. The combination of those two together usually produces ground balls. I’m a ground ball guy and don’t strike a lot of people out.
“I get a little arm-side tail sometimes, but on good days I get more downward action. That’s what’s going to get me the ground balls. When I get side to side, I leave it up and it gets hit a little more.
“If you’re throwing your sinker at 88-90, or you’re throwing 90-93, that’s a big difference. The harder it is, the harder it is to hit. It rides a little bit more on the hands, which gives you a little more advantage. Even so, the more I’m out there, the sharper I am and the more action I have on the ball.”
On his two-seam grip: “I rotate the ball slightly in my hand and can really feel it come off my middle finger. It’s your basic two-seam grip but turned a little sideways. My fingers are angled across the seams. When I turn the ball like that, I can feel it come off my middle finger at the last point of contact.”
On his cutter: “J.R. Perdew, my Double-A pitching coach, taught me a cutter. He taught it to me in spring training of 2009, right before I went to Triple-A. It’s really helped me out a lot. Working it off the sinker, I have one pitch going one way and another pitch going the other way. It’s been a big key to my success.”
On PITCHf/x misclassifying some of his cutters as sliders: “I don’t throw a slider. Sometimes I take a little off my cutter — it will be a little slower and get a little bigger break — and that’s probably what they’re calling a slider. When I throw my cutter-cutter, it’s 90-91 and a little sharper and smaller. When I take a little bit off, it can be can be anywhere from 86 to 88. But it’s the same pitch for me — it‘s a cutter. I‘ve never thrown a slider.”
On the rest of his repertoire: “I throw a curveball and changeup. I try to get my curveball 12-6, but it can get a little 1-7 or 1-8. My changeup is a two-seam circle with kind of the same spin as my sinker.
“I’ve been throwing a little more off-speed this year. I’ve also been throwing more cutters. Being in the American League, I feel I need to mix things up a little better.”
On his arm slot: “Every once in awhile I’ll drop down on a fastball or a curveball, but not too often. I’ll give a guy a different look. Maybe he’s fouling off a bunch of pitches and taking me deep in the count, so I’ll do it then. It changes his eye level a little bit and then I’ll come back with my regular stuff.”
On preparing for a game: “If we’re playing a team we’re facing the next day, I’ll watch the hitters and see what they’re doing. But I basically pitch to my strengths, even if it’s the hitter’s strength. If I’m pitching to my strengths, and pitching well, I can make the hitters deal with what I throw.
“I always look at what hitters have been doing the last four or five games — who’s hot and who’s not. I look at what pitches they’re swinging at and what they’re laying off. If they’re hitting a pitch well, you might stay away from it, but you can still mix it in there. You just have to be smart about where you throw it. Regardless, I’m going to throw a lot of sinkers.”
Jason Castro on Harrell: “Lucas is a pitcher who loves to work fast, and he really plays that to his advantage. He’s predominantly a fastball-sinker guy, and because he works fast he kind of gets hitters out of their approach a little bit. It seems like he gets them to swing at his pitches more often than other pitchers. His tempo plays into that.
‘He does a good job of mixing his fastball to different sides of the plate. He throws a little bit of a cutter that complements his sinker.
“He’s got a big sinker. A lot of guys throw average sinkers, but Lucas has one with a lot more depth. He’s also able to throw it at a pretty high velocity. He’s sitting in the low 90s — with that exaggerated sink — and then he’ll occasionally reach the mid 90s with his four-seam.
“Lucas has tried to incorporate his changeup and curveball into the mix a little more. I feel he has pretty good command of both at this point. That allows us to kind of pick and choose between his changeup and curve when we want to go off-speed. It’s to his credit he can throw those pitches pretty equally and be effective with them.
“We sit down before his starts to go over reports and figure out how we want to attack hitters. He throws in his two cents based on his experiences facing certain guys in the past — what he’s done to get them out. We have a basic groundwork going forward and then, based on game situations and what we see, tailor our approach from there.”
Bo Porter on Harrell; “Lucas has great movement and he pitches with a lot of confidence. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, which I think is good for him. He attacks the strike zone. To me, he only gets in trouble when he tries to be too fine with his sinker. When you’re trying to live on the edges with pitches that move as much as his sinker does, you find yourself out of the strike zone. Then he ends up throwing more four-seam fastballs than he’d throw otherwise.
“He can put the ball to all quadrants of the strike zone, and in this league you need to be able to move the ball around effectively. If you can miss barrels and get ground-ball contact, you can find yourself in a jam and make pitches to get double-plays. Lucas can do that.”
Doug Brocail on Harrell; “He’s a sinkerballer that attacks the zone with a great sinker. Put it this way: I’m still athletic enough catch a lot of guys, but I can’t catch Lucas. His ball is too heavy.
“For as goofy as he is — as he portrays to be — he knows what he’s doing on the mound and he knows how to attack. That’s his approach. If he can stay aggressive with his sinker, he’s going to have a lot of success.
“Sometimes his sinker has too much sink and he has to find the happy medium on his release. Sometimes he thinks it’s not breaking enough and tries to help it, which makes it a better sinker but worse for the action. When he stays with the mindset of ‘here’s my sinker, try to hit it,’ he has a lot of success.
“I don’t know if his sinker ever doesn’t work. It’s more of whether it’s too big — if that day it has more of a tail than a sink. He has a good curveball, a good cutter, his changeup is phenomenal. It’s just a matter of putting three out of those four together on a night. That’s when he gets his wins.”
Juan Nieves on Harrell: “When I had him in Chicago, Lucas was a two-seam, four-seam guy with a pretty good breaking ball. He had a great changeup and a feel for pitching. He was a strike machine — a strike thrower — with the ability to manipulate a baseball. He could spin the ball.
“Initially, a lot of guys think they need more. They think they need to make perfect pitches. But as you’ve seen, he’s settled down in the big leagues. I can see him pitching 200 innings every year — backstroking 200 innings for the next eight years. Lucas is a talented pitcher.”