Harris' 10-year journey to ASG a lesson in perseverance
Astros closer, who's had 2 surgeries, been waived 3 times, makes 1st All-Star team at 32
By Richard Justice
SAN DIEGO -- There just can't be a sweeter, more improbable story at this All-Star Game than Astros closer Will Harris. Surely, his 10-year journey makes the moment just a bit more special, especially considering there were times he doubted he'd ever be healthy enough to have a baseball career.
"I'd call my wife before a surgery and say, 'Hey, look, this could be it. We need to prepare,'" Harris said.
Ah, Caroline, his wife.
"She was my partner through the whole thing, through the surgeries and the tough times," Harris said.
Caroline is here with him for tonight's All-Star Game presented by MasterCard (7:30 p.m. ET on FOX), soaking in baseball's gathering of the best of the best. Yes, the best of the best, a club in which Harris now belongs.
In 39 appearances for Houston this season, Harris has compiled a 1.62 ERA and allowed fewer than one baserunner per nine innings (0.95). Since Astros manager A.J. Hinch shifted him into the closer's role on June 5, he has made good on all nine of his save opportunities.
Harris' approach is simple: two pitches, a cut fastball and a hard curveball.
"Those pitches, they look the same coming out of his hand," Astros catcher Jason Castro said. "They're hard to pick, and not because [Harris] has a funky delivery or anything like that. They look the same out of his hand, but have different action at home plate. Very hard to differentiate."
For this simplicity, Harris can thank Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff and their ability to scout and assess players, helping them discard what doesn't work and focus on what does.
In Houston, Harris found something of a soulmate in Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, a smart, creative, tightly wound tactician who has helped starters Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh achieve success.
Harris' turnaround has been dramatic. He had a 4.26 ERA in 110 appearances for Colorado and Arizona from 2012-14. In 107 appearances for Houston the past two seasons, Harris' ERA is 1.80, sixth best among Major League relievers.
"I don't know how anyone ever puts the ball in play against him," said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, the club's other All-Star. "He's nasty."
These things, taken alone, may not make Harris unique. There are other pitchers at this All-Star Game who've perfected a cut fastball and refined their repertoire.
But Harris made his first All-Star team a few weeks before his 32nd birthday, 10 years since the Rockies took him in the ninth round of the 2006 Draft out of LSU. He was waived by three organizations, and he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2008 and microfracture surgery on the same elbow in '09. In fact, Harris believes he's the only one pitching in the Major Leagues after undergoing microfracture surgery.
Looking back on it now, Harris knows he should have had surgery in 2006, when his right elbow first began to ache. He attempted to pitch through the pain for two more years before finally giving in. The ligament damage was so extensive that it required two procedures.
"I was hurt pretty much my first five years in pro ball," Harris said. "It has come down to getting healthy and believing in what I do and knowing that's good enough. Mechanics-wise, I've pretty much thrown the same since I was 9 years old."
After the surgeries in 2008 came the rehabilitation, which didn't go smoothly or quickly. The Rockies waived Harris in '13. The Athletics did the same later that season. The D-backs said their goodbyes in November '14.
"The thing people maybe don't understand about injuries is that once you're back on the field from something like that, you're still not completely healthy," Castro said. "It's a long process until you have the confidence to let a certain pitch completely go."
That's the part of this thing Harris can now understand. There were times he'd throw a bullpen session and then be unable to do another for weeks, as the ligaments and tendons in his elbow continued to repair.
"My rehab took a couple of years," Harris said. "I stayed with it. You just want to give it your best shot, so when I'm done playing, you can look back and say, 'Well, all right, you did everything you could possibly do, and it just didn't work out.' In my case, it happened to work out, and I feel blessed that it did. My journey led me to here, so I'm pretty happy about it."
By the time the Astros claimed Harris 19 months ago, he was healthy. In him, they saw a potential valuable weapon with two pitches opposing hitters just might pound into the ground.
"I don't want to give out too many trade secrets here, but we're very much into pitch usage," Hinch said. "It's about when you use pitches and how often you expose them to the same hitter. Is that changing him? Not really. It's more encouraging him to use his weapons the way they're supposed to be used."
To watch Harris grow a day at a time and have the kind of success every player dreams of having has warmed hearts throughout the Astros' organization.
"Every player in our clubhouse knows Will will do anything for this team," Hinch said. "I love watching him evolve and gain confidence."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.