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Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and the “what ifs” of weird pitcher injuries

Non-baseball-related injuries to Matt Harrison and Derek Holland derailed their careers and altered the direction of the Rangers’ franchise

RANGERS SPRING Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Six years ago today, Matt Harrison walked off the mound at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas.

Harrison, who had missed most of 2013 due to back surgery and who started the 2014 season on the injured list, was making his fourth start of the year for the Rangers that day, going up against Dallas Keuchel. Harrison had a shaky first inning, issuing one out walks to George Springer and Dexter Fowler, but got out of it without any damage.

In the second, however, things fell apart. Chris Carter singled to lead off the second, and L.J. Hoes followed with a home run. Carlos Corporan grounded out, Jonathan Villar struck out, and we had hope Harrison was getting back on track. A Jose Altuve double followed, however, then another Springer, then a Fowler single. Then Mike Maddux and the trainer went out to the mound.

Ben and I were at the game that day. Someone I knew had given me tickets right behind the Rangers dugout. And so we saw up close as Matt Harrison walked off the mound, dejected, and into the dugout. Ben and I stood up and clapped for him, knowing how hard he’d worked to get back to the mound. But I told Ben, as we sat back down, I feared it was the last time we’d see Matt Harrison on the mound.

The next day, the Rangers announced that Harrison had been diagnosed with a serious back condition that would end up necessitating spinal fusion surgery, and oh, by the way, Martin Perez had been diagnosed with a torn UCL that would end up requiring Tommy John surgery — about as bad a one-two injury punch as the Rangers have experienced in one day.

And the two thus landed on the injured list, joining fellow rotation lefty Derek Holland. Holland, of course, had started the year on the injured list due to offseason microfracture surgery on his knee. The knee injury had occurred either when he tripped on his dog while on the stairs at his house (the official story) or was injured playing hockey (the theory some subscribe to).

The Perez injury is one of those things that happens with pitchers — torn UCLs and Tommy John surgery are fairly commonplace at this point, and while it is always disappointing when it happens, its a normal baseball injury that every team deals with.

The Harrison and Holland situations, however, are different. Harrison had back issues that ultimately resulted in spondylolisthesis, a back condition that required spinal fusion surgery. Holland had a fluke off-field injury. These aren’t the usual issues that contribute to normal pitcher attrition rates — these are one-off, quirky incidents that struck two healthy pitchers and completely changed the course of their careers and this franchise.

Harrison and Holland appeared to be cornerstone players for the Rangers in the early part of the 2010s. Harrison put up a 3.34 ERA in 399 IP in 2011-12, and was the Opening Day starter for the Rangers in 2013 as a 27 year old. Holland put up a 3.98 ERA in 586 IP from 2011-13, and was 27 heading into the 2014 season. The two lefties appeared to have put to rest concerns that the Rangers were unable to develop their own starting pitching, having established themselves as quality rotation members.

Harrison’s problems started in 2013. His Opening Day start in Houston went poorly, and after a second bad outing, he was put on the shelf for the year, needing two back surgeries. Back surgeries are always problematic for an athlete, but indications at the time were that he should be good to go for the 2014 season.

That, of course, wasn’t the case. Harrison’s velocity, which averaged around 92-93 mph on his fastball in 2010-12, had been 91 in his pair of 2013 starts, and was down to 89.4 mph in 2014. His back problems were chronic and severe in nature, and the spinal fusion surgery that was recommended was something that was seen as potentially career-ending, but also necessary for him to be able to live a normal life down the road.

Harrison battled his way back to the majors in 2015, but he wasn’t the same guy. He was down to 86-87 mph on his fastball, and was trying to simply grit it out with stuff that simply wasn’t major league quality. His first start back in 2015, he got lit up by the Diamondbacks for 6 runs in 4 innings. His second start, on July 21, in Colorado, was a miracle of sorts — he went 6 shutout innings against the Rockies, and picked up a win.

Harrison’s final outing of his major league career came on July 27, against the Yankees. He allowed 6 runs in 6 innings, and picked up the loss in the game.

Four days later, Harrison was sent, along with Jorge Alfaro, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson and Nick Williams, to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels, Jake Diekman and cash. Harrison was, essentially, salary ballast that the Phillies were taking on to get better prospects in the deal — he had signed a contract extension prior to the 2013 season that was paying him $13 million per year for 2015-17. Once he was acquired, they put him on the injured list, and indicated that they had determined he was medically unable to perform, allowing them to collect insurance money on his contract.

Holland, meanwhile, appeared to be better than ever initially after his surgery. Holland put up a 1.46 ERA and a 2.19 FIP in 37 IP over 6 outings at the end of the 2014 season, and the thinking was he would be good to go for the 2015 campaign.

Instead, he battled injuries and ineffectiveness in both 2015 and 2016, putting up a 4.93 ERA and 4.94 FIP in 166 IP in the regular season, and having a disastrous start in Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS, when he allowed 6 runs in 2+ IP over an 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays. It appeared the knee injury had a cascading effect that hampered him physically going forward, keeping him from being healthy enough to be the pitcher he had been before.

Holland was released after the 2016 season by the Rangers. He put up a 6.20 ERA for the Chicago White Sox in 2017 in 135 IP, had a solid bounceback year for the San Francisco Giants in 2018, then fell apart in 2019, logging a 6.08 ERA in 84.1 IP between the Giants and the Chicago Cubs. Holland is currently with the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying to get his career back on track.

The Rangers developed a pair of solid major league starting pitchers, rewarded them with what looked like team-friendly contract extensions that would make them part of the foundation of the team for years to come, and then saw them struck down by unforeseeable physical issues. As a result, they had two gaping holes in the rotation they had to scramble to fill.

How different would the mid-2010s have been for the Rangers if Harrison and Holland had stayed healthy? The 2013 Ranger had Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm make 34 starts, combined, asked Ross Wolf and Josh Lindblom and Travis Blackey to start multiple games, traded for Matt Garza, and ended up tied for the second wild card spot, having to play a Game 163 against David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays in a play-in game, a game the Rangers lost. A healthy Harrison for 2013 would have solidified the Ranger rotation, and could have made them a threat to the Oakland A’s (who finished five games ahead of Texas in the A.L. West), as well as making it likely they get into the playoffs without having to play that Game 163.

2014 was a lost cause regardless, but a 2015 and 2016 campaign with a healthy Harrison and Holland could have ended much differently. The 2015 Rangers blew a 2-0 lead to the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALDS, with Martin Perez giving up 4 runs in 5 IP in Game 3 and Holland, as mentioned above, blowing up in Game 4. If Texas is rolling out good versions of Harrison and Holland, the Rangers likely don’t even have to play that fateful Game 5.

2016 saw the Rangers swept by the Jays in the ALDS. Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels were the Game 1 and 2 starters, and struggled — Harrison and Holland wouldn’t have impacted those games. But in Game 3, Texas asked a rickety Colby Lewis to take the mound, and he gave up 5 runs in 2+ innings, putting Texas in an immediate hole. The Rangers lost 7-6 in extra innings — the bats did their job, and the bullpen did their job, but Texas couldn’t overcome the early hole they got into. A healthy, productive Derek Holland or Matt Harrison could make the difference there.

Would the 2017 season have played out any differently with Harrison and Holland being quality rotation pieces? Maybe. The Rangers dealt Yu Darvish that summer, but the Rangers were still in the playoff hunt until mid-September, despite having A.J. Griffin and Tyson Ross and Nick Martinez getting knocked around as members of the rotation. And if the Rangers did go the sell route, a solid Harrison or Holland would have been able to bring a decent prospect or two in the deal.

But alas, it was not to be. Harrison and Holland were struck down by fluke injuries in their prime. And all we can do is look back and wonder what if.