MLB draft prospect Thomas Harrington’s rise from walk-on to potential first-rounder

Two years ago, Thomas Harrington walked into the Campbell University baseball program as a non-scholarship player. In a month, he might walk out as the program’s highest-drafted pitcher.

In a down year for college pitchers, Harrington stands out in this year’s MLB draft class. He’s been consistently excellent in his two years at Campbell. He has a deep arsenal and a cerebral approach to pitching. He commands his two-seam fastball well and already has shown an aptitude for incorporating new information quickly and adding good weight to his 6-foot-2 frame.

And there might be more to unlock.

Harrington, 20, only started pitching full-time in his junior year at Southern Lee High in Sanford, NC His senior season was cut short because of the pandemic. He didn’t receive a lot of interest from collegiate programs until late in his high school career and chose to walk on at nearby Campbell University, a rising program in the Big South Conference.

A multi-sport athlete in high school, Harrington came to Campbell as a work in progress. He had clean mechanics, Campbell pitching coach Tyler Robinson said in a recent interview, but not necessarily good mechanics.

“The impressive part for him, obviously being a two-sport guy and a really good athlete, what he picked up on that stuff really quick,” Robinson said.

Harrington soaked up all the information he could, not only learning from Robinson and other Campbell pitchers but also taking information online about pitching and incorporating it.

“With a lot of that stuff, he just took some initiative with it and found out on his own,” Robinson said of the improvements Harrington made.

Thomas Harrington was named the Big South Conference’s pitcher of the year this season. (Courtesy of Bennett Scarborough)

It didn’t take long for Harrington to go from walk-on project to a key part of the Campbell pitching program. With his senior season in high school cut short, Harrington spent his time away from the field working on strengthening his body. He arrived at Campbell in the fall of 2020 significantly stronger than he had been the last time Campbell coaches had seen him in action. Harrington stood out among the Campbell freshmen during fall ball and made an even bigger leap forward during the preseason.

“He got back right before the season started, and you could tell that he was one of our best guys,” Robinson said.

Harrington was Campbell’s Sunday starter for opening weekend in 2021, going five innings and allowing just one run in his college debut versus Liberty. He went on to throw 75 2/3 innings, posting a 3.45 ERA and striking out 75. He acknowledges he was tired by the end of the season, but he still managed to hold eventual College World Series champion Mississippi State to one run in five innings in his final outing of the season. He was named Big South freshman of the year. Campbell moved quickly after the season to shift Harrington from walk-on to scholarship player.

“After last year, I don’t think they were going to let me go without a scholarship,” Harrington said, laughing. “But I was super appreciative to get the opportunity.

“Coming out of high school not being a big college recruit, I was just happy to play college baseball. I think that gave me a little bit of ease coming into college that I wasn’t really expecting myself to play that much. But when I got to college, I realized really quick that I could make a big jump here and I could help win some games for our team.”

Even with the scholarship in hand and a strong freshman season under his belt, Harrington continued to push for improvement. He didn’t play summer ball and instead focused on getting stronger so he could pitch deeper into games and finish the season with less fatigue. The offseason work paid off, as Harrington threw 92 2/3 innings this season. He dropped his ERA nearly a full run to 2.53, posted a stellar 111:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio and went 12-2. In only one start did he fail to go at least a full six innings, and that was a game cut short by rain. As a Friday night starter, he felt a lot of pride in being able to work deep into games.

“It was a big step forward for myself, just maturing mentally and physically on the mound,” said Harrington, who says he entered Campbell at 166 pounds and is now sitting between 185 and 190.

In just four years as a full-time pitcher, Harrington has already built up an impressively deep arsenal of pitches. His two-seam fastball is his primary offering, but he also features a curveball, changeup and slider, and he added a four-seam fastball this season so he could work up in the strike zone more often. The pitch, which has touched 96 mph, is still a work in progress, though Robinson said when Harrington had it working, it was an effective offering.

“As he gets to pro ball and he can focus on that stuff a little bit more with his development, I think that’s going to be a completely separate pitch for him,” Robinson said. “When the four-seamer’s right, it’s a plus pitch as well.”

Harrington notes that with his arm angle, he’s easily able to generate run on his two-seam fastball down in the zone but was able to get more swings-and-misses up in the zone with the four-seamer. From the metrics he’s seen on the pitch, he says it has almost a rising action to it.

“It’s a hard pitch for me when you’ve been sinking the ball your whole entire life and throwing down in the zone, and now people are telling you to throw up in the zone,” he said. “It’s different. But I think it’s a good weapon, and I’m excited to keep using it.”

Harrington’s slider is his best breaking pitch — he got a 43 percent whiff rate on it this season, and opponents hit only .145 against it. Robinson said Harrington’s curveball took a big step forward midway through this season, as well. He noted having two different breaking balls made Harrington an even more difficult matchup for opposing teams.

“Being able to utilize two different breaking balls was big because there are certain guys who would just end up sitting on the slider,” Robinson said. “His slider was anywhere from 80 to 85 (mph) most of the time, and now let’s say you’re mixing a different speed with that curveball and a different movement profile, and that’s maybe 70 to 80 (mph). That’s just another speed that they have to cover and still respect the fastball.”

Looking back, Harrington likely would have had college scholarship offers had he turned to pitching earlier in high school, but he doesn’t regret his time as a shortstop. He says he still has a shortstop’s competitive mentality when he’s pitching, and that background has also helped him maintain his natural athleticism.

“Sometimes as a pitcher, you lose athleticism because you’re just pitching and you’re not moving around quite as much,” he said. “But being a position player basically my whole life, I feel like that’s helped the most (in terms of) being able to stay athletic on the mound.”

Harrington is draft-eligible despite having only two years of college experience because he turns 21 five days before the draft. He and Campbell shortstop Zach Neto — both top-50 draft prospects, according to The Athletic‘s Keith Law — are currently at the MLB Draft combine, which is being held this week at Petco Park in San Diego. Harrington won’t throw at the combine but is looking forward to meeting people in the industry and getting to spend time at a major-league park.

If Harrington or Neto hears their name called before pick 40, it would make them the highest-drafted player in Campbell history. The record-holder is right-hander Seth Johnson, who went to the Rays in the competitive balance round B in 2019. He has quickly established himself as one of the Rays’ top pitching prospects. Last season, he had a 2.88 ERA in 93 innings at the Low-A level, and he was off to a fast start with High-A Bowling Green before landing on the injured list with forearm inflammation late last month.

Robinson says there are a lot of similarities between Harrington and Johnson, who also made the move from shortstop to pitcher late in his amateur career. Johnson’s big fastball drew a lot of attention leading into the 2019 draft, but Robinson notes that Harrington’s overall arsenal is more robust.

“I would say that Harrington is a little bit more polished right now than Johnson was when Johnson was with us,” Robinson said. “Harrington, he didn’t necessarily have to have his best stuff to still be competitive for us and still give us good outings.

“The biggest similarity between the two of them is the athleticism and the work ethic and just the desire to win.”

Harrington has loved his two seasons with the Camels — “We call it the Brotherhood at Campbell, and it’s so true. We’re all best friends,” he says — but he’s excited about the opportunity to turn per next month, even with two years of college eligibility left.

“It’s definitely every kid’s dream to hear your name called,” he said. “Obviously, I’m a year younger than most guys going into the draft. But I think every kid’s goal is to play per ball and play on TV. Campbell is great, I love Campbell, but I want to play on TV.”

(Top photo courtesy of Bennett Scarborough)


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