Just two years after seeing his high school baseball career cut short by the pandemic and starting college as an unheralded walk-on, Sanford’s Thomas Harrington has transformed into a solid first-round Major League prospect whose life is about to change on July 17.
By Billy Liggett
He expected the six-year plan for college — a degree in kinesiology and a few years of graduate school, followed by job interviews and eventually a career in physical therapy. But the job interviews are coming much sooner for Thomas Harrington. And the career path now laid before him is the stuff of dreams.
On July 17, just six days after he turns 21, Thomas Harrington will be a professional baseball player. And it’s not putting the cart before the horse, counting chickens before they hatch or any other idiom suggesting the young man’s draft prospects are wishful thinking. He’s on the first- to second-round radar of just about every Major League Baseball draft card — ProspectsLive.com has him going as high as 16th in the first round, while MLB.com and other mock draft sites have him going late in the first round, early in the second round in the 30-40 range.
Going that high in the draft typically means a $2 million signing bonus before a player ever throws a professional pitch. Going that high in the draft means Harrington will — according to history — have a 66 percent chance of taking the mound in the big leagues some day.
Whether that’s in Cleveland, which several sites have the 6-foot, 2-inch right-hander landing, or any other Major League city remains to be seen in just a few weeks. Regardless of where he lands, the journey that got him to this point — solid though unheralded prospect coming out Southern Lee High School, walk-on at Campbell University, last-minute addition to the pitching rotation as a freshman, Big South Conference Freshman of the Year, first-team All-American and conference Pitcher of the Year as a sophomore — is nothing short of remarkable.
“Two-years-ago me would have probably been pretty proud,” says Harrington, fresh off of a trip to San Diego for the MLB Draft Combine, which wrapped up on June 20. “This is all so different than where I thought I would be right now. I get to be a baseball player now. The physical challenges I’ve overcome. The mental challenges I’ve overcome.
“Yeah, my younger self would be pretty happy with all of this.”
‘HE DEFINITELY HAS THAT FIRST BORN PERSONALITY’
Nathan Cochrane was one of Thomas Harrington’s football coaches at Southern Lee High School during his first two years. While baseball was Harrington’s ticket to college athletics and (soon) professional sports, football looked like a possible future for the strong-armed quarterback at one time. He threw for 892 yards and 9 touchdowns as a junior in 2018 and was posting bigger numbers as a senior before a hand injury derailed his season and pushed his focus solely on America’s original pastime.
During Harrington’s sophomore year, Cochrane joined the coaching staff in baseball — “Coaching is an exaggerating term when it comes to me and baseball,” he says, “But I was on the staff.”
He recalls sitting in the locker room with Harrington and a group of his teammates “talking trash” back and forth as the players made fun of Cochrane’s ability to hit grounders during fielding practice. Cochrane told the players he would “hit bombs” against any of them at the plate. A challenge was made and accepted, and before he knew it, Cochrane was at the plate holding a bat. His first test was Harrington.
“He made me look absolutely ridiculous,” Cochrane says. “Standing in the box against a legitimate college prospect like Thomas Harrington was truly eye-opening experience for a football guy like me. Many people don’t realize how fast and how quick the entire process is from the ball being released to hitting the catcher’s mitt. Every sport has its impressive facets. I got to see just how impressive baseball pitchers were when I faced Thomas.”
Most impressive about that story — Harrington wasn’t even a pitcher. At least not yet.
According to his parents, Tommy and Tina Harrington, pitching was never on their son’s radar in Little League and his first few years of high school. During some really deep tournament runs with some really good Deep River Northview squads in the 2010s, Harrington was a shortstop with a really good arm and an above-average bat.
“I think he figured out that he didn’t hit well enough and didn’t have the range to play shortstop in college,” says Tommy, a health and P.E. teacher and athletics director at SanLee Middle School. “Pitching is where he would have the best chance to play.”
Thomas credits Southern Lee baseball coach David Lee for pressing him to pitch as a junior. It seemed to work out well for both of them — he posted a 4-0 record with a 0.32 ERA, striking out 54 hitters and allowing just 18 hits in 43 innings. He pitched just one game as a senior — giving up one hit in five innings — before the pandemic canceled the 2020 season.
The oldest of five children, Thomas told his parents early on that he either wanted to be a baseball player or football player when he grew up. Those are the dreams of most kids, his father Tommy says, but by the time his son got to high school, college athletics became a real possibility.
“His journey has been unique,” says Tommy, who got a little national attention of his own during the NCAA Regional tournament when he wore a giant baby mask (for good luck) to his son’s game against Georgia Tech and the following day against top-ranked Tennessee. “His senior year was cut short, he was a walk-on at Campbell, and we were just thrilled to see him make the team. Then he told us he may get to throw a few innings. Then he became the Sunday starter. It’s still unbelievable to us, but he got the opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
“He’s always been a leader in our family and among other kids in the community,” says his mother, Tina, who points out that her decision to have a “summer baby” nearly 21 years ago is the reason Thomas is draft eligible this year by just six days. “He definitely has that ‘first born’ personality. He’s a leader who works hard.”
Cochrane says Harrington’s greatest attribute is his brain. Very rarely, he says, is there a time when Harrington is not the smartest person in the room or on the field, regardless of the sport (he was named Big South Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year in baseball this season). When Harrington was his quarterback, Cochrane says he was one of the quarterbacks he’s coached who could give him live in-game feedback on what the opposing defenses were doing.
He says he isn’t surprised by the young man’s success and has no doubt he can succeed at the next level.
“He’s an incredibly intelligent, even-keeled young man who never gets too high or too low,” he says. “Another attribute that will lead Thomas to success is his character. He’s the type of young man that will always do the right thing. His parents did an amazing job raising Thomas and all their children.”
‘THIS GUY MIGHT BE PRETTY SPECIAL’
With no senior year resume to build off of, Harrington’s options for pitching in college were limited in the fall of 2020. He had scholarship offers at North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T and UNC-Asheville, but his sights were set on the small Division I school with a growing national reputation for good baseball just 30 minutes down U.S. 421.
Campbell University was coming off a 37-win season and a trip to Greenville for the NCAA Regional in 2019 and a 35-win season and Athens, Ga. regional appearance in 2018. Harrington said he was partially drawn to the program’s recent success, but more interested in working with the coaching staff at Campbell and becoming part of an atmosphere he described as a “tight brotherhood.”
“The developmental side was the biggest thing for me,” he says. “I knew if I could develop, there was a chance I could be sitting where I am today. Obviously, now, that looks like a great decision.”
Fighting Camels head coach Justin Haire says his assistant coaches first noticed Harrington during recruiting trips, but his first view of his future ace came during a showcase at Jim Perry Stadium in Buies Creek. Haire said he noticed the kid’s athleticism and a “clean, athletic delivery and path” to the plate, but it was clear early on that Harrington needed to bulk up before facing Division I hitters.
“We certainly thought he had potential to develop over time and become a guy that we could count on in big situations,” Haire says. “But to say we ‘knew’ he would be as elite of a college pitcher that he became would be untrue. We knew he was going to work hard and put him in a position to be successful, and that’s all you can hope for with your guys.”
Harrington’s first fall at Campbell was the “COVID fall” of 2020, meaning far fewer practices (only five) and opportunities to work together than in a normal season. Harrington saw his first action during a few preseason scrimmages before the 2021 season, and immediately, he caught Haire’s and his coaching staff’s eye.
“Tommy was really good,” Haire says. “His velocity had made a jump, he had gotten significantly stronger, and the athleticism and ability to pitch was all still there. That was the first time we looked at each other in the office and said, ‘This guy might be pretty special.’”
In his first collegiate game — the third game of the year against a Liberty University team that would go on to win 41 games that season — Harrington pitched five strong innings, giving up just one run on two hits and striking out six in a 3-2 win. He would go on to post a 6-3 record with a solid 3.45 ERA as a freshman — his strongest game coming a complete game one-hitter against USC Upstate. In his final outing of the season in an elimination game against eventual College World Series champion Mississippi State, Harrington went five innings, gave up four hits and just one run in a tough 6-5 loss.
The accolades were many at season’s end. In addition to being named Big South Freshman of the Year, Harrington was second-team All Big South, a College Baseball Newspaper Freshman All-American, a third-team Baseball America Freshman All-American and a first-team D1 Baseball Freshman All-American. His performance, particularly against Mississippi State, also got his name on a few early MLB Draft lists in February.
Still, heading into the 2022 season and an opening day start against Appalachian State, draft potential and talk of the big leagues were the furthest thing from Harrington’s mind. But when he took the mound on Feb. 18 at home against the Mountaineers, something was very different.
“I look up and behind home plate, there’s 40 scouts watching me [many holding radar guns],” he says. “That’s when it all kind of hit me. But, you know, you have to learn to accept it. You have focus and make sure none of that changes who you are as a pitcher. I blocked it from my mind — ‘They’re just fans. They’re just watching the game.’”
The mindset worked. Harrington gave up just one hit and nearly set a Campbell record with 13 strikeouts in a 9-0 win. The lone hit against him came from App State catcher Hayden Cross, a former teammate of Harrington’s at Southern Lee.
After suffering a loss to nationally ranked Maryland in his second game — despite only giving up two hits and a run in seven innings in a 4-0 loss — Harrington became Mr. Automatic for the Camels. He reeled off 10 straight wins in his next 11 starts (the lone non-win was due to a rain delay that limited him to just one inning against Winthrop) and ended the regular season with an 11-1 record, the only pitcher in college baseball to reach 11 before the conference tournaments.
His lone rough outing came at a tough time in the Big South Tournament opener, a 7-6 loss to Charleston Southern. But Campbell bounced back to run the table in that tournament to earn an NCAA berth, and Harrington’s win against offensive power Georgia Tech was his redemption.
He finished his sophomore year 12-2 with a 2.53 ERA. In his 92 innings pitched, he set a Campbell record with 111 strikeouts while walking only 18. In 370 batters faced, he allowed just one home run, and the opposition batted just .204 against him.
Elite numbers. And he was just a sophomore.
“Campbell has been everything I could ask for in a program,” he says. “I’ve made so many good friends and so many relationships that will last forever. And these coaches, they’re amazing. I told them, I was super blessed they gave me an opportunity at a time when even I didn’t believe in myself. So I’m blessed to have been here. And I’m thankful for my time here.”
His coach attributes his success in Buies Creek to simply taking advantage of the resources provided to him.
“He worked extremely hard in the weight room with Coach Matt Rodriguez, he dominated the classroom and all those requirements of Academic Coordinator Liz Holman, and he worked really hard with Coach Tyler Robinson on figuring out a throwing plan and a program that worked specifically for him,” Haire said. “To be successful in our program, you have to commit yourself to doing the work. We call it ‘being a pro.’ I think in his first year, Tommy really found the right groove of balancing all the things that are required of collegiate student-athletes while showing up every day with an attitude to improve daily and a work ethic to match it.
“The consistency for him paid huge dividends.”
‘A COMBINATION OF STUFF AND STRIKES’
Thomas Harrington flew 2,500 miles in June to attend Major League Baseball’s Draft Combine at Petco Park in San Diego. The Combine invites the nation’s Top 300 draft-eligible players and provides them an opportunity to participate in medical and performance assessments and sessions to help them prepare for a career in pro baseball.
Fresh off a 60-game season, Harrington chose not to pitch in front of scouts in San Diego (they had plenty of opportunities to see him in Buies Creek this year). But he did sit down for several interviews with teams showing a real interest in drafting him on July 17. The experience felt a lot like a job interview — questions about his hometown, his family and baseball. Some questions were a little more personal, dealing with his morals and beliefs.
But none of them were “super weird,” he says, like other interviews he’s endured during the pre-draft process.
“I was once asked whether I keep peanut butter in the fridge,” Harrington says, laughing. “I mean, that’s a pretty unique question.”
The answer was no, of course. As unexpected as that question was, the entire 2022 season has been an unexpected, surreal dream come true for Harrington, whose life will change the moment his name is called this month.
So where will Harrington land? Even after San Diego, his guess is as good as any.
ProspectsLive.com, a website run by baseball writers, former scouts and fantasy baseball experts, seems to be highest on Harrington’s chances to go early. The site, as of its June 6 update, has Harrington going 16th in the first round to the Cleveland Guardians (and mentions that the L.A. Angels at 13th are also high on him.
The site writes: “Harrington has seen his stuff tick way up this season, and scouts have taken notice. He’s in play higher than this, though the Guardians should be able to maximize him.”
MLB.com, which didn’t have Harrington going in its Top 40 on June 1, added him to its mock draft on June 8. The most recent version (on June 22) has him going 37th in the first round (supplemental picks), also to the Guardians, though it states that the Atlanta Braves at No. 20 also have interest.
MLB writes: “He has moved up draft boards this spring with a combination of stuff and strikes that have enabled him to rank among the NCAA Division I leaders in several categories. If he can display more consistency with his slider, he could pass Seth Johnson (40th overall, 2019) as the highest-drafted pitcher in school history. He offers one of the higher floors in the 2022 college pitching crop, as well as the ceiling of a No. 3 starter.”
The Athletic did an in-depth piece on Harrington’s rise from walk-on to potential first rounder on June 15 and described his mechanics and how they’ll translate at the professional level.
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.
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.
Mechanics aside, Haire says what makes Harrington so effective as a pitcher goes deeper than his right arm.
“Tommy is a low heart-rate guy,” Haire says. “Yes, he’s passionate about his craft, and can show some emotion from time to time, but when he is in the midst of the chaos of competition, that guy is locked in and focused unlike many that I have been around in the last 19 years. It was always so impressive to me to see him work through a big jam, or navigate a dangerous lineup and come off the field with a little grin on his face as if to say, ‘I had that the whole time.’ That’s a quality that sets him apart from so many guys.”
Haire says the most impressive thing about Harrington is his ability to adapt and adjust quickly without overthinking it.
“Pro ball is a long road and journey that can be windy and challenging, being able to adapt and adjust to his surroundings, his development and the ups and downs of his journey will be key to his success,” he says. “I think that he has the base of experience to be able to handle the adaptation and adjustments necessary to be successful at just about anything he come in contact with.”
Harrington’s trip to San Diego was eye opening, and not just because of the scenic beaches, low humidity and “freaking phenomenal” fish tacos. He got a taste of the big time. He learned a little about what Major League teams are looking for before they invest millions in a guy who may or may not pan out. And he learned that the mock drafts and pre-draft write-ups mean very little when July 17 finally arrives.
“Everybody has opinions, and I try not to pay attention to it. It’s people’s jobs to guess and create content for baseball fans. I’ve just learned to let it go and let it all work itself out. Just be the best baseball player I can be,” he says.
And in the end, for Harrington, that’s all this is about. He gets to keep playing baseball. A game he’s loved since playing on the dirt infields in the parks at Deep River.
“I don’t plan on stopping any time soon,” he says. “I just love the game, and I love getting to practice and be around a bunch of guys and people that I love. I’m blessed that I get to keep doing this.”
As for his goals at the next level, Harrington isn’t shy about dreaming big.
“If I’m going to do this, I want to win a bunch of World Series championships and be a Hall of Famer some day,” he says. “I want this to end with a speech in Cooperstown. Why not?”
Jonathan Owens of The Rant and Evan Budrovich from Campbell University contributed to this story.