Matt Harvey’s first appearance of the spring quickly became a punchline. Back on February 8, the New York Daily News‘ Peter Botte tweeted a photo of the 28-year-old righty throwing a bullpen alongside Jacob deGrom and looking particularly paunchy thanks to the way the wind blew his t-shirt. Even this scribe couldn’t resist throwing a jab to the midsection. To be fair, Harvey hardly looks like the second coming of Bartolo Colon, and four weeks later, with the Grapefruit League season underway, he at least appears to be a hurler who can help the Mets rather than harm them.
Granted, that sense is based upon all of two early spring outings against sub-.500 teams whose offenses project to rank among the majors’ bottom-third (namely the Braves and Tigers) when at full strength. Thus far, those offenses have been patchworks of established major leaguers and career minor leaguers, with the odd prospect thrown in — all still looking to regain their timing because, you know, it’s March (or actually February 28 in the case of the Braves outing).
Facing the Tigers on Monday at Port St. Lucie, Harvey threw 48 pitches over three scoreless innings, allowing two hits, a sharp double by Derek Norris, and an infield dribbler by Jose Iglesias. He walked Miguel Cabrera in the first inning after getting squeezed on a borderline 96 mph fastball with the count at 1-2. That was his fastest pitch of the day, but he followed it with three straight balls. He struck out one, 28-year-old right fielder Jason Krizan, who’s spent the past three years bouncing between Double- and Triple-A.
Harvey threw from the extreme first-base side of the rubber and with a minimal windup. “He’s not pitching from the stretch,” observed SNY’s Ron Darling. “But that’s as close as you can be to pitching from the stretch as it gets.” According to the SNY score bug, which wasn’t offering anything besides pitch speed (there was no Statcast information for the game), Harvey worked mainly with a 92-94 mph fastball. By my very unofficial count, 28 of the 33 fastballs he threw were in that range, with a 95 mph heater to Cabrera for a strike (just before the aforementioned 96) the other noteworthy exception.
Harvey also broke out his curve for the first time this spring when he reached the bottom of the order, getting swinging strikes against Krizan and Alexi Amarista and a foul ball against Leonys Martin. Otherwise, he mixed in sliders and changeups as his offspeed pitches. He generated only a couple swings and misses, and got ahead just two of the seven times he threw a first-pitch fastball, not counting the first-pitch grounder Cabrera slapped to Jose Reyes to key an inning-ending force out in the third. His second inning was a fastball-heavy 20-pitch slog, though his third frame, with more frequent offspeed stuff, was an efficient 11-pitch effort.
Overanalyzing any pitcher’s spring outing is a fool’s errand, because each offers a Rorschach blot in which we tend to see what we’re looking for, as well as a handful of convenient excuses if we don’t find it. (“He was just building his pitch count,” “He was working on _____,” “It’s not like that guy will face him again,” etc.) It bears repeating that I’m not a scout, but my takeaway from having observed those three innings from roughly 1,170 miles away is that Harvey is incorporating some mechanical changes (more on that below) and appears to be in working order.
My more subjective observation of his pace and body language suggests he’s throwing with some confidence and purpose even if his stuff isn’t the same as it once was. That stuff may never come back, but if he’s to help the Mets return to respectability (if not contention), he’ll have to figure out how to make the most out of what’s left.
For the past two years, Harvey has done more harm than good. Since the strong 2015 season in which he helped the Mets win their first NL pennant since 2000 — with some drama over his post-Tommy John surgery innings limit along the way — he’s made just 35 starts and one relief appearance in two seasons, each totaling 92.2 innings. His 4-10 record and 4.86 ERA in 2016 was lousy, but at least underneath it were respectable strikeout, walk, and home-run rates and a 3.47 FIP, not to mention a brief (but probably unsustainable) rally from a point when he had a 6.08 ERA in late May. That season ended abruptly after a July 4 outing for which Harvey provided the fireworks (11 hits in 3.2 innings); soon afterwards, he underwent surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome, ending his season.
Despite a promising four-start stretch to begin the year, Harvey’s 2017 numbers (6.70 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 2.0 HR/9, 4.6 BB/9, 1.4 K/BB ratio) were abysmal from just about every vantage point. Among pitchers with at least 90 innings only three had higher ERAs and only two had higher FIPs. Before his injury — a stress reaction in his right scapula that sidelined him for 11 weeks from mid-June to September — there was plenty of insult to go around, thanks largely to his calling in sick after staying out until 4 a.m on Cinco de Mayo, which drew a three-day suspension from the Mets. When he finally returned from the scapular injury, Harvey was lit for an 11.28 ERA in six appearances totaling 22.1 innings, with 13 strikeouts, 12 walks, and five homers allowed. With an inability to get ahead of hitters and then fool them with his offspeed stuff, he was basically weaponless, a declawed cat sent into an alley fight with predictably bloody results. It was gruesome and unsightly.
Though Harvey’s average fastball velocity last year was down 2.6 mph from 2015, it was a still-respectable 94.3 mph, and his slider (89.1 mph) was down just 1.2 mph over that same timespan. But his command and control were lacking, he wasn’t fooling hitters, and a slowed-down pace coupled with some bad body language only made things more unsightly. He fell behind routinely, getting first-pitch strikes just 58.0% of the time, compared to 68.2% in 2015. His swinging-strike rate plunged from 11.6% in 2015 to 7.5% in 2017, and he got batters to chase outside the strike zone 27.3% of the time, down from 32.0% in 2015.
Via Brooks Baseball, his overall rates of whiff per swing were way down from his heyday:
Harvey has told reporters that he won’t answer questions about last year. In his final season before free agency, he has a clean slate with new manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland, who replaced Terry Collins and Dan Warthen, respectively, last fall. The first order for the new regime was addressing the numerous physical issues that compromised Harvey’s performance.
There were nerve issues and strength issues stemming from his 2016 surgery to correct the symptoms of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The muscles in his right, throwing shoulder were significantly weaker than the muscle grouping in his left. He couldn’t get his arm slot right and he was compensating for the poor mechanics on the top half by doing things with his lower half, and his lower half wasn’t even as strong as it once was.
Callaway, who drew widespread acclaim while serving as the Indians’ pitching coach, has worked with Harvey to speed up his delivery, correcting a flaw that he first noticed on video from August 2015 and that he believes worsened last season. “I’m not reverting to anything that’s in the past, any mechanics, anything,” Harvey told MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo. “This is a completely new year, like I’ve said. My mechanics are completely different. My arm’s completely different.”
Harvey is just one question mark in a rotation full of them. Noah Syndergaard is coming back from a season in which a strained latissimus dorsi and unwillingness to climb into an MRI tube limited him to 30.1 innings. DeGrom, the rock of the rotation, has been slowed by lower-back stiffness and is behind schedule as far as Opening Day goes. Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler are even further in the weeds than Harvey, not just coming off dreadful, injury-shortened seasons but getting knocked around in the Grapefruit League. Given that litany, it’s asking a lot for the Mets (who are currently projected to finish 81-81) to contend. Still, the team will be far more watchable if Harvey can return to being a productive pitcher, if not a star. Hope springs eternal.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.