Harvey’s Struggles Continue

The Mets, of course, were dealt a significant setback with the news on Noah Syndergaard earlier this week. Steven Matz is on the DL and has a long injury history. Robert Gsellman has some ominous velocity and spin-rate trends. That represents the majority of the starting-rotation arms upon which the Mets were counting this season.

Then there’s Matt Harvey.

The Mets — along with the entirety of baseball — had no idea what to expect from Harvey entering this season. There were plenty of concerns this spring, certainly, when Harvey was sitting at 92 mph with his fastball. The concerns have continued into the regular season.

Harvey struggled again on Tuesday in Atlanta. A month into the season, the right-hander now owns a 5.14 ERA and even worse 5.75 FIP. He’s striking out a paltry 13.5% of batters while walking 8.8% — not even a five-point difference. Here, the sake of context, are Harvey’s K-BB% marks over the last four seasons: 23.2% (2013), 20% (2015), 12.7% (2016) and 4.7% (2017).

The 2013 and 2015 versions of Harvey seem less and less likely to reappear.

Said Mets manager Terry Collins to reporters present:

“You’re talking about a guy that did not pitch very much last year. He’s coming back from a surgery that not a lot of guys have really come back to be 100 percent again. Especially when you’ve lost the feeling in your fingers and you’ve got to regain the feel of the seams.”

That’s not encouraging. That sounds like the description of a pitcher who has a long way back if he’s ever going to return to something near to what he was, which was a legit ace. Harvey had surgery in July for thoracic outlet syndrome. (Some PITCHf/x forensics on the issue were conducted here by Mike Sonne.)

While his fastball velocity has crept up from its spring levels, the pitch is still averaging a career-low 94 mph through one month of the season. While velocity can tick up for pitchers in the summer months, it seems unlikely Harvey will return to the 95.8 and 95.8 averages he enjoyed in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

And in illustration of a point made by Collins during his post-game comments, Harvey has had trouble locating the diminished pitch, too.

Fastball location was an issue for Harvey last season.

Back during spring training, Eno Sarris tried to imagine a different Harvey, one who could be successful with lesser velocity.

Could he throw his secondary pitches a lot more this year and pitch backwards? Perhaps, though Tim Lincecum once admitted that that sort of thing wasn’t working for him once he lost his fastball velocity. The secondary pitches all rely on the fastball in some form or another.

We have done some research on what makes a changeup good — velocity differential and horizontal and vertical movement defined off the fastball. Harvey’s changeup last year rated 131st based on those metrics, and below average. He started using it less as the year went on. His slider had below-average drop, and though it was hard, the most important thing for whiffs on the slider is drop. The curve had good velocity (last year) but four inches less drop than average, and drop is also important for the curve.

It looks like the fastball was the key for Harvey, and it won’t be the same this year.

If Harvey’s velocity doesn’t return to 2013-15 levels, can he find a new way to be effective?

Harvey hasn’t dramatically changed his pitch mix other than trading in a few curves for sliders. He’s still throwing a fastball as his primary offering — 57.7% of pitches — with the slider as his go-to secondary offering, using it at a career-high rate of 21.9%. But according to linear-weight values, the pitch hasn’t been above average since 2015.

This season, out of the 73 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 sliders, Harvey’s ranks 70th in whiffs-per-swing rate (18.6%). Last season, Harvey’s slider ranked 78th in whiffs-per-swing rate (31.9%), according to the Baseball Prospectus leaderboards.

The Harvey slider ranks 63rd out of 73 qualified pitches this season with -.029 inches of horizontal movement, and is sixth in vertical break (4.99 inches).

Harvey has also struggled to command his slider. Too often it has hung in the zone, rather than diving below it for chase.

Since the pitch lacks horizontal movement, if it begins in the strike zone, it never breaks into or away from an opposing batter and becomes an ideal hanger of a pitch.

Exhibit A of the hanging slider from Tuesday night…

The pitch traveled right into Freddie Freeman’s bat path and nearly into the retail/business park of the new SunTrust Park complex.

One area for encouragement? Harvey did post his best velocity of the season on Tuesday.

We’ll have to see if that’s something of an outlier or the beginning of an upward trend. The Mets and Harvey might need it to be something of an upward trend, as he appears to lack the secondary tools and command to pitch effectively with a loss of velocity, at least in the near term.

It’s possible the further Harvey is removed from surgery, the stronger he will become. It’s possible his stuff takes a leap forward, his command improves. But velocity also doesn’t improve with age. We might never see peak Harvey again. Who knows how often we’ll see Matz, or when we’ll see Syndergaard, or what to make of Gsellman. Harvey is emblematic of a larger issue and that is keeping young, talented arms on the field and productive.

The Mets and their fanbase are all well aware of the risk inherent in building around young arms. Queens was the home of the group dubbed Generation K. And a generation later, Mets nation is hoping for much better fortune.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

Ouchy. He has also faced the Braves 3 times already and they have the 4th lowest team K%. The last 2 were back to back. A familiar Freddie Freeman is a dangerous Freddie Freeman.

6 years ago

Freddie Freeman is scary right about now. I don’t know if anyone in the league can get him out consistently.

6 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

What is crazy is after the game yesterday, FF took the WAR lead for position players so far this year. He has had a better start than Trout or Harper (2 and 3 on the list). Just crazy.

I know that probably won’t hold up all year, but the preseason projections of FF as a 3.9 WAR player look like they are going to be waaaay off.