Imagining the New Matt Harvey

Remember Vintage Matt Harvey? He sat 96 and didn’t walk anyone and could go to any of three plus secondary pitches. Sigh. That Matt Harvey was sweet. And it was only 2015 when we last saw him. We all had hope that thoracic-outlet surgery would bring that Matt Harvey back, but we’re hearing some bad news on that front recently.

“Harvey’s velocity hovered in the 92-mph range — just as it has in all three of his spring starts — as he got roughed up in a 6-2 loss to the Marlins,” wrote Marc Carig on Wednesday before a grumpy Harvey did his best to assuage concerns with the press afterwards. Given his rough season last year, however — when he was down to 94 from 96 the years before — those fears are justified.

“It’s going to be there or it’s not, and I have to go out and pitch,” Harvey told Carig. “And I think after today I feel really confident going into my next outing and moving forward.” He’s right to assert that he has to pitch with whatever he has, and the underlying assumption, that others have been fine at similar velocities, is also correct. But will this righty, with this fastball, be just as well off as, say, two other righties who averaged 92 on their fastballs last year like a Tanner Roark or an Ian Kennedy? What will his work look like if he’s healthy all year?

An average fastball velocity if, of course, composed of many different individual fastballs all thrown at different, individual velocities. So to look at what Harvey has done in the past on the fastball, we have to look at how he’s done on fastballs at different velocities. You can see exactly that below.

Matt Harvey Whiffs by Velo
Velo Count SwStr%
98 104 21.2%
97 281 12.8%
96 589 8.5%
95 454 7.3%
94 340 7.1%
93 150 8.7%
92 80 3.8%
Velo = average fastball velo.
Since beginning of 2015.

When Harvey was sitting 96, he threw some 98 mph fastballs. Those were nasty and got whiffs one-fifth of the time. Then he hit a few rungs on his way down to 92 mph. It’s going to be hard to live down there at 92, but he’ll still throw some 93s and 94s, and that’s the smallest sample.

Anyway, this is still something with which other pitchers deal. How does Harvey’s performance at different velocities compare to the league? Let’s look. I’ve added in Jeff Zimmerman’s pitch grades, which incorporate some ball-in-play results, in order to produce a grade that is supposed to be on a scout’s 20-80 scale. A grade of 50 is average.

Matt Harvey’s Whiffs by Velo vs the League’s
Velo Harvey SwStr% League SwStr% Pitch Grade
98 21.2% 11.3% 76
97 12.8% 10.2% 69
96 8.5% 9.4% 64
95 7.3% 8.6% 59
94 7.1% 7.8% 54
93 8.7% 7.1% 50
92 3.8% 6.6% 47
Velo = average fastball velo.
Since beginning of 2015.
Pitch Grade calculated by Jeff Zimmerman, accounts for batted-ball results.

It’s about the same story, just smoothed out by better samples. We’re about to see what Matt Harvey will look like with an average fastball — average velocity (as currently reported), average movement and spin (as it had last year), and likely average results. Even if he gets a half-tick or two between now and the season, and some more movement with lower velocity, he’ll still be situated some distance from where he used to be.

You figure a guy with an average fastball can either hurry his way down the aging curve for pitch types — pitchers use fewer fastballs as they age — and throw his secondary stuff, or he can get by on command and movement.

Let’s start with the second option first. Harvey shows up as 27th best by Baseball Prospectus’ new Called Strikes Above Average metric, but that could be more control than command if Harvey can’t hit his spots inside the zone. Harvey didn’t come up through the minors touted as a command guy, and just comparing him to the tenth-best guy on that same list, it doesn’t seem like he’s in the same class. Here’s Clayton Kershaw on hitter’s counts with the four-seam, versus Harvey in the same counts last year.

Kershaw’s nailing the edge of the zone, and Harvey’s in the middle and off the edges. I don’t think he’s going to age like Bartolo Colon (number one in CSAA) at least.

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. Without a dominant secondary pitch that can take its place as the foundation, he’ll need to find more command than he’s shown in the past. Harvey will have to learn how to pitch at 92. It just doesn’t look like it will be easy.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

Mets fans will blame Adriana Lima.

7 years ago
Reply to  Robert

Pretty sure we all blame Terry Collins.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jesse

TC has absolutely nothing to do with harvey’s injuries.