In Celebration (Sort of) of Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

On July 16, 2013, Tom Seaver threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York. It was an unforgettable moment in isolation, but the context thickened the atmosphere to mugginess with implication.

Warming up in the bullpen was Matt Harvey, a 24-year-old from Connecticut who’d been chosen to start the game for the National League. Ten days shy of a year in the majors, Harvey had become one of the most effective, and most-discussed, pitchers in the sport. From the day of his debut until the day of his All-Star start, he was fifth among qualified starters in WAR, third in K%, and sixth in ERA-.

But he wasn’t just effective; he was electric. He overpowered hitters with his upper-90s velocity and cruel breaking pitches. And he was doing it in a Mets ecosystem that, after several years of being squished by division rivals, cried out desperately for… actually, it just cried out desperately in general. Harvey wasn’t just branded a future Cy Young winner, but the next great New York baseball star. Seaver was genuinely handing the ball to his heir presumptive.

That 2013 All-Star appearance would be Harvey’s sole trip to the Midsummer classic. He never received a single Cy Young vote after that season. Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2014, and after a return to dominance in 2015 — punctuated by a fateful run to the World Series — he was never the same again.

That year, he returned from UCL reconstruction to throw 216 innings between the regular season and playoffs, a record for a player in his first year after Tommy John surgery. By that point, he had been surpassed in prestige by two teammates: Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. But the rotation shook out in such a way that it was Harvey who started Game 1 of the World Series. And it was Harvey on the mound in the ninth inning of Game 5, with 102 pitches in his arm and a shutout on the scoreboard.

At Harvey’s urging, Terry Collins left him in to finish the job, to claim the glory of the series-saving shutout the way Seaver or Dwight Gooden might have done. He didn’t retire a batter. (Such a memorable inning at the time, somehow forgotten entirely by people who griped about Blake Snell getting pulled five years later, but that’s a different argument.) The Royals tied the game in the ninth, Salvador Perez bringing home Eric Hosmer, who’d doubled off Harvey earlier in the inning. Then they won the game and the series in the 12th.

Harvey toiled on for six more years in the majors, playing for five teams in his last four big league seasons. And after an encore with the Italian national team in the most recent World Baseball Classic, he announced his retirement on Friday at age 34, having thrown just 966.1 innings in the major leagues.

Had Harvey continued as normal after 2015, a spot in the Hall of Fame was by no means guaranteed, but it was possible. Projecting his career forward from 2016, ZiPS has him ending his career with 43.4 WAR and 2,019 strikeouts. That’s in the Hall of Very Good zone populated by Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, and Johan Santana, to name three other dominant Mets. Only a slightly more optimistic projection would have had the hypothetical Harvey in Cooperstown:

ZiPS Projection – Matt Harvey (Pre-2016)
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2016 10 6 2.91 26 26 170.3 143 55 12 41 161 123 3.7
2017 9 6 2.95 25 25 161.7 137 53 12 38 152 121 3.5
2018 9 5 2.96 25 25 161.3 136 53 12 38 151 121 3.5
2019 8 5 2.93 23 23 147.3 124 48 11 35 138 122 3.2
2020 8 5 2.92 21 21 138.7 116 45 10 33 131 122 3.0
2021 7 4 2.98 20 20 130.0 109 43 10 31 124 120 2.7
2022 7 4 3.02 19 19 122.0 103 41 10 30 117 118 2.5
2023 6 4 3.07 18 18 114.3 98 39 10 29 110 116 2.3
2024 6 4 3.24 17 17 105.7 91 38 9 27 102 110 1.9
2025 5 4 3.34 15 15 97.0 85 36 9 26 93 107 1.6
2026 5 4 3.49 14 14 87.7 78 34 8 24 83 102 1.2
2027 4 3 3.59 12 12 77.7 70 31 8 22 73 99 1.0
2028 3 3 3.86 10 10 64.0 60 27 7 18 59 93 0.6
2029 2 3 4.01 8 8 52.0 50 23 6 16 47 89 0.4
2030 1 2 4.38 5 5 33.0 33 16 4 10 29 82 0.1

The great pitchers of baseball history people the record books and the Hall of Fame. They overlap only infrequently with the great pitchers of baseball folklore. This latter group captures our imagination through excellence, yes, but also unusual technique, charisma, or strangeness. They burn brightly but briefly: Denny McLain, Mark Fidrych, Dontrelle Willis. Harvey seemed destined for greatness before he was laid low by thoracic outlet syndrome, and then for eternal notoriety afterward. Now, I wonder if he’ll be remembered at all in 20 years’ time, and whether that might be the greatest, and most perverse, measure of his impact.

When Harvey came along, the Mets had not yet morphed into baseball’s answer to Newcastle United (the richest team in the sport, financed by ridiculously wealthy but morally suspect ownership). Instead, they were Newcastle United (a historically important but underachieving big-market team with embarrassingly inept ownership). As David Wright aged into the second decade of his career, Harvey was the new and exciting Met.

Only that sort of undersells what Harvey was. New York has amplified ballplayers’ profiles in the 21st century, but not to the extent that it once did Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, and Joe DiMaggio. And while Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and to some extent Aaron Judge now, have picked up the local halo, it’s been in a Yankees-specific way — “classy,” if you can say that without wrinkling your nose in irony. Famous, but in a studiously, almost uncannily mannered way. Harvey embraced New York. As a young player, he was not only excellent but also brash, fearless, and unapologetic.

And like the city, he never slept. Even at the time, much of the fascination with Harvey, even among his supporters, involved speculating about how long he could keep going. How long he could go on pitching like this: high-velocity, high-spin, high-effort. Off the field he was equally high-effort: seeing last call at nightclubs, dating models, showing up on Page Six nearly as often as on the tabloids’ back pages.

Eventually, as injuries piled up and Harvey’s ERA crawled from the 2s to the 5s, fans — and the Mets themselves — found this side of him less fascinating than they once did. In May 2017, Harvey called out sick on a day he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. But when it came out that he was suffering not from a migraine but from the aftereffects of a trip to the parodically cool nightclub 1Oak, the Mets suspended him. Later that month, Harvey suffered a stress reaction in his scapula and went on the injured list.

I happened to be at the first game Harvey pitched afterward, the first game of a doubleheader in Houston on September 2, 2017. It was the first Astros home game after the city was devastated by a hurricane the week before. Justin Verlander also threw a bullpen session that day, marking his first public appearance in an Astros uniform. Apart from one awkward question in a pregame press conference — Harvey shared a name with the hurricane that had just swept through Texas — the Mets starter’s return went unremarked upon.

Two years before, he was one of the most famous players in baseball. Now, he was an afterthought. The Astros duly laid into Harvey, piling up seven earned runs in two innings. He wouldn’t see his major league career end for another four years, wouldn’t give up hope of a return for more than five, but he was done. The organizations that employed him thereafter — the Reds, Angels, A’s, Orioles, and Royals — were looking for pitchers under rocks at that point. He was as much a last resort to them as they were to him.

Harvey’s last significant involvement with major league baseball was his testimony in the 2022 trial of Eric Kay, the former Angels communications staffer who was later found guilty of distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, and sentenced to 22 years in prison. The investigation began after the 2019 drug overdose death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Harvey testified under oath that he’d used cocaine during his career, both before and during his stint with the Angels, and that he and Skaggs had provided drugs to each other during their time as teammates. Harvey’s testimony got him immunity from prosecution and a 60-game suspension from MLB. He worried that testifying would imperil his career, and he was right. He never pitched in the majors again.

This is the outline of a career — alternately spectacular and woeful, enviable and piteous — that should cement Harvey as an important, though ambivalent, figure in baseball folklore. And he might get lost, because he so perfectly prefigured everything that was to come. He emerged into public consciousness not just in the perfect place for myth-building, but also at the perfect time. In 2012, pitching pedagogy was transitioning from the volume-based enterprise it was for all of baseball history into what it is today: focused on velocity and spin, acknowledging that Tommy John was the cost of doing business. Seven innings a game and 200 innings a year (or six a game and 150 a year now) might just not be in the cards for everyone. Meanwhile, prospect coverage was just beginning to blossom into an industry in and of itself. Social media and democratized blogs and independent media were maturing into what they are today.

In short, when Harvey came up, we weren’t used to pitchers looking like him, pitching like him. It was novel that we’d know as much about Harvey as we did. It was revolutionary.

Now, if a top-10 pitching prospect hits the majors, he’s throwing 97 mph or harder with unhittable breaking stuff. Every prospect worth knowing does anymore. And casual fans will have known about him since his sophomore year of college. Diehards will have known about him since his junior year at Our Lady of the Bastard Slider High School in Katy, Texas. Thanks to social media, we know what movies he enjoys, which players on the team he’s friends with, and sometimes (if he’s careless with his likes) whose Instagram he enjoys a little too much.

Harvey was the first drop through the fire hose. Perhaps his memory will be washed away by the flood that came after.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Francoeursteinmember
9 months ago

What a fantastic morning read, thanks Michael!