Matt Harvey Faces Obstacles to a KBO Stint

Matt Harvey doesn’t figure to pitch in a major league game anytime soon, not only because the 2020 season might not get off the ground but because his stint with the Angels last year was rather disastrous — so much so that he’s currently unsigned. However, there’s baseball going on in South Korea, and last week, a report by SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) surfaced that he’s received interest from at least one KBO team. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman confirmed that multiple teams have been in touch with Boras Corp (which represents Harvey), and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman added that teams in Japan “are looking” at Harvey as well.

The 31-year-old righty has been posting videos of his workouts via Instagram, and last month told the New York Post’s Dan Martin of his job search in general:

“I’m throwing bullpens once or twice a week. I hope I get the opportunity. I feel like I’m in high school again, where I have to showcase myself and start all over. I just want to put myself in position to be ready and if it doesn’t work out, to know I put the effort in to make a comeback.”

…“I’ve grown up and matured on and off the field,” Harvey said. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently, but I don’t like to live with regret.”

Thus far, there’s no report of a KBO or NPB team actually making an offer to Harvey, and a number of obstacles stand in the way of him pitching abroad, particularly with regards to the KBO due to its limits on foreign-born players, but since he’s been out of sight and mind lately, his recent past is worth reviewing. Since being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and undergoing season-ending surgery in July 2016, he’s been a shadow of his former self (a slide that arguably began with his overdue departure from Game 5 of the 2015 World Series). In fact, based upon my recent research into pitchers who have recovered from TOS surgery, none has thrown as many major league innings (307.1) with results as bad as Harvey’s (142 ERA-, 128 FIP-).

In 2017 with the Mets, Harvey was rocked for a 6.70 ERA and 6.37 FIP in 92.2 innings, and missed two and a half months, from mid-June to September, due to a stress reaction in his right scapula, the result of pitching through discomfort caused by weakened muscles in his back. Adding insult to injury, he received a three-game suspension from the Mets for being a no-show to their May 6 game, the result of his having stayed out until 4 AM on Cinco de Mayo — and not, as he claimed, “a migraine.” While he steered clear of further major controversies that year, he was actually worse upon returning from his scapular injury (11.28 ERA, 6.92 FIP) than he was prior (5.25 ERA, 6.20 FIP).

Harvey was cuffed for a 7.00 ERA through his first eight appearances, and was unwilling to take a detour either to the minors or the bullpen. The Mets designated him for assignment, and on May 8, traded him to the Reds in exchange for Devin Mesoraco. Thanks to marginally improved velocity, he pitched better, finishing the year with uninspiring but serviceable numbers (4.94 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 1.6 WAR in 155 IP). A free agent for the first time at the end of that season, he signed a one-year, $11 million-plus-incentives deal with the Angels, a fraction of what he once might have commanded on the open market given better health and performance. Unfortunately, his performance was on par with 2017: a 7.09 ERA and 6.35 FIP in 12 starts totaling 59.2 innings. His strikeout and walk rates (14.7% and 10.9%) were career worsts, and his 1.96 homers per nine just a fraction off his 2017 mark of 2.04. Released by the Angels on July 21, he signed with the A’s four weeks later, and made three starts and two relief appearances for their Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, but the team opted not to call him up in September even as some of their starters struggled down the stretch. Over the winter, the only team publicly linked to him was the Blue Jays, who considered signing him as a reliever but ultimately passed.

Harvey’s average fastball velocity has fallen from 96.6 mph in 2015 to 93.6 last year (using Pitch Info’s numbers), his average slider from 89.0 mph to 86.3, and his rate of getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone has gone from 32.1% (60th percentile among ERA qualifiers) to 24.4% (2nd percentile among pitchers with at least 50 innings). His fastball spin rate has declined, as Jeff Sullivan detailed in late 2018, and while we’re on the subject of Statcast, his xwOBA has gone from .262 (90th percentile) to .390 (1st percentile) in that 2015-19 span. Long story short, he clearly hasn’t been fooling hitters lately.

Per ESPN’s Dan Mullen, “the average KBO fastball velocity this season sits at 88.6 mph compared to the 93.1 mph average in MLB last season,” and so even in his diminished state, Harvey possesses what would be considered exceptional heat for the league. Still, if he intends to go to South Korea with an eye towards boosting his stock for a major league return in 2021, it seems likely that he’d have to do more than overpower KBO hitters with stuff that no longer plays in the States. Barring a rebound in velocity, he’ll need a more full-scale reinvention — perhaps the addition of a cut fastball or another pitch, or ways to generate better movement with his existing arsenal.

Earlier this month, MBC’s Daniel Kim estimated that an incoming foreign-born player would need at least a month from the time he signed to the time he could be placed on a KBO roster due to the mandatory two-week quarantine for all overseas arrivals (something many foreign-born players faced when they returned to the country after spring training was shut down), the obtaining of work visas, and getting into shape, but the time may well be longer than that. What’s more, KBO teams are limited to carrying two foreign-born pitchers, and one foreign-born position player, so a team signing Harvey would have to release one such pitcher. Teams are only allowed to make two foreign-born player-related transactions per season, so this would count against that total, and a player joining in midseason can only receive a prorated share of the $1 million maximum for a new foreign-born player — which in this case is certainly more than Harvey’s making, but could wind up being something around the major league minimum by the time he’s in game shape.

As it happens, five of the KBO’s 20 foreign-born pitchers are currently injured. Specifics, at least on the level we’ve become accustomed to with regards to MLB players’ injuries, are notoriously hard to come by, but thanks to Rotowire and Twitter, here’s who’s hurt:

KBO Foreign-Born Pitcher Injuries
Pitcher Team Date of Report Injury Out
Chris Flexen 플렉센 Doosan Bears 6/6 Hamstring Will skip start
Jake Brigham 브리검 Kiwoom Heroes 5/28 Elbow inflammation, injection 15 days
William Cuevas 쿠에바스 KT Wiz 6/8 Hip discomfort 5 weeks
Ben Lively 라이블리 Samsung Lions 5/22 Ruptured left rib muscle 8 weeks
Nick Kingham SK Wyverns 5/12 Elbow Until late June/early July

Per Yonhap News’ Jeeho Yoo, this is the first year that the KBO has an injured list (three of varying lengths, actually), but players can return before those full terms have elapsed:

Effectively, the injured list can be used like a taxi squad, with players coming and going, a system that would seem to have a substantial potential for abuse if it were in MLB — though who knows how things will function this year, if there is a season.

Anyway, it would appear that none of the aforementioned pitchers is shelved for the season, but the Kingham, Lively, and Cuevas injuries are apparently significant ones. All three have struggled in limited duty; Kingham has a 6.75 ERA and 4.82 FIP in 10.2 innings, Cuevas a 6.28 ERA and 5.28 FIP in 28.2 innings, Lively a 5.40 ERA, 6.83 FIP, and 2.0 HR/9 in 13.1 innings.

They’re not the only foreign-born pitchers who have been knocked around. The Lotte Giants’ Adrian Sampson has a 6.91 ERA and 4.93 FIP in 14.1 innings, though he just collected his first win. He’s been through the wringer lately, having returned to Seattle in late April to visit his father, who died of cancer on May 3, and then enduring a two-week quarantine upon returning. The Hanhwa Eagles’ Chad Bell채드벨, who missed the first three weeks of the season due to elbow pain and hasn’t gone more than four innings or 84 pitches in any of his three starts, is carrying a 9.00 ERA and 8.60 FIP in 11 innings. The Eagles, who are 7-25 overall and have lost 16 in a row — two short of the record set by the now-defunct Sammi Superstars in 1985 — recently changed managers, demoted 10 veterans to their Futures League club, and cut two others, but Bell and fellow foreign-born starter Warwick Saupold 서폴드 were spared. Saupold, the Eagles’ most effective starter, has a 4.11 ERA and 3.91 FIP, though his 12.1% strikeout rate is in the 13th percentile among qualified starters.

All of which is to say that no staff opening that could accommodate Harvey appears imminent. The NPB may be a different story; their season is slated to begin on June 19, and while teams are limited to three foreign-born pitchers on the 25-man roster, they’re allowed to sign more than that. I’m far less up to speed on what’s happening in NPB, and there’s been much less noise about Harvey in that regard, but it’s worth noting. MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo threw cold water on rumors of a reunion with the Mets. For now, he’ll just have to keep working and hope that the phone rings.

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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.

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snood
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snood

“Effectively, the injured list can be used like a taxi squad, with players coming and going, a system that would seem to have a substantial potential for abuse if it were in MLB”

I kind of want to see the BS the Dodgers would pull with this system.