Matt Harvey, Hansel Robles, and Hindsight

Going into the season, we expected the NL East race to be fairly boring by the end of the year, and as expected, there’s not a lot of drama left about the likely outcome; of course, the fact that it’s the Mets and not the Nationals running away with the race is a pretty big surprise. Led by a quality rotation and a surging second-half offense, the Mets have put themselves in prime position to get to the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Of course, this being the Mets, there is still plenty of drama to go around, even with a big lead over the second-place Nationals and just two weeks left in the regular season. Lately, that drama has come from the team’s handling of Matt Harvey. It started off with a public disagreement between Scott Boras and the team about whether doctors recommended or required a 180 inning limit for Harvey this season, with Harvey initially appearing to side with his agent, but then coming around to the team’s side of things, stating that everyone is on the same page about his usage over the rest of the season. With Harvey quickly approaching that 180 inning threshold, but the Mets also wanting to retain the ability to use him in the postseason, the Mets are now shortening his remaining regular season innings in order to reduce the amount of stress his arm takes in his first year back from Tommy John surgery.

That limitation was on full display last night, when the Mets and Yankees met up on Sunday Night Baseball. With ESPN’s cameras showing the game across the country, Harvey dominated the Yankees, allowing just one hit and one walk in his five innings of work, striking out seven of the 18 batters he faced on the night. And with the Mets holding a tenuous 1-0 lead entering the sixth inning, Harvey was replaced by Hansel Robles, who proceeded to give up five runs in the sixth inning; his fellow relievers would give up six more, and the Yankees eventually won 11-2.

Predictably, the reaction to removing Harvey after just 77 dominating pitches is not a positive one this morning. Here’s Anthony Rieber from Newsday, for instance.

Harvey threw five innings. Gave up one infield hit. Walked one. Struck out seven. It was the Dark Knight at his best. His last pitch was 95 miles per hour. He made the Yankees look like minor-leaguers.

None of that mattered. What you saw with your own eyes on the baseball field didn’t matter. What the Mets needed as they try to nail down the National League East against the suddenly showing-late-signs-of-life Nationals didn’t matter.

All that mattered was a line on a chart somewhere that said Harvey could only go five innings — not six, good heavens not seven — because of some unproven benefits that might come his way in the postseason, or next year, or after he leaves the Mets as a free agent following the 2018 season.

Ridiculous. Arrogant. Unfortunate.

New York’s papers are filled with this same kind of criticism this morning; since Robles and the rest of the bullpen struggles, removing Harvey was clearly stupid, given how well he was pitching at the time. Except, it wasn’t, and more often than not, it’s probably going to work out just fine for the Mets.

First, let’s present a few pieces of actual facts. Here are the opposing batters lines against Matt Harvey this year, based on how many times they’ve faced him previously in that game.

Times Through The Order
1 0.191 0.242 0.320 0.562
2 0.214 0.259 0.308 0.567
3 0.253 0.291 0.419 0.710

The first and second times through the order, hitters have done next to nothing against Harvey this year; he’s been nearly as dominant as he was pre-surgery. Beginning the third time through the order, however, Harvey has been decidedly mediocre, and this is true of most every starting pitcher in baseball. The times-through-the-order penalty is a well established effect that has been documented countless times, and applies to everyone, even pitchers who are throwing really well early on.

Despite the temptation to buy into the “he was throwing well, thus he would have continued to throw well” logic, the data simply refutes the idea that we could look at Harvey’s early-game dominance and presume that the Yankees would have continued to struggle against him simply because he pitched well the first five innings. Starting pitchers perform much better earlier on in the game than they do in the middle and later innings, and we simply can’t take their early-game performance and extrapolate it forward into the later innings.

Then, there’s the little matter of the fact that Hansel Robles has actually been quite good for the Mets this year. He’s struck out 28% of the batters he’s faced this year while allowing roughly average walk and home run totals, and while it’s probably not predictive of anything, his .240 BABIP suggests he’s at least not just throwing the ball down the middle to try and maximize his strikeout rate. Even after last night’s meltdown, opposing batters are hitting just .190/.267/.379 against Robles this year. To illustrate the point, here’s opposing batters lines against Robles this year, and against Harvey the third time through the order.

Harvey vs Robles
Comparison BA OBP SLG OPS
Harvey, AB3 0.253 0.291 0.419 0.710
Robles 0.190 0.267 0.379 0.646

Yes, last night, Robles performed poorly, and it was juxtaposed against Harvey’s early-pull, making the narrative an easy one to sell. But thinking that taking Harvey out after facing 18 batters — meaning he would have begun the third-time-through-the-order with the next batter he faced — and replacing him with Robles made the Yankees more likely to put up a big rally is unsupported the evidence. A tiring Matt Harvey is just not much more (if any more) effective at getting outs than even just a reasonably decent middle reliever. And there’s plenty of reasons to think Robles is a reasonably decent middle reliever.

Last night’s results made for a very easy Monday morning story. For everyone who wants to rail against innings limits and modern pitcher usage, there is no better time to get on the soap box than when a starter is throwing well, is removed for an inferior-talented reliever, and then that reliever immediately gives up the lead. The problem is that the same soap box isn’t revisited when tiring starters are left in to face hitters a third or fourth time within the same game, and that lead disappears before the bullpen is ever called upon; this happens all the time, but the story told then is that the pitcher simply failed to do his job, rather than that the manager failed to recognize that going to to a reliever would have provided a better opportunity for a good outcome.

It might be frustrating to watch, but the reality is that if you’re going to limit a pitcher’s workload, the most rational way to do it is to shift as many innings as he can throw towards the beginning of games, when he’s facing hitters only two times each, rather than skipping starts; these shortened starts allow Harvey to still pitch when he’s most effective and rest when he’s likely to be least effective. If you’re going to enforce an innings limit, this is the best way to do it, even if you’re going to take heat for it on the days when the bullpen doesn’t live up to Harvey’s early-inning standards.

The key is to remember that Harvey probably wouldn’t have lived up to those standards either. The choice the Mets made wasn’t to take out a guy who going to continue to be unhittable and replace him with a batting practice machine. In reality, the Mets took out a starter who has been roughly an average pitcher the third time through the order this year, and replaced him with a perfectly solid reliever. It didn’t work this time, and it happened on a national stage, but it’s certainly not ridiculous to realize that letting Harvey pitch deep into games has only a marginal benefit versus handing those middle innings to relievers who are likely to perform at a similar (or better) level.

If you want to debate the merit of managing workloads in general, that’s another story, but given that the Mets are going to manage Harvey’s workload — and with the fact that he wants his workload managed, they don’t really have a choice — giving him shortened outings is probably the best way to go about this. Despite a highly-publicized failure last night, concluding that the Mets plan is “arrogant” or “unfortunate” is simply ignoring the pertinent facts.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

As a mets fan that thinks Harvey’s sideshow has detracted from our quest for the playoffs, this stinks in so many ways. However, we’re also forgetting the fact that we committed two awful errors in that inning to open the floodgates.

8 years ago
Reply to  chri521

I think people are also forgetting that Harvey may be having the best comeback season ever from TJ. With all the TJs that team has had lately, you’d think people would be more understanding. Abusing Santana to get that no hitter basically ended his career. Harvey has already missed a season. Wheeler as well. The Mets are basically in the playoffs, why ride these guys hard for a meaningless game? As a Cubs fan, I’ll take him if you guys are tired of the sideshow.

8 years ago
Reply to  cornflake5000

big difference between pitching 77 pitches vs 134 pitches. also a difference between a shoulder capsule surgery vs a tommy john surgery….

serious apples vs oranges.

8 years ago
Reply to  cornflake5000

First of all, the game is not meaningless. The Mets have a while to go before clinching. Second, the Mets have not ridden Harvey hard this year. They have kept his pitch count low and tried to limit his starts. They likewise did not let him pitch last year (supposedly against his wishes), allowing him 17 months to recover from TJ surgery. Third, the lack of “understanding” comes from the fact that, until a few weeks ago, there was never a discussion of a hard innings limit and Harvey’s actions (complaining about not starting the first 6 games of the season, complaining about a six man rotation, complaining about being pulled when he was pitching well) were completely inconsistent with someone who believed he had a hard limit. Thus, it appears that Harvey is full of shit and that he only cares about making money and not helping his team. (He has never complained that he feels fatigued, so it is not a matter of him being forced to pitch against his wishes) Having Scott Boras speak for him hardly dispelled the notion that Harvey was a me-first guy intent on benefitting himself to the detriment of his teammates, who were fighting for a playoff spot (and home field for the first series). As a Mets fan, if you are offering Bryant, you can have him.

8 years ago
Reply to  db

yeah, I don’t want him that badly…

I may have not written that clearly. I wasn’t saying that they have been riding him hard, just that they’re up by 6 games with two weeks to go. Save it for the playoffs. I’m applauding the team for not riding him hard. They’ve done a great job managing his usage which will allow the team to use him in the playoffs. As a baseball fan, I hope to keep watching him in the future.

8 years ago
Reply to  db

Wait, db, you’re saying you think the Cubs would even think about giving up Bryant for Harvey? And you’re also implying that you previously wouldn’t have made that trade? HAHAHAHAHA

Bryant is better, younger, under control for longer, and less of a health risk
He’s more valuable and it’s not even close

8 years ago
Reply to  db

Kevin. That depends on who you thing Bryant is. Yes he is young and might be the next trout. But there are lots of red flags. For example the high k rate that got higher in the 2nd half, the high Babip with is supporting his .260 average and his fielding at 3rd which most scouts believes he will move off. If Bryant end up a .240 hitting rf. he is really Adam Dunn. That is not even remotely close to a top 5 sp

8 years ago
Reply to  db


I’m not saying what the Cubs think, and objectively Bryant is probably more valuable. Point is, I would trade Harvey for good value. I don’t think mets fans are. Early so willi g to trade deGrom, who does not seem to be a phony.

8 years ago
Reply to  db

Seriously though, I hope you guys are enjoying his talent. Forget the sideshow… it’s been fun to watch him from Chicago. I’d love to have him here. You guys have had a great season and will be in the playoffs as well. I know the situation is frustrating, but I hope you guys are enjoying the season.

8 years ago
Reply to  chri521

Dave, you write the following as the last sentence of your fine article:

Despite a highly-publicized failure last night, concluding that the Mets plan is “arrogant” or “unfortunate” is simply ignoring the pertinent facts.

But I don’t think Anthony Rieber of Newsday was referring to “the Mets plan” as arrogant or unfortunate but rather to Harvey, Boras, and the Harvey/Boras plan of limiting his innings as arrogant and unfortunate.

This article by Jayson Stark is really terrific as it points out that a better indicator of Harvey’s workload is the number of pitches he has thrown this year as the average per inning is quite low:

I’m not generally a fan of ESPN articles but I thought this particular article was terrific.