After being traded by the Mets to the Reds on May 8, Matt Harvey more or less fell off the national radar. That tends to happen for guys with ERAs approaching 6.00. As the 29-year-old righty continued to pitch unremarkably, there was little reason for the Mets or their fans to lament the trade — or at least to regard his departure as one of the top-23 or so calamities to befall them during the first half of the 2018 season.
Lately, though, Harvey has been pitching better — if not at the same level of his dominant 2012-15 form, then certainly better than the latter-day palooka who was tagged for a 5.93 ERA and 5.01 FIP in 212.1 innings from the start of 2016 to the point of the trade. On Sunday in Cincinnati, on the heels of two increasingly promising starts, he recorded his best outing yet as a Red, taking a perfect game into the fifth inning against the Brewers and finishing with his longest scoreless appearance since August 28, 2015.
Harvey retired the first 12 batters he faced on just 41 pitches before Travis Shaw slapped a 95 mph fastball through the left side of a shifted infield. He gave up just one other hit, a sixth-inning single to Brad Miller amid a downpour that had begun at the top of the frame. After that hit, the umpires called out the tarps, and the 54-minute rain delay finished Harvey’s day. Over his 5.2 innings, he issued zero walks, a feat he hadn’t accomplished in a start of at least five innings since April 6, 2017 against the Braves. He also struck out six, matching a season high set on June 21 against the Cubs (more on which shortly). His 12 swings and misses represented the highest total he’d produced since June 10, 2016 against the Brewers. Via Brooks Baseball, his four-seam fastball averaged 95.6 mph and reached 97.2, while his slider averaged 89.6 and reached 92.0.
It wasn’t quite vintage Harvey, and it’s worth noting that the Brewers’ lineup lacked Lorenzo Cain (currently on the disabled list for a groin strain), Christian Yelich (sitting for his third straight game due to back tightness), and Jesus Aguilar, three of the team’s top four hitters this year by wRC+. (Eric Thames, the fourth of those, started for Agular.) Still, it was Harvey’s third strong outing in a row against a contender. He allowed two runs in six innings in the aforementioned June 21 outing against the Cubs, and then one run in 6.2 innings against the Braves on June 26. Over the course of those three outings and 18.1 innings, he allowed just 13 hits and three runs while striking out 14 and walking just two (and plunking three). His three outings before that were nothing to write home about (14 runs in 16.1 innings, with five homers, six walks, and 12 strikeouts against the Rockies, Padres and Cardinals), but it does seem as though he’s turned the corner after two-plus seasons of struggling amid injuries.
Here’s how the New York and Cincinnati legs of Harvey’s season stack up:
On a per-nine basis, Harvey’s strikeout rate hasn’t really budged (until Sunday, it was actually lower as a Red), but on a per-plate appearance basis, it’s climbed from 16.3% as a Met to 18.4% as a Red — that, while his walk rate fell from 7.3% to 5.5%, so his K-BB% has increased from 8.9% to 12.9%. That’s welcome improvement across the board, particularly when combined with fewer balls leaving the park.
So what’s underlying Harvey’s rebound? Velocity, for one thing. Via Pitch Info, he’s gained anywhere from 0.9 to 2.2 mph on his pitches – not a huge step forward but a step nonetheless:
While his overall swinging-strike rate is basically unchanged (8.2% as a Met, 8.5% as a Red), and it’s even down a bit for both his fastball and changeup, the whiff rate on his slider has more than doubled, from 8.3% to 20.3% — a higher rate than in any of his full seasons, and well above his career 15.3% mark.
Indeed, Harvey’s slider has been stifling, even as he’s reduced his usage of it from 25.8% earlier this year (a higher rate than he’d ever sustained, well above his 18.0% career mark) to 20.2% post-trade. Entering Sunday, even including his time with the Mets, batters had hit just .167/.184/.264 for a 25 wRC+ against the pitch this year, comparable to its effectiveness in 2015 (.158/.187/.218, 20 wRC+); his wRC+ against the pitch in the two ensuing seasons was 114 (2016) and 88 (2017). As for his current arsenal, batters were above 200 wRC+ against both the curve and changeup entering Sunday, and at 133 against his four-seamer. Particularly with the decline and disappearance of his curveball he’s really only got one above-average weapon these days, but it’s well above average these days.
A couple of additional differences stand out between Harvey’s New York and Cincinnati tenures this year. Since the trade, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes with far more regularity (61.8%, up from 55.3% and just one point below his career average). He’s also getting batters to chase pitches outside the zone with greater frequency (28.7%, up from 21.1%, but still a far cry from the 32-35% range of his heyday).
Three starts is just three starts, but Harvey’s improvement relative to his miserable last days as a Met is defined by more than just that trio of recent outings. His velocity had been climbing and his slider had been generating whiffs even before this run began, and what we’re seeing now is the payoff. Whether it’s his work with a new coaching staff, including interim pitching coach Danny Darwin, or further distance from his 2016 thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and 2017 scapular stress reaction, he’s pitching like a major leaguer again instead of a reclamation project.
If Harvey continues to have results like these throughout the month, he’s certain to attract attention as the trade deadline approaches, particularly in a market where Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, and Tyson Ross head a short list of viable trade candidates. After all, he’s still a pending free agent who’s unlikely to re-sign with the Reds, and while they’ve surged towards respectability under Jim Riggleman (33-33, after a 3-15 start under Bryan Price), they’re nowhere close to contending for a playoff spot. They may as well net themselves a low-level prospect or two for their success in restoring some value to Harvey. Of course, the nightmare scenario for the Mets — who are 10.5 games worse in the standings than the Reds since the time of the deal — would be to see Harvey in Yankee pinstripes, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, a version of Matt Harvey that’s in working order is enough to behold.
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.