Matt Harvey Is Now a Reclamation Project

When Matt Harvey burst onto the scene in 2012 — yes, it has been six years — there was every reason to believe he was destined to lead the long-maligned Mets back to the promised land. Over a 10-start camero, he struck out 28.6% of the batters he faced, good for nearly eleven strikeouts per nine innings. And while he walked more than 10% of his opponents, the future seemed limitless: Eno Sarris wrote before the 2013 season that “Yu Darvish might be his floor.”

Then Harvey went out and blew the doors off Queens in 2013.

However good you remember Harvey being in 2013, he was probably better. His ERA? It was 2.27. His FIP? Even lower than that. He cut his walk rate down to 4.5% while preserving his strikeouts (27.7%). He recorded an average velocity of 95.8 mph with his fastball, which was an incredible 30 runs above average. But his slider, and curveball, and changeup were all plus pitches, too, which is what has to happen to be 50% better than league average.

In the 2013 campaign, Harvey accrued 6.5 WAR in just 178.1 innings. To understand that in context, consider that, last year, Clayton Kershaw threw 175 innings and accrued 4.6 WAR. The mighty Noah Syndergaard was worse in 2016 than Harvey was in 2013. Harvey was, in 2013, the best pitcher in baseball.

Then Harvey tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss all of 2014. Still, Derek Ambrosino wrote before the 2014 season that “there isn’t a great reason to worry that he won’t regain form as soon as he regains health” — and, a year later, before his return, Eno called him a “top-15 pitcher” even with the uncertainty of the surgery.

Matt Harvey circa 2015 wasn’t the same pitcher he was in 2013, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. After the All-Star break that year, Harvey posted a 25.7% K rate, a 3.6% walk rate, a 48.6% ground-ball rate, a 2.28 FIP, and a 7.18 K/BB. In other words, post-TJ Matt Harvey in 2015 looked an awful lot like prime Cliff Lee.

Then the postseason happened, and the World Series happened.

Remember this?

Harvey was never the same.

It’s easy to blame Harvey’s downfall on that fateful Series game, the one where Harvey insisted on pitching one last inning that his arm simply wouldn’t provide. It’s easy to blame it on Harvey’s off-field escapades, which were the source of tabloid fodder even in his golden age. But Harvey wasn’t felled by Game Five. He wasn’t felled by the New York nightlife.

Matt Harvey was felled by thoracic outlet syndrome.

Throwing a baseball (or anything else) at 95 mph over and over again is a deeply unnatural act, both in humans specifically and in nature generally. The ability, at least, dates back to Homo erectus. The desire dates back to childhood, watching pitchers like Matt Harvey blow smoke past superhuman athletes holding sticks. But it’s important to recognize one fact.

Matt Harvey, in 2013, threw 2,697 pitches. In 2015, he threw 2,798 pitches. Neither figure came close to leading baseball. (Justin Verlander, in 2013, threw 3,692 pitches.) But that is a lot of pitches for a human shoulder. And it likely contributed to Harvey’s TOS.

Thoracic outlet syndrome is a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib (thoracic outlet) are compressed. This can cause pain in your shoulders and neck and numbness in your fingers.

Harvey wasn’t the same in 2016, probably because he couldn’t feel his fingers. That’s when he had surgery to remove a rib. It was hoped he’d be back to his old self in 2017. He wasn’t. Then, this spring, came hope. There was talk of renewed velocity, renewed command. It didn’t last. This past weekend, the Mets designated Harvey for assignment, ending his run in Queens.

As a baseball move, it’s hard to blame the Metropolitans here. Harvey had recently been demoted to the bullpen, the latest ignominy in a season full of them. At least in 2016, before his TOS surgery, Harvey’s underlying peripherals still appeared strong; he did, after all, post a 3.47 FIP. But, in 2018, his once elite command was gone, as Harvey struck out just 16% of hitters while walking 7.3%. He posted negative pitch values for his fastball, curveball, and changeup. His best pitch, the slider, was merely average.

Harvey, in 2018, surrendered a .303/.355/.550 batting line (.906 OPS), which basically turned everyone he faced into the Mets version of Yoenis Cespedes or 2016 Manny Machado. In short, Harvey was an unmitigated disaster.

So the natural question is, what’s next? Harvey has been linked to the Yankees, but I doubt the Bombers would be interested in a flier on Harvey owing to two factors. First, they really don’t need him. Even though Jordan Montgomery is hurt, Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield are about big-league ready, plus they have Luis Cessa and Domingo German, who are both likely better than Harvey right now. Second, Harvey has allowed better than 20% of fly balls to leave the park in back-to-back seasons, which suggests he might be poorly suited to a park like Yankee Stadium III.

So what teams could (or should) take a chance on an erstwhile ace? The Twins come to mind as an obvious fit; they need rotation help badly and fancy themselves a contender. But they have bigger problems than their rotation (Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano being hurt). The Angels could be a fit, as they definitely need rotation help, but it’s not clear that Harvey would be any better than Jaime Barria. But the Mariners could be a good fit.

Seattle has a 19-14 record, 1.5 games behind the division-leading Angels. The Mariners, however, have a pitching problem. As of Sunday, they’d scored 4.66 runs per game, 10th-best in baseball. That’s good! They’d also allowed 4.69 runs per game, 10th-worst in baseball. That’s bad! And unless they plan to start James Paxton every day, the Mariners could actually have a use for Harvey. After all, they’ve been forced to turn to Wade LeBlanc recently.

But even if this is a fit on paper, the question is whether Harvey himself can be saved. Josh Beckett and Chris Carpenter couldn’t be. The truth is that we know still very little about thoracic outlet syndrome and its long-term effects. Harvey still has decent velocity — he can run it up to 94 mph — and he still has that slider. Maybe he can be salvaged. But the next time you see Corey Kluber or Max Scherzer or Noah Syndergaard throw a blazing fastball past a clueless hitter, take a moment to sear that into your memory. Matt Harvey went from ace to chump in one offseason. You never do know when it all comes crashing down.





Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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pedeysRSox
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pedeysRSox

Wade LeBlanc can be a decent starter if given a chance to start. He’s better than anything the White Sox are rolling out right now and could be a league average starter.

TheGarrettCooperFanClub
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TheGarrettCooperFanClub

true, but i think what the author is trying to get at is that a team thats trying to contend and is in a win now mode like the mariners shouldn’t be trotting out wade leblanc unless its an emergency

Forrest
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Forrest

They shouldn’t be using Harvey unless it’s an emergency, either. Basically the same projected talent going forward.

Maybe if Harvey were willing to do some pitch dev in AAA