What Matt Harvey Has Lost

I don’t think I need to tell you what Matt Harvey was. Earlier, in his prime, he was a bona fide celebrity, someone whose presence stretched well beyond just his excellent pitching. And, of course, that pitching was excellent. Harvey blossomed as one of baseball’s best starters, and he did so on New York’s massive stage. Given that Harvey is and has been a Scott Boras client, one could envision an enormous free-agent contract down the line. The target would’ve been this very offseason. Boras would’ve extolled Harvey’s many virtues using language only Boras could design.

At this writing, Harvey is 29 years old. Indeed, he found himself represented by Boras on the free-agent market. And he’s agreed to a one-year contract with the Angels, worth at least $11 million, and at most $14 million. In the same market, Nathan Eovaldi was guaranteed $68 million. J.A. Happ was guaranteed $34 million, and Lance Lynn was guaranteed $30 million. Garrett Richards was guaranteed $15.5 million, and he won’t pitch at all next year. Kurt Suzuki was guaranteed $10 million. Jesse Chavez was guaranteed $8 million.

This wasn’t the free agency Harvey or Boras imagined. There are reasons for that. You can squint and still see a similar pitcher. But the years, I’m afraid, have taken their toll.

Not that it’s been a function of the years by themselves. Over the years, though, Harvey’s body hasn’t held up. Even aside from that, Harvey had his many clashes with the people in charge of the Mets, but teams can look past such difficulties when the performance is good. Harvey’s performance hasn’t been good. Maybe it all started with his Tommy John surgery, although he did come back and pitch well in 2015. But then there was surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Then there was the scapula stress fracture. Harvey, in 2018, stayed off the DL, but this table says everything that needs to be said.

Matt Harvey vs. Himself
Year Fastball Avg Fastball Max wOBA xwOBA ERA- FIP- xFIP- Strike% Contact%
2015 96.5 100.2 0.266 0.255 73 79 84 68% 76%
2018 94.6 98.3 0.334 0.316 123 111 104 66% 80%
xwOBA from Baseball Savant.

Harvey was better than he was the year before, and he was healthier than he was the year before that. There’s been a drop in velocity, but Harvey still gets his fastball into the mid-90s, so it seems like he should have enough strength in his arm. From time to time, he can still look like the old Matt Harvey. But that 2018 stat line just isn’t good. It’s also not bad — we can agree to look past the ugly ERA. Harvey looked more or less like a league-average starter. The positive spin is that, by xwOBA, he resembled Chris Archer, Luis Castillo, and Madison Bumgarner. The negative spin is that, by xwOBA, he also resembled Tanner Roark, Wade LeBlanc, and Junior Guerra. Depending on your definitions, Harvey might be a No. 3 with a long medical record. Or he might be a No. 4.

But as long as we can remember Matt Harvey’s peak, we can look for reasons for optimism. Consider, for example, the following plots, from Texas Leaguers. On the left, you see Harvey’s pitch movements from 2015. On the right, you see Harvey’s pitch movements from 2018.

Harvey’s actual stuff doesn’t seem so diminished, by that evidence. There’s been a bit of velocity drop, but that’s also a normal part of pitcher aging, and Harvey can still throw hard. His changeup looks like it used to. His slider looks like it used to. His curveball looks like it used to. Harvey has that familiar four-pitch repertoire, and he’s still a guy who throws two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. In here, you might see reason to believe Harvey can bounce back.

Yet I have another plot, this one using data from Baseball Savant. For the four years we have of Statcast information, I pulled up four-seam-fastball spin rates for starting pitchers. Here are Harvey’s year-to-year percentile ranks in the category:

Harvey has dropped from the 80th percentile to the 29th in the span of just a few years. There is more to pitching than four-seam spin rate, and there are pitchers who succeed with low four-seam spin rates, but the four-seam fastball used to be the foundation for Harvey’s success. According to our pitch values, in 2013, Harvey’s fastball was 30 runs better than average. In 2015, it was 18 runs better than average. In 2018, it was six runs worse than average. Harvey’s fastball doesn’t play like it used to, and he hasn’t yet found another way to pitch.

I don’t know what it’s like to occupy Matt Harvey’s body, so I don’t know how he feels. So much of spin rate has to do with specific finger pressure, and one of Harvey’s symptoms from thoracic outlet syndrome was finger numbness. He might not have all the feeling back. He might just not recall exactly how he used to throw. You can see how it might just suddenly click. Harvey might rediscover his old familiar grip and release. If anything, though, the trend has gone in the wrong direction, even as Harvey has put more distance between himself and his surgery. Odds are the spin never comes back. Odds are, then, the old Matt Harvey also never comes back.

Harvey and Boras are looking at 2019 as an opportunity to earn a bigger deal down the road. With a performance improvement, and with continued health, Harvey next offseason could get a far larger commitment. The Angels won’t discourage their new starting pitcher from being optimistic about himself, but the team is also operating as if Harvey is what Harvey has become. He’s being paid like a risky, mid-rotation starter. That’s going to be the role. Harvey slots in behind Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs. He slots in ahead of Jaime Barria, Nick Tropeano, and Felix Pena. JC Ramirez will return at some point. This is a bid for a short-term boost, additional pitching depth for a team that’s had to cycle through innumerable arms. The Angels aren’t the Astros, but they’re close enough to the wild-card hunt, and they don’t want to concede as long as Mike Trout is on the roster. Harvey wasn’t Plan A, but they wouldn’t mind if he threw another 155 innings. Last year’s Angels had only one pitcher get to that mark.

The Angels built incentives into Harvey’s contract, that begin to kick in if he makes enough starts. It’s an acknowledgment of the risk inherent in the player, but it’s a team loaded with risky pitchers, and I guess tradition is tradition. The Angels would be okay if Harvey simply repeats what he did with the Reds. Harvey, of course, wants to blow that out of the water — Harvey grew accustomed to a certain lifestyle before, and no one likes to be diminished. I’m sure the team won’t care where he finds his motivation, just so long as he keeps himself motivated.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

tldr; He’s lost his spin rate on his 4-seamer. Am I right?

Travis Lmember
5 years ago
Reply to  grorilla

Would be interesting to see if he lost more spin than expected with the velo drop. (I’m assuming that spin and velo have some correlation)

5 years ago
Reply to  grorilla

So I’m wrong?

John Morgan
5 years ago
Reply to  grorilla

No, you’re right. You effectively communicated your self-importance, meanness, entitlement and toddler-like need to whine when anything at all is not to your liking. It must be such a hardship for you to read well-written and insightful content for free. grorilla, you are truly the colicky soul of the internet. Wah on you crazy diamond.

egregious comment
5 years ago
Reply to  grorilla

You’re not wrong, grorilla, you’re just an asshole.