What’s Wrong With Matt Harvey?

Yes. What is wrong with Matt Harvey? Because if you watch him pitch, it seems like everything is wrong, and yet nothing at all. At least, it’s hard to put your finger on it. You run down the list of things that could explain why he has an ERA near five and the worst ERA estimators of his career, and you find little things here or there. But do you find a smoking gun?

Velocity
Here’s the first place your eye will drift, and even Bryce Harper said the Mets righty was 91-93 mph last night, so everyone’s watching the velocity. The radar gun is such a simple arbiter, and Harvey’s been a league leader in fastball velocity since he’s been in the league. All things being equal — we’re not sure they are, but we’re going to start here — more velocity is better.

And yes! He is down in velocity, but maybe not as much as Harper was reporting. Down more than a mile per hour (94.0 from 95.2), and a little bit further down in yesterday’s disasterpiece against the Nationals (93.5). We’ve got it. High fives all around. Velocity loss!

Except. He’s had four games this year that were within a half mile per hour of last year’s pace, and his game against the Padres on May 8th featured a 94.9 mph velocity that was nearly flush with 2015’s numbers.

Except. His loss in velocity is not too far off the normal loss a starter would see from the ages of 26-27 years old. After yesterday’s game, he’s probably two-tenths or three-tenths worse than average, and it seems crazy to blame all of this on that much velocity loss.

Except. Mike Fast once told us how much a tick on the gun is worth! A loss of a mile per hour on the gun should be worth about 0.26 runs allowed per nine innings. For his career, even including this year, Harvey has allowed 2.91 runs per nine innings. This year, he’s allowing 5.12 runs per nine innings.

We’ve got another two runs per nine innings to explain.

Pitching Mix
What if dude started throwing a crappier pitch more, or a better pitch less? Couldn’t that explain things? Yeah, alright, he’s throwing his slider more often this year, by any system. His slider? it gets nearly 19% whiffs, against a league average of 14%.

Huh.

Oh wait, it is giving up a .297 isolated slugging percentage this year, after never having been worse than .088 before.

Except. He’s allowed only 29 of those things to be put in play, and it’s otherwise getting the whiffs it normally does, and yesterday his ISO on the pitch went down from .324 to .297, so that number can change quickly.

Movement
Okay, so what if the slider is no good. It is… different. It’s actually very much like his slider when he broke into the league back in 2012, by a few key metrics.

Matt Harvey’s Slider By the Numbers
Years Velocity Velocity Differential Vertical Move Horizontal Move Whiff% GB% Swing Foul% Strike%
2012 89.1 6.7 4.0 1.2 16.5% 53.9% 53.4% 17.3% 21.8%
2013-2015 90.6 6.1 4.0 0.9 17.8% 56.2% 48.0% 13.3% 29.0%
2016 88.7 6.3 4.4 1.2 18.6% 44.9% 61.2% 18.6% 26.4%

Harvey throws the slider that was taught to him by his pitching coach, Dan Warthen. That slider is supposed to be close to the fastball in velocity and not feature a ton of movement. He learned that pitch some time in his rookie season, he says. He seems to have unlearned it, to an extent. And batters are swinging at the pitch more than ever, and lifting it.

Except. The movement and velocity differences here are minute. Is a third of an inch and a half a mile per hour on the slider really leading to spankage like this?

Maybe? Against Washington, his slider had the worst drop it’s had all year, and though it got two whiffs in 11 tries, four of them were in the dirt, and two were hit hard.

Location
Command is almost impossible to quantify, and most pitchers tell me that it’s a relative thing. They can hit a general space one one side of the plate or other, and if they’re lucky and/or elite, they can hit a general location on both sides of the plate.

But when it comes to breaking balls, there was some consensus when I wrote about command for The Hardball Times Annual this year: most of the time, you want to bury it. Sometimes, you want to throw it in the strike zone for a called strike, but most of the time you want to bury it.

Looks like Harvey is actually having some trouble putting the slider exactly where he wants to. Look at his slider location last year (left) and this year (right). He’s either hitting the middle of the zone or the dirt — remember he hit the dirt twice last night — and he’s not hitting the bonus zone on the corner there. A slider on that corner could be a called strike or a swinging strike. He’s not throwing that slider this year.

Harvey15

So, we’ve checked our checklist and we’ve found a couple things for Harvey. His velocity is down a little more than you’d expect, and his slider movement, velocity, and command is off a tad. It might not be so scary if he wasn’t self-reporting so much confusion, and if he hadn’t been so dominant in the past.

And maybe it’s actually not so scary. D.J. Short of Rotoworld had a good point:

To compare them even more precisely, since Harvey has nine starts so far this year:

Strasburg and Harvey Through Nine Starts
Pitcher Fastball Velocity Y-t-Y K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP
Stephen Strasburg 0 21.2% 6.1% 6.50 3.65 3.75
Matt Harvey -1.2 19.6% 6.8% 5.77 3.66 3.88
Fastball Velocity Y-t-Y = Fastball velocity compared to year before

They’d be almost exactly the same if not for that first column.

Considering the fact that their pitching coach is a slider guru, maybe we can believe that Harvey will right ship on the slider shortly. Considering the fact that all pitchers lose velocity, maybe we can shrug at the velocity loss and say, we can still get a 27 year old version of Harvey back. It’s just a *little* worse than you’d expect, right?

So buck up, Matt Harvey, it’s probably not all that big a deal. Work on the slider some in the bullpen, get your body as right as it can be, and you can get this thing back on track.

We hoped you liked reading What’s Wrong With Matt Harvey? by Eno Sarris!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

newest oldest most voted
Slevin Kelevra
Member
Slevin Kelevra

Can we expect “What’s wrong with Jacob deGrom” next ?

Brian P. Mangan
Member
Brian P. Mangan

Jake is battling through his diminished velocity quite well. Very different situations. If Jake can settle in at around 94 that’s not much different than his velocity in 2014.

Kenny
Member
Kenny

His K% has gone from 27.3% to 15.7%, his velocity is down 2.5 MPH, and his xFIP is ~4—I’d say that’s not good and more concerning than anything Harvey’s doing. The main difference between the two is BABIP and ERA (.385 vs .289 and 5.77 vs 2.50). ERA is a powerful force…

Rainmaker
Member
Member
Rainmaker

Yeah, but DeGrom’s exit velocity on batted balls isn’t trending wrong direction like we see with Harvey. Guys are making more and harder contact on Harvey than in the past…..that indicates that BABIP may not be so inflated….but instead reflecting the higher BABIP on balls hit hard.

Kenny
Member
Kenny

DeGrom’s Hard% has gone from 26.3% to 34.5%, while Harvey’s has gone from 26.7% to 29.8%, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Assuming what you said is true, though, there’s luck involved in how hard batters hit the ball too—Harvey could be getting unlucky in that batters are hitting the ball harder than we’d expect based on his pitches, and they’re falling for hits more often then we’d expect based on exit velocity. We wouldn’t expect batters to keep hitting to ball so hard as to maintain a .385 BABIP.

Rainmaker
Member
Member
Rainmaker

May be true I, I was looking at exit velocities since the start of 2016 from Baseball Savant…..different stat, different range

evo34
Member
evo34

He’s prob. talking about actual exit velocity, not the arbitrary “Hard” hit classifications you refer to. MLBSavant is your friend.

KazMat32
Member
Member
KazMat32

No it does not. Harvey’s career BABIP is .288. This year it’s .385. The highest single season BABIP in the last 3 years is 2015 Gio Gonzalez at .341. Under no circumstance would you expect his BABIP to increase by anywhere near that magnitude.

Brian P. Mangan
Member
Brian P. Mangan

Right so… like I said… his velocity is not much different than his velocity in 2014. It was 93.5 in 2014, it is 92.7 in 2016, and it was higher before his most recent start.

His FIP is 3.36. The xFIP is higher but deGrom hasn’t ever given up a lot of home runs. He’s a smart pitcher and I am willing to believe he’s doing a better job of pitching and managing contact than Harvey.

JosephGanann
Member
JosephGanann

His SwStr rate is still consistent with what he did his rookie year and should be on the rise when he gets more comfortable. the low K-rate is inconsistent with the SwStr rate so even if it doesn’t go up, his K/9 surely will. Hold him.