Bill James on Matt Harvey

One of the most influential people for me in my baseball fandom is Bill James. Now an employee of the Boston Red Sox, James started out as a guy who wanted to find out the answers to questions. Is baseball 80 percent pitching? Is a walk as good as a hit? Does a pulled-in infield make a .200 hitter a .300 hitter? If you were a fan, you heard these things repeated all of the time. James was the one who sat down with pen and paper and tried his best to answer them.

James had three things in his favor. First, he was a naturally inquisitive guy. Second, he was a really, really good writer. Finally, not many people were doing what he was doing. It was a perfect confluence of events and James rode his talents to go from a third-shift worker in a warehouse to best-selling author and finally to a respected position within the baseball establishment.

Meanwhile, James doesn’t hold the same magical position he once did because a lot of his stuff is proprietary and, as he would be the first to admit, he does not keep up with the latest advancements in the field. Nowadays, when James publishes something for everyone to read, people still flock to read it but it typically does not contain the ground-breaking work of his stuff from the 20th Century.

To use a baseball expression, James may not have the bat speed he once did.

Regardless, it made me take notice when I saw a “Mailbag Column” of his posted at Baseball Think Factory – especially because it contained a question about Matt Harvey. Here is the relevant Q&A:

Matt Harvey debuted this year and struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings and put up a 2.72 ERA in 60 innings. How likely is a pitcher with a debut like that at the age of 23 to become a great pitcher?

It’s fairly long odds. I identified all pitchers since 1900 who were 22-24 years old, made 5 to 15 starts and less than 25 appearances, had no previous major league history or very limited major league history, and who were at least +10 vs. the league in strikeouts (10 more strikeouts than a league-average pitcher) and positive overall performance. There are only 29 such pitchers in major league history before Harvey (I had expected it to be more) but none of the 29 became a great pitcher. The ten best pitchers in the group were Danny Darwin, Bill Doak, Barry Zito, Schoolboy Rowe, Whitlow Wyatt, Stu Miller, Bob Turley, Denny Lemaster, Eric Hanson, Arthur Rhodes and Dave Righetti (OK, that’s 11)…

Most young pitchers get hurt. Most young pitchers who look like they might be great, aren’t great. Ten starts isn’t enough to get real excited about.

But a commenter named bobm went over to Baseball-Reference and did a search with similar parameters. Only he did it using the first 10 starts of a career. He looked for the most matching games with SO>7 and a Game Score>= 58.

In this age-based comparison, Harvey is tied for second-best with Lynn McGlothen with six performances matching the criteria in his first 10 starts. Only 25 pitchers have done it three or more times, with Jose DeLeon leading the way with seven. But the list is a little more impressive than James’ list, as it includes Michael Pineda, Tim Hudson, Luis Tiant, Tim Lincecum and Johnny Cueto.

The age filter is the big problem as bobm found that if you switch the ages to 20-21, you get Kerry Wood, Herb Score, Stephen Strasburg, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton. If you make it 19 and under, you get Dwight Gooden, Felix Hernandez, Bert Blyleven and Bob Feller.

Mets fans are understandably excited about Harvey. I still get a bit giddy thinking we finally have a starting pitcher who can consistently throw 95-97 mph. But James’ list is a bucket of cold water and shows that the old refrain – there’s nothing that disappoints like young pitchers – is one to keep in mind. Here’s hoping that Harvey’s first full year is more like 2008 Lincecum than 1954 Turley.

12 comments for “Bill James on Matt Harvey

  1. October 19, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    I thought he was the next Tom Seaver?!? :)

    The risk of injury of an arm that throws that hard is high, yet with sound mechanics, which he appears to have, the accolades placed upon him have proven correct each time.

    Interesting article!

    • October 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks Peter!

      Tom Seaver came up at age 22 and had only one game (edit: in his first 10) with more than 7 Ks. His first game in the majors he had 8 strikeouts but a Game Score only of 52. He had four games with a Game Score over 58 but the strikeouts kept him from being on this list. Who would have guessed that?

  2. Name
    October 19, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Will using Game Score and K’s accuretly find comparison pitchers for Matt Harvey?
    My answer is no.
    One arguement i have against this is that league-average K-rates are higher than ever. In 2011, the K/9 rate was 7.13. In 2000, it was 6.53. In 1980 it was 4.8 and pre 1950 K-rates were all below 4. So each K today is worth than it was 50 years ago and so a 9 IP/8K performance in 1950 is just as impressive as a 9IP/14K performance today.

    And since Game Score uses total strikeouts and doesn’t adjust them for the time period, it is also affected by this problem.

    • October 19, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      +1

    • 7rain
      October 19, 2012 at 9:36 pm

      Talk about cold water.

      Thanks for putting a little context into the matter Name, it’ll make the off season a little less worrisome.

      • Name
        October 19, 2012 at 10:31 pm

        I wasn’t sure what you were talking about until I actually read Bill James’ analysis of Matt Harvey. I thought i read it, but i didn’t even realize the extent James was slighting Harvey’s future. My response was actually to how that “bobm” guy was trying to find comparisons.
        Now that i’ve actually read it, i don’t like how James didn’t define what he meant by “great”. Does “great” mean HOF? There are only 59 HOF pitchers and i’m pretty sure each of them started their career differently. Is Barry Zito “great”? Not recently, but he was “great” for 8 seasons in Oakland. If Matt Harvey turned out to have a beginning career like that, how is that bad?
        But most importantly, I didn’t like that the only thing that he used to back up his statements was giving comparisons(most of which aren’t very good) to other players and saying that their careers didn’t turn out “great”. He didn’t say anything about Harvey’s stuff or makeup. He would be much more credible if he were to say something like “Harvey doesn’t have a good changeup” or “his delievery makes him prone to injury” or something like that.

        And also i don’t agree that we shouldn’t get excited after 10 starts. If not 10 starts, when is acceptable? 20? 30? After he has already dominated for 6 seasons and ready to hit FA? Should we not get excited for Wheeler because he hasn’t made a start?
        (I think he actually meant we shouldn’t expect Harvey to be a “great” pitcher after merely 10 starts, but even pitchers who had been proven can take a turn for the worse and become not so great(like Tim Lincecum))

  3. kjs
    October 19, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    I think Harvey’s maturity, ability to ‘coach’ himself, his father’s input, etc., may be something that cannot be statistically measured, but it’s something that does work in his his favor. Only time will tell.

    • Name
      October 19, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      I agree. I’m not one for comparing someone to someone else historically because every player is unique. The odds of two players even having slightly similar careers are nearly zero.

  4. Mack Ade
    October 19, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Bill James writes nice.

    Matt Harvey pitches better.

  5. Charles
    October 19, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    The red sox can keep Bill James and his useless comparisons..Matt Harvey won’t except anything other then greatness. He will pull the Mets up and out from the ashes. His fireball will blast this team into a new millennium.

  6. TJ
    October 19, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    James was also remiss in not mentioning that Harvey may well be the Mets’ best RH hitter not named David Wright. What are the comps for a starting pitcher with an OPS 0f .778 in his first 10 games? Can someone say Bambino?

    • NormE
      October 20, 2012 at 12:32 am

      TJ, I love your point! But, what does that really say about Mets hitters?

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