The state of affairs surrounding Matt Harvey remains as lucid as mud.
He will pitch. He won’t pitch. He may pitch. He may not pitch. Harvey and agent Scott Boras caught everyone off guard last week with a hard 180-inning limit, and he’s already at 166.1 innings. That includes the playoffs too, leaving Mets fans with nightmares of Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
Public opinion of both pitcher and agent took a nose dive over the weekend. Harvey went from the Dark Knight and beloved source of #HarveyDay to Two Face and a selfish pariah that needs to be traded in the off-season. And most of that is coming directly from the reporters and columnists who cover the Mets.
“Go ahead. Be mad. Be furious. Boil all of your venom and aim it all at Matt Harvey, who’s got it coming. Harvey has proven to be the worst kind of sporting phony — the fake tough guy, a fugazi in full, all talk and no action. Rip away,” a colorful Mike Vaccaro wrote for the New York Post.
Fans cheered Harvey on as he flipped off the camera after Tommy John surgery, promising to return sooner than expected. Fans cheered when Harvey won his first game back and the opening series against Washington. Fans cheered as he publicly criticized the six-man rotation and skipping his rotation. But without provocation, and led by the greed-fueled Boras, Harvey promptly turned about face, showing his back to loyal fans.
The damage control began late Sunday. Harvey pledged in a public essay to pitch in the playoffs should the team earn a berth. The pitcher also said he, doctors and team officials would craft a plan for the remaining games – 26 as of Monday morning. A six-man rotation will be back in the fold for those games, as of Monday, with Logan Verrett picking up any slack from Harvey. And then word broke Harvey may start in fewer than four more regular season games, including Tuesday’s game in Washington and at home against the Nationals in the final series.
But what if all of this is a strawman? What if this is a smokescreen. What if there’s another, more imperative question?
Can he pitch?
There are more than a few New Yorkers and baseball folks wondering if Harvey is hurting. Obviously he hasn’t said anything publicly, but the timing for Boras’ provocative comments is curious. Dr. James Andrew performed Tommy John surgery in October 2013, an operation with a 12-15-month recovery period for Major League pitchers. Andrews also contributed to a Tommy John FAQ hosted by MLB, pointing to a recent study that finds 19 percent of patients will have another elbow surgery and 25 percent will have shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said he needed another full year to get back to full-strength, relying solely on his curveball in 2012.
Reviewing the 2015 campaign through early September, Harvey has had a few blips on the radar. He threw six scoreless innings against Washington on April 9, but gave up seven earned runs in 12 innings to Philadelphia and Miami before holding the Yankees to a pair of runs over 8.2 innings to end the month. He yielded seven earned runs once in late May and again in early June. A 2-1 win over Washington on July 31 kept his ERA for the month from going over 3. Through 25 games, Harvey has given up no runs eight times and 11 times struck out at least seven batters. But there’s also been five times opposing teams scored at least four earned runs and July saw an uncharacteristic 14:29 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Evaluating the numbers behind Harvey’s pitches may or may not expose an injury or correlation to some of those crooked numbers, but it does reveal a pitcher trying to prevent future damage. Like most of his brethren, Harvey pitches off the four-seam fastball – throwing it 50-60 percent since 2012 at an average of 96 MPH. That story began features no Shyamalan-ian surprises, but his breaking pitches and off-speed stuff offer quite a twist.
Back in 2013 – his first full, healthy year, Harvey threw a breaking pitch 31.85 percent of the time and tossed an off-speed pitch 11.4 percent of the time. But outside of May, the post-Tommy John Harvey is less likely to throw a breaking pitch; and in the last few months he’s more likely to throw an off-speed pitch. Compared to an almost 24-point difference between the two in May, breaking pitches since August are less than 24 percent of Harvey’s offerings and off-speed stuff makes up almost 13.5 percent.
The speed of the ball coming out of his hand is also noticeably different in 2015. His fastball is close enough, maybe half a MPH slower than 2013. But both the breaking and off-speed pitches have changed radically. Harvey typically threw both at the same speed in 2012 and 2013 – around 86 MPH in the former and 88 MPH in the latter. This year, however, there’s quite a split. On average, his breaking stuff is almost 2 MPH slower than off-speed pitches – 87.13 MPH and 88.95 MPH, respectively. That includes a July and August about a mile-per-hour apart and wider gaps in May and September. Harvey is also throwing his off-speed stuff harder than ever, flirting with 90 MPH, and his breaking stuff at far less consistent speeds. Straight lines measuring those speeds in 2012 and 2013 were the norm, but the 2015 line is a roller coaster from 85 MPH to almost 89 MPH.
Does any of this pitch analysis reveal if Two-Face… the Dark Knight… Harvey is hurt? Not definitively, but it does reveal a pitcher who’s still not right. It also suggests he’s the most successful when he’s throwing more breaking pitches than off-speed stuff but they come out of his hand at the same speed.