Thursday was a rough day for Matt Harvey. He stumbled his way through just 4 1/3 innings after being given short notice that he’d be starting against the Braves in place of Noah Syndergaard. After starting off strong in the first, he got knocked around for five hits and six earned runs while walking a career-high five batters. He looked physically exhausted on the mound which, though he touched 94 mph early, was reflected by the fact that his fastball sat in the low 90s for most of the afternoon.
The lower velocity has been a theme so far this season to the point that it seems a forgone conclusion that Harvey will move forward with a lesser arsenal after his second major surgery. I’d caution that we need to wait further into the season to see where Harvey ultimately ends up, but it stands to reason that his days of regularly getting his fastball up to 97+ mph are probably gone.
The numbers so far bear this reasoning out. According to Statcast, Harvey has thrown just nine fastballs of 96 mph or higher this season. That accounts for just 1.97% of his total pitches (456). In 2016 it was 16.9%, while in 2013 and 2015 it was 35.6% and 40.49%, respectively. Harvey has yet to throw a fastball over 97 mph in 2017 according to Statcast, though other sources like FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball have him reaching that plateau at least once. His average fastball velocity has also dipped, dropping to 94.1 mph on his four-seamer in 2017 from a high of 96.5 mph in both 2013 and 2015. The point is, he’s clearly not throwing as hard or hitting the top end of his velocity as often.
These numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone really, but what’s interesting is whether or not Harvey has started making adjustments in his approach based on his new reality. His average fastball velocity is still above average, but it’s no longer elite. This means that it’s no longer the weapon it once was on its own, but also that it won’t be as effective in playing up his secondaries either. Has he started making any adjustments?
The short answer is no, at least not in the way we’d expect. His strikeout rate is way down this year and sits at just 5.46 per nine innings. Now, Harvey has long depended on both his fastball and his secondaries to get his strikeouts. In fact, over his career his split on this is almost 50/50. In 2017, however, 13 of his 18 strikeouts have come via fastball. That’s over 70% of his admittedly small sample total. This indicates a skew towards favoring a fastball that’s no longer the weapon it once was, which would also help explain the drop in his K/9 rate.
Additionally, he’s thrown a fastball in two-strike counts roughly 56% of the time this season, behind only his 2015 and short 2012 seasons. This suggests he’s using a similar approach when ahead in the count but not succeeding nearly as often. His lowest ratio of two-strike fastballs was in 2013, which is unsurprisingly the year his slider and curve emerged as prominent strikeout weapons.
Rather than pulling back on attempts to blow hitters away with a degraded fastball, Harvey has continued to lean on it early this season. If the velocity and quality of his hard stuff doesn’t improve as the year progresses, he’s going to need to consider using his breaking stuff more often than he has been in key moments. It may be tough for him to let go, but if he’s going to survive with an average-ish fastball in this league he’s going to need to acknowledge that his old standby will likely fail him more often than not and adjust accordingly.