MLB: The Matt Harvey Story

“Harvey’s Better!    Harvey’s Better!”

It was on April 19th, 2013.  The Mets, off to a blah 7-7 start that included just being swept by the Colorado Rockies, were about to start a three-game series against the Washington Nationals.   The Mets were not necessarily a good team – they would end the season at 74-88.  However, they had a new sensation on the hill.   Matt Harvey entered that contest with a 3-0 record, including a win over perennial superstar Roy Halladay of the Phillies.    On the other side of the field, the Nationals had their own young superstar – a former first overall pick in Steven Strasburg.   Just one year earlier, Strasburg made his first All-Star team, and was helping the Nationals win 98 games and a National League East crown.   We all know the story of that season, however – the Nationals, wanting to protect their investment in the young stud, shut Strasburg down late in the season and did not allow him to pitch in the playoffs.    Alas, the Nationals were ousted in the Divisional Series by the Cardinals.

Harvey, of course, did not yet have anything near Strasburg’s success heading into that Friday night start.  The Mets brought him up to the show late in that 2012 season.  Essentially, when Strasburg was being shut down by a team that had World Series aspirations, the Mets were bringing up a pitcher they hoped would someday lead them into a similar situation.  Harvey put his name on the map down the stretch that year, starting ten games and compiling a 2.73 ERA along the way.   Like many rookies, he walked too many guys in his first taste of the show.  Unlike many rookies, he also struck out a ton of batters.     As baseball fans, we all dream of having pitchers who come up through the farm system and make the best hitters in the world look ridiculous.   That is what Harvey was doing – he was striking hitters out, and a franchise that for so long was a laughingstock suddenly had a pitcher that would make people take notice.  “We love to play the Mets…but not if Harvey is scheduled to pitch!”   That was the likely mantra during the 2013 season by managers across the National League.  Sure, the Mets’ weren’t very good, but they can certainly steal any game that Harvey was throwing in.

Back to that Friday night at Citi Field….a game that Matt Harvey would win easily to improve to 4-0 on the young season.    The fans, needing something to cheer for and a reason to go to the ballpark, started a chant that didn’t include “Must Go!” or “Fire.”   The chant was directed at Strasburg himself, as the Mets were winning and Harvey was dominating.   Yes, indeed, Matt Harvey was better.   On that night, and as the days of the season would go by.      Not only was Harvey better, he was bringing some juice to Citi Field.    Ratings on SNY would go up on the nights he was starting, and I would venture to guess that fans who couldn’t bear to watch the team as a whole would still make it appointment television to watch Matt Harvey pitch.

August 24, 2013.    Four months and five days after “Harvey’s Better!” became one of the Mets’ biggest ever chants (you can find it on YouTube, if you are into nostalgia), his world (and the world of Mets’ fans) came crashing to a halt.  On that day, Harvey had an uncharacteristic outing, allowing 13 hits in 6.2 innings, while striking out only four.   Of course, in a magical year like Harvey was having, he was still able to escape the day by allowing only two runs.   He threw 102 pitches that day, and wouldn’t throw another one until 2015.    Harvey blew out his elbow, which was instantly diagnosed as a tear that required Tommy John surgery.   One of the best pitching seasons in Mets’ history (and that is really saying something, given the Mets’ strong history of great starting pitching) was done, in a heartbeat.   The domination of Harvey (his highest ERA after a start that season was 2.35) was suddenly over.   The pitching gods had caught up to him.

Tommy John surgery is not a sure thing – we all like to think it is, but it isn’t.  Some pitchers never recover.  Some pitchers need the procedure many times, and with each new procedure comes lower odds of making it back.    It has become too much of a forgone conclusion that once a pitcher has the surgery, thinks will be bright and rosy within a year and a half or two.   It isn’t always that simple.

In the case of Harvey, however, the timing could not have been better.  What is this?  Am I advocating that getting hurt and losing a year and a half is a good thing?   Of course not.   But if the injury rears its ugly head, there is much worse timing than the end of August.  The team was going nowhere, so Harvey didn’t have to worry about that aspect.  The 2014 season would be lost, of course, but that would be it.   With the proper rehab, Harvey was going to be as good as new come 2015, and by then, the Mets were already bringing up young pitchers that would be able to support him.

2015 was a whirlwind for Harvey.  He not only came back, but he came back strong.   He nearly struck out a hitter per inning, and his walk rate barely ticked up from his 2013 campaign.  This is surprising, because walk rates (and command) usually take a while to bounce back after coming back from the surgery, but Harvey had no issues.  He would be a main cog in the Mets’ run to a World Series berth, throwing to a 2.71 ERA and 1.019 WHIP.    Most of his numbers were off from his brilliant 2013 campaign, but he was still a legitimate ace-type pitcher.  A pitcher that just fell short of forcing a Game 6 in the World Series when we gave up a lead in the 9th inning.     Regardless, Harvey was again a star – the pitcher the Mets could most rely on to stop losing streaks and put the team on his back.

2016 decided to come along, however, and it was not kind to Harvey.   He jumped out of the gate slowly, and never quite recovered from it.  He would throw to an unsightly 4.86 ERA, with a reduced strikeout rate.    There was some potential blame going on for Matt’s fall into the abyss.  Most notably were claims the previous season by Harvey’s agent (Scott Boras) that the Mets were working Harvey too hard just a year removed from missing a full season due to his surgery.  Many see Boras as the definition of a slimy sports agent, but he did have history on his side when it came to these claims.   Harvey was throwing more than any pitcher in history coming off of the surgery, and Boras saw it as a potential hindrance to his client’s future.   His argument was getting stronger with every hard hit ball that Harvey was giving up.

We all know the story by now:  Harvey was eventually diagnosed with TOS, and needed yet another surgery that would shut down his season.    The Mets suffered a lot of injuries in 2016, though they made the playoffs anyway.   That was the good news.  The bad news was that Harvey once again lost a big chunk of a season, and with each passing injury, it was going to become that much harder to become worthy again of a “Harvey’s Better!’ chant.

This season has been more of the same.  Harvey has a few decent starts on his ledger, but was mostly bombed and never looked anything like the pitcher he once was.    He has a 5.25 ERA, which is actually better than what the advanced metrics say he should have.   His 35 walks were already the second most he has allowed in any full season in his career.   Harvey has been a mess, and today we came to find out that he has a stress injury in his shoulder.  While this is not the death knell that a rotator cuff injury can be, shoulder injuries and pitchers never mix well.    There isn’t much of a “cure” in the realm of Tommy John surgery – it usually comes down to rest, rehab, and pray.

The Mets are saying that it will be “weeks” instead of “months” before Harvey will be back on the hill.    There are few sure things in life:  Death, taxes, and the Mets mishandling information on injuries.  I would take the timeline with a grain of salt.  No matter how severe a shoulder injury may be, one should never put a time-table on recovery.   Throwing a baseball is one of the most unnatural things we ask athletes to do in sports.   Our bodies are not built to throw baseballs the way pitchers throw them.  Once your shoulder is impacted, it can be a long road back to form.  In the case of Harvey, you wonder if that form will ever come back.

Harvey is scheduled to become a free agent after the 2018 season.  Visions of the David Price contract has likely faded from his view, as his injury history and ineffectiveness have obviously soured him across baseball.    He does have a year and a half to regain some value, but even if he pitches relatively well, one cannot imagine a big contract coming his way.  (Big contracts are however you wish to define them.  Perhaps a healthy Harvey would be able to grab $14-15M a year.  Nowadays, that really is not a big contract for a pitcher!)

The bigger impact on the Mets is that a healthy Harvey may have been worth something on the trade market.  The value would not have been high given the way he has pitched, but that doesn’t mean value would have been nil.   Now, I can’t imagine anyone biting on him before this year’s trade deadline.   The funny thing is that every Mets’ fan was worried about whether or not they would be able to afford Harvey.  Now, the Mets may certainly be able to afford him…and the fans may say to let him go any way.  We are a fickle bunch of people.

It has been a while since Mets’ fans have greeted themselves with a “Happy Harvey Day” while sitting around a water cooler.    The Dark Knight name that was placed on him has become a bit of a distant memory.    Sports fans are conditioned to move onto the next big thing.  We don’t forget our heroes of yesterday, but we are always looking ahead to tomorrow.   Once Noah Syndergaard came up to the majors and starting throwing 101 MPH fastballs, Harvey went from leading actor to sidekick.

But he never got the “Noah’s better!” treatment.  He never was put in a position of trying to rescue a franchise in desperate need for some juice.  For the space of a few years, Matt Harvey was the hope – the shining light on teams that would feature John Buck as the starting catcher.  It was only five years ago when Harvey made that kind of impact on the franchise, but it may as well be 20.     Baseball is a cruel game and the baseball gods never discriminate on who will go down with the next injury.

“Harvey’s Better!”    Mets’ fans in 2017 are hoping, against hope, that some day their franchise savior will again rise to the top of the mountain, even if the final verdict will likely be a “what may have been.”   He at least is in very good company with that label.  It is just the way of the game – most potential greats will end up going down the road of Josh Johnson rather than the road of Tom Seaver.   It is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a fan of this sport.

 

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