There is probably too much made of early season starts. We're just over two weeks into the season, which makes hot streaks or slumps seem more pronounced. Take, for example, Matt Harvey. (No, really, take Matt Harvey!) Harvey is in his second season since Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of 2014. The first year coming back from TJ is typically a bit rough for pitchers, compared to the time they were last healthy. Rather than a sophomore slump, the second year back from the surgery is when we expect pitchers to return to their old self. So, imagine the disappointment when Matt Harvey ushered in the season like a lamb, with three lackluster starts full of more walks and fewer strikeouts than we've come to expect from the knight they call Dark.
Let's focus on the strikeouts. Coming into the season, Harvey was one of the preeminent strikeout pitchers in the game. While strikeout rate peaked in his first year (28.6%), he still managed to strike out a quarter of the batters he faced last season, good for 16th among eligible starters, sandwiched by fellow aces Jon Lester and Cole Hamels.
This year, his rate has been cut more than in half, with Harvey striking out just 12% of the batters he's faced despite a league-wide increase in Ks. Too early for concern you say? Well, consider that, in his career, Harvey has struck out fewer than five batters in just a quarter of his 68 regular season starts, and three of those starts have come this season. Previously, Harvey had only gone two consecutive starts striking fewer than five. This doesn't seem a fluke, either. So far this season, Harvey has an 8.3% swinging strike rate, by far the lowest of this career. It's been consistent, too, as he's gotten fewer than 10 swinging strikes in each of his first three starts.
The elephant in the room is Matt Harvey's health. Last season, during an unexpected run to the playoffs, Scott Boras dropped a bomb on Mets fans when he said that Matt Harvey should be shut down after 180 innings to protect his freshly reconstructed elbow. This seemed like a public relations miscalculation, and Harvey quickly doubled back saying that he'd take the ball so long as the Mets were alive. Harvey passed the 180 innings threshold against theReds on September 26th, and wound up pitching a total of 216 innings through the end of the Mets storybook run to the National League pennant.
But, since that final start against the Reds, Harvey's stuff hasn't been the same. Eno Sarris noticed that Harvey had career worst stuff in his first start against the Royals last postseason and went through Josh Kalk's injury indicators checklist to see whether or not Harvey may be hurt. At the time, he concluded that Harvey might not be hurt, rather fatigued, or battling the chilly postseason weather. But now that we have three more disappointing data points on Matt Harvey post-shutdown gate, let's revisit the three key indicators of injury to see if any of them have changed relative to last season.
Fastball velocity is probably the first thing we think of when considering whether or not a pitcher is injured. In this regard, the red flag is an even deeper shade of crimson than it was last postseason. In a rather convenient turn of events for the Scott Boras propaganda machine, Harvey's fourseam fastball and slider velocities cratered after he passed the 180 IP mark in late September against the Reds. Leading up to that start, Harvey had averaged 96.6 mph on his heater, though there was a decline of just under a mile per hour in July and August. In his last regular season start and over the playoffs, Harvey averaged 95.2 mph, a marked decrease over his previous innings. Harvey was pushing his innings pitched to new heights after a season off so, at the time, this could all be chalked up to fatigue. However, this season, Harvey's velocity is down further still, averaging 94.9 mph over his first three starts.
His slider velocity has undergone a similar drop. Before 180 IP, Harvey was sitting at 90.3 mph. Post 180 IP he was down to 89.2 mph. This season, Harvey’s plummeted further still, down to 88.5 mph
A change in the ability to hit the strike zone is another useful indicator in identifying injuries. Again, Harvey his hitting new lows in his ability to command the zone. This season, Harvey has hit the zone less often than he did in any of this previous three years.
On the positive side, his command of the zone has improved with each start. From 42.3% against the Royals on opening day, it went up to 56.5% against the Phillies, and 60.5% against Cleveland. In this case, his command of the zone was awful in his first start and better than his career average over the next two. In light of Harvey's in-season improvements, his strike zone command seems like an inconclusive injury indicator.
The final indicator that Eno used to look at Harvey was vertical release point variance, a proxy for arm slot, which was in line with the rest of his career through the playoffs. Eno checked in again after two starts and noted that it looked hadn't deviated much from his career norms trough the first two games. But then in his last start against Cleveland increased from 6.5 ft. in his previous start to 6.7, also well above career norms.
The good news is that an increase in vertical release point isn't usually an issue. The even better news is that the variance in Harvey's vertical release point actually decrease in Harvey's last start. What did change, however was his total variance in his release point, due to Harvey shifting around on the rubber, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the mechanical problems pitching coach Dan Warthen disclosed after his start.
So is Matt Harvey injured? Two out of three of the indicators above suggest that, no, he isn't. But it doesn't seem like he's out of the woods yet either. Harvey's velocity has been at an all-time low since he passed the much ballyhooed 180 IP mark last season. Was Scott Boras right? Should the Mets have shut Matt Harvey down? We'll never know for sure, but if Harvey goes down with a serious arm injury in the near future, you can be certain that at least one person will think they should have. Chances are that he'll let us know, too.
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