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Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey: two pitchers going in opposite directions

They both started out better than expected, but one is getting better while the other is getting worse.

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Mets’ starting rotation has been amazing in recent years. From 2015 to 2016, the rotation’s combined 3.81 RA9 was second only to the Cubs, who had a historically good defense in 2016 to help deflate that number. Say what you will about the Mets as an organization — and as a lifelong fan I have had PLENTY to say — but they have done a phenomenal job developing starting pitching talent.

On the contrary, the 2017 season has been somewhat disastrous for the rotation. Much of the starting five has been plagued with injury and ineffectiveness. Their collective 5.43 RA9 is the fifth-highest in the majors. Noah Syndergaard will likely be out until August, and Steven Matz has not pitched at all. Robert Gsellman and Rafael Montero have struggled mightily. Luckily, Zack Wheeler has been a nice story so far. After missing two years because of Tommy John surgery, he has been solid over his nine starts. He is on pace to have a 2-3 WAR season.

The most interesting members of the Mets’ starting rotation however, are Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, albeit for completely different reasons. deGrom might be better than ever. Harvey, sadly, seems to have fallen off a cliff.

deGrom was never seen as too much of prospect coming through the minors. He was drafted in the ninth round in 2010, where one does not normally find top-of-the-rotation pitchers. He had trouble even cracking the Mets top-ten prospects lists, though part of that was a result of the strength of the system. Now you could call him an ‘ace’, or at worst a strong number two starter.

Through the 2014 to 2016 seasons, deGrom has a 2.93 RA9, 2.89 FIP, and 11.6 bWAR. His strikeout and walk rates have also been very good at 25.6 percent and 6.1 percent, respectively. Right now, his 3.23 RA9 is a little higher than his career RA9, but his strikeout rate has soared.

deGrom is currently striking out almost a third of hitters faced, which is roughly 50 percent better over the year before. That is an enormous improvement. His walk rate has taken a hit in the process, unfortunately, which is sitting at nine percent, just slightly above the league average. Only Chris Sale and Max Scherzer have a better strikeout rate among starters.

The increased strikeouts are partially the result of his increased slider usage. My guess is that deGrom decided that since his slider is almost 90 MPH, he should throw it more often. Furthermore, according to Brooks Baseball, he is getting whiffs more often on all his pitches, except for his changeup. deGrom’s overall whiff percentage is currently the fourth-highest in baseball.

Whiff Percentage
Brooks Baseball

The increased whiffs and strikeouts are great and all, but how does one make the case that deGrom is better than ever when his run average and walk rate are worse than his career numbers? For one, he has had some bad luck. He has a .324 BABIP that is surely at least partially caused by the Mets’ subpar defense. What really has been hurting him is his 16 percent HR/FB ratio. Not only is that far higher than his 9.9 percent career rate, but it also does not line up at all with the quality of stuff that he has shown this year. It is possible for a high quality pitcher to be homer prone — just look at Max Scherzer — but not to the degree we have seen so far.

The most interesting indication of deGrom’s improvement is his 1.96 DRA. That is much lower than his 3.23 RA9. He is being credited with his big increase in strikeout rate, and also the fact that he has given up more runs than the quality of contact indicates that he should have.

Coincidentally, Matt Harvey was part of the same draft as deGrom, only he was selected in the first round, not the ninth. He ranked highre than deGrom on the prospect rankings, demonstrating how incredibly difficult it is to evaluate prospects.

Harvey was incredible in 2013 and was a late-season Cy Young contender before he went down with Tommy John surgery. He had a 2.32 RA9, and he struck out 27.7 percent of batters faced while walking only 4.5 percent of them. After missing all of 2014, he came back to have another very good season in 2015, including a good postseason where he had a 3.43 RA9 and 27 K over four starts.

In 2016, Harvey missed the second half of the season as a result of thoracic outlet syndrome. It could be why he was a replacement level player last year. He had a 5.34 RA9 and his strikeout and walk rates were significantly worse than the year before.

Harvey’s 2017 has been inconsistent though Harvey had his best outing in over a month last Sunday night. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come, because so far he has been worse than last year. He has a 5.11 RA9 with poor strikeout and walk rates. The good news is that he has not lost any velocity, and he has a HR/FB ratio that is over twice his career rate. Furthermore, he has a 3.81 DRA, though I have to confess that I do not completely understand why that is because the DRA run values table does not do a lot to clear it up.

Steamer projects 4.50 RA9 for the rest of the year. Given Harvey’s poor strikeout and walk rates, it is hard to take the ‘over’ on that. I am sure that his injury history is a factor, but that would mean that Harvey has gone from an ace to a back-end starter in only four years.

Back when Harvey was awesome, I suspected that there was no way he would still be on the team past 2018 when he enters free agency. He would be too expensive for the often penny-pinching Mets, and as a Scott Boras client, there was no way he would sign an extension. My prediction was that he would end up a Yankee. He rooted for them as a kid and he would get to stay in New York. Now his future when free agency arrives is much less certain.

Harvey and deGrom both had tremendous starts to their careers. It is great that deGrom might be getting better, but unfortunate to see Harvey go in the other direction, especially with his injury struggles. Hopefully he will figure things out.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.