Explaining the Matt Harvey Mess
So, Sunday night Matt Harvey pitched against the Yankees, and (as you might imagine), the subject of Harvey’s autumn workload came up…
Oh, and this was before the bullpen took over and got knocked around for a bunch of runs. After ESPN’s Dan Shulman reviewed some of the particulars, including the pitcher and his employers and his agent and his doctors, the conversation continued:
Shulman: It was a firestorm. You know, 99 percent of it … seemed to come down against Scott Boras and Matt Harvey, saying, “C’mon, it’s September, they’re in a race, you gotta pitch.” And it appears like now everybody’s now on the same page, to a certain extent, that they’ve got a plan; that Harvey will make this start and two more. They will limit his innings to a certain extent, and everybody seems to agree that, assuming the Mets are in the playoffs, that Matt Harvey will be able to pitch in October.Article continues below ...
But, I don’t know about you guys, but the first thing I wonder about is, how did this conversation not happen or become public in February or March. Why was it late August, early September?
Kruk: I mean, they had all last year and, you know, all offseason and into spring training… Everybody could have sat down and got on the same page. They just didn’t.
Well, I don’t think it was really 99 percent. But if so, you can include Dirk Hayhurst in the 1 percent (which I’ll bet wouldn’t be the first time for him).
To answer Shulman and Kruk’s question, though, there’s an exceedingly simple explanation for the delay in addressing the question about Harvey’s workload in 2015: Human nature.
Last winter, there simply was not any good reason to think there would ultimately be a big question about Harvey’s workload. Remember? The Nationals were literally the biggest favorites in any division, with the Mets presumed to finish a dozen or so games out of first place and fighting for wild-card scraps with the likes of the Pirates and Cubs and Giants and Padres and (remember?) maybe even the Marlins. Along with a Mystery Team or two.
We’ve got the mental and emotional energies for only so many questions. I’ll bet you could sit down right this minute and make a list of five questions about your own life that have so far gone unanswered because a) they’re hard to answer, and b) you haven’t been forced to answer them yet.
So you put off answering them, because there’s a temporal and emotional cost to answering them. And hey, maybe they’ll just take care of themselves!
The Mets didn’t have to wind up in the playoffs this year, and Matt Harvey could easily have suffered a minor injury that knocked him out of the rotation for a few weeks; in either case, there never would have been any firestorm.
But the Mets are (almost) in the playoffs and Harvey has been healthy all season. So now everybody has to answer the question. And somehow the question will be answered, however clumsily.
Oh, and by the way, is there some great advantage to answering the question early? When the Nationals and Steven Strasburg answered the question early, was the firestorm averted?
No. You’re damned to the fiery lake if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Speaking of which, there’s still nobody in the world who can say with any confidence that shutting down Strasburg kept him healthy, although (both now and then) I’m inclined to give the Nationals the benefit of the doubt. Even though nobody really knows how many innings Strasburg should have pitched, or how many Harvey should pitch. Or even if we should be talking about innings, per se.
Well, except we probably shouldn’t be. From Jared Diamond’s post-firestorm story in The Wall Street Journal:
“We’ve been very, very protective of Matt, and there should be a correlation in there that we’re not drawing,” Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said. “We’re just going to innings. I’m fighting the same battle you guys are. He feels great. His arm feels great. He hasn’t been abused.”
The data backs up Warthen’s point. Harvey has hit the 110-pitch threshold just once this season, after reaching that mark nine times in 2013. He also has relied less on elbow-taxing breaking pitches, throwing his slider 14.2% of the time, versus 18.5% in 2013, according to the website FanGraphs. Meanwhile, he has thrown his fastball 61.1% of the time, compared with 56.9% two years ago.
Indeed, there is little conclusive scientific evidence on this subject. Dr. Bradford Parsons, an orthopedic surgeon at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said “there’s a lot of gray area about the best way to approach it.”
Specifically, Parsons indicated that doctors can’t say for certain what leads to a higher rate of injury: number of pitches or number of innings.
The repetitive motion of throwing pitch after pitch naturally causes strain on a pitcher’s arm, so Parsons said straight pitch count “is one data point.” At the same time, however, total innings can play a role: When a pitcher sits down after each inning, his arm cools down, only to warm up again when he heads back to the mound. That constant up-and-down also raises concerns.
So there you’ve got the Mets’ rationale for reportedly imposing a secret innings limit on Harvey in Sunday night’s game instead of a pitches limit!*
* Turns out it was 5 innings, just enough to qualify Harvey for a W; very sneaky, Mets! Or maybe not so sneaky after all? And does anyone else think maybe Harvey pitched just as hard in those five innings as he would have in six or seven, if not for the innings limit? Human nature, don’t you know.
Does anyone else have the sneaking suspicion that the Mets chose innings rather than pitches because a) nobody really knows what to do, and b) if nobody knows, they might as well just do what everyone can more easily grok, which is innings? Because the numbers are smaller?
Because that’s my suspicion.