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Matt Harvey: Version 3.0

Matt Harvey is on his second rebound season. How has he been a competitive ballplayer despite his struggles with injury?

slgckgc/Flickr

How appropriate that, during this week of Easter, we talk about a ballplayer seemingly twice resurrected —SP Matt Harvey, who has had to bounce back from not just one, but two of the biggest surgeries a pitcher can undergo — both Tommy John and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.

But Harvey hasn’t let the repairs slow him down one bit. In fact, he’s managed to bounce back from each surgery, looking like a different version of himself — but each time, he’s managed to be effective. It’s an extraordinary adaptation that Harvey has now made twice. Let’s take a look at the three versions of Matt Harvey.

Version 1: 2013 Harvey

Harvey’s debut in 2012 was electric, but it only set the stage for one of the best pitching seasons in history — Harvey recorded the 10th best single season FIP of the live ball era in 2013. Not bad for a 24-year-old in his first full season.

Harvey’s stuff in 2013 was absolutely electrifying. Before Noah Syndergaard was doing the impossible and averaging 98 MPH on his fastball as a starter, Harvey was atop the velocity charts with a respectable 95.4 MPH figure for his fastball.

As a result, Harvey racked up the strikeouts. Harvey primarily used his devastating slider and curveball to rack up the Ks, but mixed his fastball in as a finisher as well. Harvey also performed excellently at inducing soft contact, placing second in the majors in Soft%, meaning that his BABIP stayed low.

All of these are recipes for an excellent pitcher — good velocity, devastating movement, and soft contact — and Harvey looked like the future for the Mets. Until, y’know, the whole Tommy John surgery thing.

Version 2: Post-TJ Harvey

Fast forward to 2015, and the Mets get Harvey back. Did they get Version 1 Harvey back? Not exactly.

The velocity was almost the same, if marginally down. This wasn’t a huge concern for Harvey, as Tommy John usual doesn’t affect pitch speed. Harvey’s approach on the mound didn’t change much either — he threw roughly the same proportion of pitches. In fact, little had changed with Harvey’s approach, but the results weren’t quite the same.

For starters, Harvey wasn’t blowing his fastball by batters as easily as he did in 2013 — the contact on his fastball rose by 4%. Looking at his heatmaps, one can see why — 2013 Harvey tended to pound the middle of the zone, but especially up and in on batters, making it more difficult for hitters to make solid contact.

Harvey’s 2013 FB placement (left) vs. 2015 FB placement (right)

In 2015, however, Harvey’s fastball spread more widely throughout the zone, meaning pitches in 2013 that would have been up and in went out and away instead— the perfect spot for hitters to make solid contact. Indeed, Harvey saw his soft contact% fall by 5% from 2013 to 2015. Harvey wasn’t hitting his spots with the pinpoint accuracy that he had been in 2013.

This holds true for almost all of his pitches — it seemed like Harvey struggled with control, especially during July. Not being able to locate pitches was why Harvey failed to replicate his insane 2.01 FIP season from 2013.

But since the velocity was still there and since Harvey was hitting his spots effectively (even if not being as pinpoint-precise as he had been in 2013), Harvey was still an effective pitcher.

Until the whole “Thoracic Outlet Syndrome” thing.

Version 3: Post-TOS Surgery Harvey

When Harvey showed up to spring training in 2017, there were plenty of questions. After all, the track record of pitchers with TOS surgery under their belts was spotty, at best.

And Harvey did little to allay those questions during spring training. Harvey’s velocity was noticeably down, and he was getting lit up as a result. Harvey cautioned patience, however, saying:

“…what I wanted to do [was] stay back and make sure I’m going through my mechanics properly and the way I wanted to and feel comfortable.”

We’re 3 games into the season now, and Harvey has put most of those fears to rest. The velocity is still noticeably down, but Harvey has compensated by throwing his slider far more frequently than he has in the past —his SL% is almost 11% higher than his 2015 figure.

Because of the decreased velocity, Harvey isn’t blowing pitches by batters as much — it’s why he’s not striking out a substantial amount of hitters. But by relying on his off speed stuff, Harvey is performing an excellent job at inducing soft contact — he’s sitting at 28.8% soft contact%, the best figure of his career.

Of course, we’re only three games in. Harvey has an unsustainable 87% LOB, and an unsustainable 18.8% HR/FB ratio. But based on what we’ve seen so far, this new version of Matt Harvey can still be productive — even with some regression.

Harvey might just be pitching to contact and not focusing on strikeouts until his velocity fully returns — which Dan Warthen, Mets pitching coach, predicts will happen sometime in May. But there’s no guarantee that Harvey’s velocity returns in full. Maybe this will be how Matt Harvey stays effective.

Harvey, once one of baseball’s most promising pitchers, has seen his career brought to the brink of ending by multiple injuries. Yet every time he’s bounced back and still been a terrific pitcher. His trademark resilience will be center stage this season — and he looks primed for another comeback.

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