Mets’ Matt Harvey still valuable despite middle-inning struggles
The Mets rotation is third in the majors in ERA (2.86), first in FIP (2.72) and first in xFIP (3.19). They’re fifth in strikeout rate (23.1%), first in walk rate (5.2%) and have allowed the fewest homers. They lead the league in fWAR (5.5) by a comfortable margin over the second-place Nationals (4.8). None of this is surprising.
What is surprising, however, is the source of that production. Or, more accurately, the one guy who isn’t doing his job. Noah Syndergaard leads the team with 1.7 fWAR. Steven Matz is second with an even 1.0, and Jacob deGrom and Bartolo Colon are right behind him at 0.9. Bringing up the rear is Matt Harvey, whose 0.6 fWAR puts him on par with Rubby De La Rosa and Nathan Eovaldi. No offense to those pitchers, but Harvey’s not supposed to be slumming it in their neighborhood.
Harvey has made seven starts covering 40 innings this season. He has a 4.50 ERA, and while his FIP is down at 3.70, it’s hard to say with a straight face that he has been unlucky. Harvey has a 1.48 WHIP and 35 strikeouts against 13 walks. His strikeout rate is down six percentage points from his career average, while his walk rate is up nearly two full percentage points. He’s allowing more base runners, hard contact and home runs, while getting fewer whiffs, than ever before. Harvey is earning his poor performance.
What’s interesting is that the first two times through an order, Harvey has been exactly the pitcher you’d expect him to be. In innings one through three, Harvey has allowed a .218/.244/.308 slash line. Hitters have managed a .237/.274/.339 line in their first plate appearance, and .211/.242/.351 triple slash in their second trip to the plate.
Everything changes that third time through the order. Hitters have racked up an even .500 batting average (20-for-40) with a .583 OBP and .650 slugging percentage in their third plate appearance against Harvey this year. In innings four through six, Harvey has allowed a .372/.444/.538 slash line. From pitches 51 through the end of Harvey’s day, that slash against sits at .391/.457/.580. Basically, once Harvey crosses the 50-pitch mark this season, every hitter he faces is Bryce Harper.
This looks like a pretty obvious case of fatigue getting the better of Harvey when he gets into the middle of a game. Fatigue in a pitcher manifests itself in two distinct ways. First, a pitcher’s velocity will dip, simply because he just doesn’t have as much strength in his arm as he did at the start of his day. Second, as a pitcher tires, he will lose the finer points of his mechanics, which will have an adverse effect on his command. The data tell us that both of those issues are plaguing Harvey.
Let’s begin with the velocity. This one is pretty cut and dried. The fine folks at Brooks Baseball track velocity by inning, and Harvey’s fastball chart tells a stark tale.
Harvey’s fastball starts at 95-96 mph and lives there for the first four innings. It then loses about a full mph in the fifth and sixth. Now, any major league hitter will tell you that 94.4 mph is still hard to square up, but it’s easier than 95.5. And when a pitcher is dependent on an overpowering fastball, as Harvey is, he needs every tenth of a mile per hour that he can get.
Time to turn our attention to Harvey’s command, and this, too, is most important with respect to the fastball. Harvey has done a good job living at the bottom of or beneath the zone with his changeup, slider and curveball. A pitcher needs to challenge in the zone with the fastball, however, and Harvey does a good job of that early in the game. Once he gets into the fourth, however, the pitch starts to enter the zone in dangerous areas.
We can look at this from both north-south and east-west perspectives. Hitters typically love fastballs that are either belt high or on the inner-third. Harvey is putting too many pitches in those respective wheelhouses as the game progresses. The first chart below is vertical location, and the second is horizontal. The vertical one should be self-explanatory. In the horizontal one, the higher the line, the farther outside a pitch is.
What these charts tell us is that as Harvey gets deeper into games, his fastball loses some velocity and tends to be higher and farther inside. Those are all bad traits, and certainly help to explain Harvey’s struggles once he gets beyond the 50-pitch mark.
Any time a pitcher’s command starts to unravel, you always want to look for a mechanical cause. We may have found one in his start last weekend against the Padres.
That outing was Harvey’s best of the season. He struck out 10 batters in six innings, allowing two runs on four hits and two walks while earning his third win of the season. Harvey was absolutely electric through the first four innings of the game. He retired 11 of the first 13 batters he faced, seven of which on strikeouts. One of those was of Jon Jay to start the game. Here’s a look at strike three, a fastball Harvey blew by Jay.
Harvey ran into trouble, as he so often has this season, in the fifth inning. After getting Mevin Upton to fly out leading off the inning, he allowed a single to Alexei Ramirez and a two-run homer to Christian Bethancourt. The pitch is a belt-high 93 mph fastball that sails over the inner-third. Basically, it’s a perfect representation of the pitch that has been getting Harvey in trouble this season.
In GIF form, it’s hard to see if there’s anything different mechanically from the first inning to the fifth inning. The following screenshots, however, just might give us a glimpse into what’s happening wit Harvey.
Notice in the first one, from the strikeout of Jay, how Harvey is basically straight up and down as he prepares to deliver the pitch? Compare that with his posture on the Bethancourt home run. Harvey almost looks like he’s about to sit down in a chair. You can also see that his front shoulder has already started to open in the second screenshot, whereas he’s closed in the first one. That’s a surefire way for a pitcher to lose command and deliver a pitch higher and farther to his arm side than he wants. This is the final piece of evidence we need for confirmation. In-game fatigue is getting the better of Harvey.
From a fantasy perspective, there’s no easy answer with respect to how Harvey projects for the rest of the year. Fatigue was never a major issue previously in his career, so it could just be something he’s working through. He has dominated hitters early in games, with excellent whiff rates for his fastball, changeup and slider through the first three innings. Looking at the entire picture, there’s more good than bad here. With Harvey’s cosmetic numbers looking ugly six weeks into the season, his owner could be willing to sell. If that’s the case in your league, it’s an opportunity you can exploit.