Matt Harvey explains why he wants to return to Mets this year
Matt Harvey of the New York Mets, the 2.0 version, promised me he will be a slightly different pitcher when he comes back from Tommy John surgery. He said he will pitch at a heavier weight -- no more nude photo shoots with this body, he said -- and he will swear off his infamous bullpen sessions between starts, when he would throw just as intensely as if he were in a game.
But what really caught my attention when we spoke one-on-one last Thursday at Citi Field was when Harvey told me he wants to pitch in the major leagues again as soon as August. That would be just 10 months after he underwent Tommy John surgery last Oct. 22. I pointed out to him that his own doctor who performed the operation, Dr. James Andrews, has pegged the average time between Tommy John surgery and full return at 11.6 months.
"Of course, I won't do it unless I'm cleared to do it," he said, "but I want to pitch before the year ends. I want to make five, six, seven starts this year. I asked [the training staff], 'If I want to come back in August, when do I need to start throwing off a mound?' They said June 10. So that's what we have penciled in right now. That's the plan.
"I feel great. I don't feel any soreness now. The ball is coming out of my hand great."
I asked him why it was so important for him to pitch again this year, a timetable that would put him ahead of Andrews' average schedule for a team that is on pace to lose 87 games for what would be the franchise's sixth straight losing season.
"I just want the peace of mind," he said. "I want to go back out there and know I still have the stuff to strike out major league hitters. And I want to know that when I shut it down at the end of the year, I'm just like everybody else shutting it down. I don't want to go through all this work and wonder all winter where I am. I want to be just like everybody else when this season ends and the next one starts."
Harvey's tenacity is admirable, but when he pitches again ultimately will be left up to the Mets. Is a 10-month return wise? Think of it as a movable target. Every pitcher, every elbow, even every surgery is different. Andrews, for instance, took a tendon from Harvey's wrist that was so long and flexible that the doctor wrapped it around his torn ulnar collateral ligament three times. Most such procedures involve wrapping the tendon around the compromised UCL just one or two times.
"Tommy John surgery used to be thought of as having a 12- to 18-month recovery," said Stan Conte, vice president of medical services for the Dodgers. "Now we're seeing people talk about it like it's nine to 12 months. It's like a race to see who can return quicker. I'm not sure that's a good thing."
Edinson Volquez made one of the quickest returns from Tommy John surgery. He had his operation on Aug. 3, 2009 and was pitching again in the major leagues on July 17, 2010 -- slightly more than 11 months -- in part because the Reds wanted him to contribute to a pennant race. Volquez, now with the Pirates, hasn't been quite the same pitcher since the surgery (30-37, 4.97 ERA in 106 games) as he was before it (24-19, 4.37 in 62 games).
Whenever Harvey does come back, he said he would apply the lessons he has learned from this breakdown. For instance, he worked hard in recent years to get himself in top physical shape. He proudly displayed his lean physique in the body issue of ESPN The Magazine. He began last year at 230 pounds and was down to 220 pounds by the time his elbow gave out.
While rehabbing the elbow injury, though, Harvey realized he felt better and was in better pitching shape when he carried more weight. "Like a Roger Clemens," he said. He intends to pitch at 240 pounds, 20 more than the last time we saw him on the mound.
"It's funny, but when I was leaner I would have some soreness in my body after I pitched," he said. "Now, being heavier, I feel great. After I do my work there's no soreness at all."
Harvey also said another big change he will make is to temper those intense bullpen sessions. As Mets manager Terry Collins said, "He only knows one way: all out. When he was first cleared to play catch this spring, we had to go, 'Wait a second! Aren't those throws supposed to have a little hump in them?' He doesn't know any other way."
Said Harvey, "I used to throw in the bullpen like it was a game. Really, it would be just like I was facing a hitter trying to strike him out: fastball on the corner, curveball for a strike, bounce a curveball to see if I can get a chase, and then at 1-and-2 ... here it comes! My best fastball upstairs, 97-98 [mph]. I'd be breaking off hard sliders. I realize I don't need to do that now. My fastball is going to be there. My slider is going to be there. I don't need to throw it with max effort in between starts to keep it."
Research presented in January by Conte found that 25 percent of all major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. The percentage is only going up. The proliferation of such surgeries has been one of the biggest stories of this baseball season. We are losing some of the best, most exciting young pitchers of this generation. Four of the six youngest pitchers at last season's All-Star Game are now shut down because of Tommy John surgery: Harvey, Patrick Corbin, Jose Fernandez and Matt Moore.
Will they be the same again? The answer is most likely yes. Andrews has identified the rate of successful returns at 83 percent, which sounds great -- unless you realize that it also means one out of every six Tommy John patients do not return to the same level of pitching. It's way past time to realize there are real risks associated with the surgery, including a new one: since pitchers are getting the surgery at an earlier age, they face a greater possibility of needing a second Tommy John surgery before they turn 30.
Tommy John surgery has become so common -- while the failures have gone underreported -- that people have been lulled into a false sense of security about it. Contrary to popular myth, pitchers do not throw harder because of the surgery. (A study of 32 pitchers from 2007-12 by Conte found that average velocity actually decreased by 0.79 mph. If pitchers do throw harder, it's because their elbows were compromised before the injury and that they strengthen their core and shoulder during the rehab process when they are unable to throw.) Yet the mythology about the surgery is so skewed that a survey conducted by MLB physicians found that 37 percent of parents and 51 percent of high school players believe pitchers should undergo Tommy John surgery even if they did not have an elbow injury -- in other words, surgery as a performance enhancer on healthy arms. Crazy.
"I'm not saying I have a super ligament and I'm going to come back and throw 105 mph," Harvey said. "But I expect to be the same kind of pitcher. I expect to throw the same way I have my whole life."
The Mets, plagued by a .229 average and too many strikeouts, were not one of the more intriguing teams of the first quarter of the season. But with Harvey bound and determined to come back this year, they just might be one of the more interesting teams to watch in the final quarter.
Debate continues over lowering the mound
Here's an update on my suggestion last week that baseball consider lowering the mound to keep pitchers healthier and also to slow the trend of how the advancements in run prevention (specialized bullpens, increased velocity, shifts, etc.) are turning baseball into a sport with longer games and less action. It turns out not even the biomechanical experts can agree that a lower mound reduces force on a pitcher's arm.
"It's not true," said Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute. "When you throw as hard as you can on flat ground you have the same force on the elbow. That's not the solution. The solution is less pitching."
A study published in March in The American Journal of Sports Medicine and conducted by doctors at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles found that "flat-ground throwing at even the shortest distances had similar biomechanical loads compared with pitching from the mound." That study confirmed similar findings in March 2011 by Dr. James Andrews, Fleisig and biomechanists at ASMI.
But Tom House, the former major league pitcher who relies heavily on biomechanics in his coaching, disagreed with Fleisig. It was House, with backing from Mets physician David Alchek, who said in an MLB Network roundtable discussion that lowering the mound reduces the force on the pitcher.
House said by e-mail that his data was based on high speed, 3D motion analysis on more than one thousand professional and amateur pitchers. House said his data shows that a slope increases the external rotation and that "ground force production" down a mound is greater than on flat ground.
"His measurable aren't all wrong, just not quite right," House wrote.
Is it any wonder we have a hard time keeping pitchers healthy? Here's the one observation most people do agree on: young pitchers are throwing too much, too hard, too soon for their ligaments to withstand the stress.
"We've done good stuff in training people well," Fleisig said. "Now there's a negative side. In strengthening the muscles and bone, the ligaments aren't ready to go along on the ride.
"The two things with Jose Fernandez and young pitchers like him are that they were throwing 95 in high school and they have had 10 years of competitive pitching. That's what has changed. When Jim Kaat and John Smoltz were that age, they threw a lot, but they maybe played other positions and weren't always pitching. Kids can play catch a lot. They really should be playing other positions and other sports, not just pitching. There has got to be less competitive pitching."