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Watch: Predicting which teams will make the MLB playoffs
Saturday September 5th, 2015

Whatever Matt Harvey’s innings limit may be, if the Mets make the playoffs, Harvey will pitch in them. That’s the latest word from the pitcher in a seemingly endless barrage of contradictory information regarding the right-hander’s innings limit in this, his first season following October 2013 Tommy John surgery. Two days after the conflict between the Mets and Harvey’s agent Scott Boras over what Boras claims is a hard 180-inning limit handed down by Dr. James Andrews became public, and one day after Harvey sounded as though he was going to shut himself down with or without the team’s approval, Harvey released a statement on Sunday via The Players’ Tribune titled “I Will Pitch in the Playoffs.”

Harvey didn’t necessarily back of the 180-innings limit in his statement, but wrote that, “my agent, my doctor, [general manager] Sandy [Alderson] and the entire Mets organization ... [are] all on the same page. Together, we are coming up with a plan to reach an innings limit during the season. It will be a compromise between the doctors and the Mets organization to get me, and the team, to where we need to be for our postseason run.”

On Saturday, Harvey echoed Boras’s hardline stance on the 180-inning cap, saying, “Dr. Andrews said his limit was 180 ... I hired Scott as my agent and went to Dr. Andrews as my surgeon because I trusted them to keep my career going and keep me healthy.” Asked if he would pitch in the postseason, Harvey offered no direct comment, saying only that he was focused on his next scheduled start against the Nationals on Tuesday.

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Harvey has thrown 166 1/3 innings thus far this season. With the Mets planning to skip him once more in their rotation, he is due to make four more starts during the regular season. Based on his season average of 6 2/3 innings pitched per start, that would put him at 193 innings at the conclusion of the regular season, before adding any postseason innings. With the Mets given an 88.3% of winning the NL East by Baseball Prospectus’s calculations heading into Sunday’s action, it seems likely that Harvey would be called upon to make at least one postseason start and thus stands an excellent chance of exceeding 200 innings on the year without further adjustments to his workload.

According to comments by Mets general manager Sandy Alderson in a report by CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman published on Friday, Boras first reached out to the Mets about the 180-inning limit one week ago, on Aug. 29. It has since come to light that there is significant disagreement between Boras and the Mets as to where Harvey’s innings limit lays. Per FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, who spoke with Alderson earlier on Saturday, the Mets believe that there is no hard limit and that they are acting on Andrews’ advice by monitoring and managing Harvey’s workloads and fatigue while trying not to disrupt his rhythm by giving him too long of a layoff between pitching appearances. Rosenthal cited three rival general managers saying that Andrews does not prescribe hard limits and, per one, “always says to watch and go on a case by case.”

For his part, Andrews refused to take sides in the disagreement when reached for comment by The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner on Friday, saying only, “They both know what I’ve said, and I don’t want to get into it. The main thing is to do what’s best for Matt’s career. He really wants to play, and they’re in the playoffs. But it’s their problem.”

It seems clear now, from Harvey’s comments, that Andrews did indeed recommend a hard-180 innings, a total based on his previous career high of 178 1/3, set in 2013. What we don’t know, and likely never will know, no matter what course Harvey’s career takes from this moment forward, is how letting Harvey pitch past his previous high in innings pitched could impact the health of his pitching arm. Nor will we ever know for sure how limiting Harvey to 180 innings, or 160, as Boras claimed another doctor suggested, might change things.

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Of course, even Andrews doesn’t really know what the actual limit should be. Even given the many near-miraculous advancements made, including ligament-replacement surgery itself, the rehabilitation of arm injuries suffered by pitchers is simply not that exact a science. That’s in part because no two arms, no two injuries, and no two surgeries are exactly alike. Per Rosenthal, the Mets are quick to point out that no two doctors seem to agree on where the limit should be, with Dodgers team physician Dr. Neal El Attrache, the other doctor cited by Boras, and Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek each suggesting differing totals. Even the foremost experts in this field cannot be 100% sure what the right answer is, and it’s entirely possible that there is no right answer.

For the Mets, the answer was to allow Harvey to pitch, within reason, until they have a good reason not to. That good reason being either evidence of difficulty on Harvey’s part or a lack of games remaining to be played. For Harvey, he may have a good reason to observe the 180 innings limit based on how he feels physically, but if he does, he has yet to share it, and in fact said on Saturday that he feels great. As a result, his comments on Saturday came as a shock, with many describing Harvey’s apparent decision as a “heel turn.” Alderson told Newsday’s David Lennon after Harvey’s comments on Saturday that it was ultimately the pitchers decision and that he intended to speak to Harvey about the subject in Washington on Monday, as Alderson is not with the team in Miami.

It’s worth noting here that the Mets have been careful with Harvey this season. He has thrown 110 pitches in a game just once all year, that coming back in late June when he threw 115 in a 1–0 loss to the Braves. He didn’t thrown more than 103 pitches in a start since the calendar flipped to August, and he was skipped in the rotation after breaking 100 pitches for the first time that month. His next start, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 8, against the Nationals in Washington, will come on an extra day’s rest, and the team intended to skip him one more time this month while using rookie Steven Matz as a sixth starter to increase his recovery time after each start.

Of course, that six-man rotation wasn’t only for Harvey’s benefit. Indeed, the Mets’ innings concerns extend beyond their 26-year-old stud. Rookie Noah Syndergaard, who turned 23 last Saturday, has already thrown 152 innings this year (122 1/3 in the majors on top of 29 2/3 in the minors), 19 more than his previous career high of 133, and sophomore Jacob deGrom, their ace this season, has thrown 169 innings after a career high of 178 2/3 last year. Given that he’s already 27, past the crucial age of 25 believed to be the high end of the injury nexus for young pitchers, deGrom, who is still 9 2/3 innings shy of his previous high, isn’t a high-level concern, but he still bears watching. Syndergaard, however, is both well within that injury nexus and already well beyond his previous career high.

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Studies have shown that there’s little evidence to support using 30 innings as a maximum increase for young pitchers, but it’s still considered an industry guideline, and Syndergaard, who has averaged more than six innings per start on the season and is likely to make four more starts during the regular season, is going to blow past that figure. Syndergaard is being skipped in the Mets’ rotation this weekend, with Matz taking his turn on Sunday. However, even if the Mets skip him one more time later in the month, he’ll still make three more starts this season, which project to an additional 18 innings, putting him 37 past his previous career total, and that’s before adding on any addition postseason work.

The trouble, of course, is that after deGrom, Harvey and Syndergaard are the Mets’ two best starting pitchers, and that the Mets’ hopes of a deep playoff this season run hinge on the arms of the very pitchers who could be most harmed by such a run.

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The cautionary tale often cited here is that of the Nationals and fellow Boras client Stephen Strasburg. In 2012, Strasburg’s first full season after returning from Tommy John surgery, the Nationals were in a very similar position to the Mets. They were headed to the postseason but one of their best pitchers was on an innings limit that was going to kick in before the playoffs. The Nationals shut down Strasburg after 159 1/3 innings that season, lost to the Cardinals in the Division series, and have been roundly lambasted for the decision ever since. To use that example to inform the conversation about Harvey, however, is to get a lot of things wrong.

To begin with, Strasburg was in his age 23 season and just a month and a half past his 24th birthday when the Nationals shut him down in 2012. Harvey turned 26 before the 2015 season began. Strasburg had his surgery in September 2010, but returned late in the 2011 season, giving him 12 months (and three days, to be exact) between his surgery date and his return to the major league rotation. Harvey had his surgery in October 2013 and didn’t return until this season, giving him an additional five months of recovery and rehabilitation before he was pitching in actual major league games. Harvey has also retained more of his pre-surgery velocity. Harvey’s average fastball was 96.96 mph in 2013, per BrooksBaseball.net, and was 95.78 mph in his cup of coffee in 2012. Thus far this year it has been 96.69 mph. Strasburg, meanwhile, averaged 97.88 mph on his fastball in 2010, but just 96.69 after his return in late 2011 and the same (96.70) in 2012.

That all might seem like nitpicking to some, but those are important differences between the two pitchers. Beyond that, there are the actual circumstances of the end of the Nationals’ 2012 season. Too often I hear or read that the Nationals’ early exit in the 2012 playoffs was due to the lack of Strasburg. This ignores the fact that the Nationals won the game started by Strasburg’s ostensible replacement, Ross Detwiler, and had a 7–5 lead with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 of their division series against St. Louis. They were one strike away from advancing without Strasburg and it took an epic collapse/comeback to end their postseason. Having Stephen Strasburg in the rotation wouldn’t have prevented Drew Storen from blowing that lead with two strikes on Yadier Molina, nor would it have enabled the Nats to come back against Jason Motte in the bottom of that inning.

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Then there’s the fact that two of Strasburg’s last three starts before he was shut down were disasters in which he allowed more runs than innings pitched. Strasburg posted a 6.43 ERA in his last three starts before being shut down and a 4.14 ERA in his last 10, comprising all but one of his starts in the second half of that season. The Nationals didn’t shut down the Stephen Strasburg that made that year’s All-Star team, they shut down a fatigued Stephen Strasburg whose performance and velocity were declining. It was a much easier decision for the Nationals than anyone outside of the organization was willing to admit.

Harvey, by comparison, has a 1.66 ERA over his last 13 starts and just two starts ago was averaging 97.59 mph on his fastball. Strasburg, who you’ll recall threw exactly as hard on average in 2012 as Harvey has this year, didn’t reach 97 mph with his average fastball in any of his starts after July 10 of that year. This is not the same situation. That said, if Harvey does being to show the signs of fatigue that Strasburg was showing in 2012, the Mets should shut him down, as they’d be unlikely to benefit much from his continued participation. The same goes for Syndergaard.

In fact, Syndergaard might be the source of greater concern here. Though he averaged 99 mph on his fastball two starts ago, he has posted a 5.53 ERA over his last five starts after pitching to a 2.66 mark through his first 15, allowed nine home runs in August after allowing just six in 14 starts over the previous three months, and has seen his strikeout-to-walk ratio shrink, as well. It will be interesting to see how Syndergaard responds to having his start skipped this weekend given that he has had no more than six day’s rest going into any of his first 20 major league starts and threw 111 pitches in his last turn, the second-highest total of his young career. The extra time off could be exactly what he needed, or it could be too little, too late. Either way, the Mets’ could very well find themselves without both Harvey and Syndergaard in the postseason, the absence of the former having further repercussions by eliminating the possibility of a six-man rotation down the stretch.

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