No bad guys in Matt Harvey saga, yet another flashpoint in pitcher usage

There's no one to blame in the Matt Harvey saga, but he and agent Scott Boras now must come up with a plan that doesn't sink the Mets in their first real pennant race in seven years.
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The beginning of the end for Matt Harvey starts tonight. Thanks to the media blitz of his agent, Scott Boras, every inning thrown by the Mets' righthander puts him famously closer to an imaginary finish line of 180 innings, after which, as Boras put it, the Mets “are obviously putting the player in peril.”

The common sense outcome after three days of made-for-tabloid nonsense—Harvey likely will miss one or two more starts and he will pitch in the postseason, though he could be shut down at any time thereafter—should have been arranged in private conversations involving New York general manager Sandy Alderson, Boras and Dr. James Andrews, the surgeon who performed the Tommy John operation on Harvey’s elbow on Oct. 22, 2013. Boras either underestimated the angst of Mets fans or didn’t care, as they sweat out their first meaningful September in seven years. He put his client in a box of saying nothing awkwardly (Saturday), of promising he will pitch in the postseason (Sunday) and of defying his agent and doctor (as soon as he throws that perilous 181st inning).

(Harvey’s innings cap has hardly been a secret; New York pitching coach Dan Warthen told me for an SI story two months ago that the team planned for Harvey to throw “in the 190 to 195” range. Where was the alarm then? And is 180 such a magic number that 190 is perilous?)

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It’s not that Boras doesn’t have a legitimate concern: Harvey deserves start-by-start caution at this point. It was the public nature of the dispute that harmed the Mets' ace. Tonight, he takes the ball in Washington for the biggest start of his career, and the first in which a previously smitten fan base splintered on him, some thinking they have now seen the dark side of The Dark Knight.

“Matt cares what people think,” said one team source. “I think it shook him up—caught him off guard. It will be very interesting to see how he handles this. He’s either going to channel all of this into a monster game, or it’s going to throw him off and he won’t be sharp—and probably nothing in between.”

Harvey can mitigate much of the fallout from L’Affaire 180 simply by beating the Nationals. He can send Washington to six games out with 24 to play and give the Mets the kind of cushion where skipping him twice more isn’t so hazardous.

The most likely scenario is that Harvey makes three more regular-season starts: tonight in Washington, one of the three games against the Yankees (Sept. 18–20), and one of the three games against the Nationals to close the season. The last start, if the Nats are eliminated, could simply be a truncated tune-up. That scenario would put Harvey around 185 innings and allow him eight to 10 days of rest before taking the ball for Game 2 or 3 of the NLDS.

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And what happens after Harvey fulfills his promise to pitch in the postseason at least once? Who knows? It’s guesswork to map out his pitching schedule four weeks from now when he’s sitting at around 190 innings. As Boras said, Harvey would be in unchartered water, and there is no predicting how his arm and body would feel at that point.

“He’s not going to be shut down for two or three weeks [this month],” the source said. “You can’t do that and then ramp him back up to get him ready to start again [in the postseason]. And you’re not going to ask someone who never has pitched in relief to all of a sudden pitch in relief.”

Meanwhile, the Nats proved again Monday they are a team that cannot be trusted to make meaningful that last series of the regular season. Washington had a 5–3 lead in the fifth inning at home with Max Scherzer on the mound and lost the game, 8–5. The Nats have lost four straight games to New York by three runs or less without manager Matt Williams using his two best relievers, Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon.

This one was not so much about Williams as it was an oil-leaking Scherzer (seven straight winless starts with a 6.08 ERA), more dreadful matchup relief (in the seventh, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton all failed in succession with the platoon advantage in their favor), more poor play by the fourth-worst defense in the league (third baseman Yunel Escobar was late to cutoff position on a tie-breaking hit to centerfield in which Washington should have had a play at the plate; Janssen, not bothering to back up home, also gummed up the middle of the diamond) and more poor hitting, especially with strikeouts, in high-leverage spots (only the Reds have hit worse this season than Washington’s .231 in high leverage at-bats). If you missed the first 137 games, don’t worry: This game stood as the Cliff Notes version of the Nationals’ season.

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At this rate, the Mets won’t have to lean so heavily on Harvey. Boras should be concerned about the potential innings of Harvey, but to this point the team has done a superb job handling him with caution, which includes essentially telling Harvey to pipe down when he wanted to pitch at the end of last season and when he chafed against a six-man rotation earlier this season. The Nationals pitched Strasburg on extra rest only 14 times in 28 starts before he was shut down by a playoff-bound team in 2012; the Mets will have provided Harvey with extra rest in 18 of his possible 28 starts, making the postseason at least an option.

Boras complicated the public tempest with his “research.” He pointed out that no Tommy John patient has gone from zero innings one season to 200 the next, but added fine-print qualifiers: He considered only pitchers in the past 10 years who never had reached 200 innings previously—which eliminated Tommy John, Jake Westbrook, Adam Wainwright and John Lackey, as well as all young pitchers who threw a partial season, even if one inning, in their return season.

Boras also used the Nationals’ handling of a post-surgical Strasburg, another of his clients, as the preferred template of how the Mets would handle Harvey. But the cases are too dissimilar. Strasburg was back pitching in a pro game only 11 months after his 2010 surgery and threw a total of 203 2/3 innings within 24 months of his surgery. Harvey has thrown 166 1/3 innings within 23 months of his surgery, which included a 17-month break.

Moreover, the Nationals increased Strasburg’s innings by 27% over his previous high—near an industry standard—before shutting him down in 2012. Boras said Andrews has recommended that Harvey increase his innings by no more than five outs, or 1%.

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Finally, Boras mentioned Josh Johnson, Shaun Marcum, Kris Medlen and Jarrod Parker as cautionary tales of ramping up innings too fast for a Tommy John patient. But again, each case has so many variables it’s difficult to apply direct comparisons to Harvey. For instance, Johnson rushed back in 11 months at age 23; ​Marcum, a “late loader,” pitched with a serious mechanical flaw; Medlen is a 5'10" righthander, of which only one in the past 17 years has thrown 200 innings (Mike Leake); and Parker underwent surgery at age 20. Harvey, meanwhile, is a 26-year-old brick house (about 240 pounds) who took off more than 1 1/2 years from competitive pitching. The risk is not that Medlen broke down again; it’s that nobody knows where Harvey is headed.

We know that the two greatest injury risks for any pitcher are fatigue and poor mechanics. Harvey’s mechanics are a bit quirky, if not risky, because he uses such a long arm swing. The good news for New York is that Harvey does not appear fatigued the way Strasburg did when he was shut down in 2012. Harvey in his past seven starts is 4–0 with a 1.50 ERA while slightly improving his already high rate of strikes. (His four-seam velocity has dipped slightly in four of his past five starts, though that appears to be a strategic move designed to reduce his max-effort pitches.)

In 2012, Strasburg’s “check engine” light went on. His four-seam velocity dipped in each of his final three months. He pitched to a 4.29 ERA in his final eight starts, threw fewer strikes (61%, down from 64%) and obtained only one swing and miss on 47 fastballs in his final start.

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Today, everybody is a sloppy casting director. A controversy pops up, and immediately we assign the parties to the “good guy” or “bad guy” characterization. Except there are no bad guys here. Boras is looking after his client, the Mets are looking after a pitcher they have under control for this and three more seasons, and Harvey has to look after his health and his tremendous earnings potential. If they have arrived at a reasonable compromise, the only regret should be that they took the issue far too public.

If nothing else, though, we have arrived at another flashpoint in baseball’s greatest enduring mystery: How do you keep pitchers healthy? The 1980 Oakland Athletics of manager Billy Martin provided one flashpoint. Martin is the only manager in the past 60 years to allow five starters to throw at least 10 complete games each. When his young pitchers broke down, no manager wanted to risk the same blame Martin endured, so clubs cut back starters’ innings.

The 2003 Cubs of manager Dusty Baker triggered another flashpoint. When young aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood broke down, people blamed their pitch counts—never mind Prior’s poor mechanics and Wood’s violent slider—which promulgated the “saving bullets” theory of pitching and the emphasis on throwing fewer pitches, not just innings. The Strasburg shutdown of 2012 was another flashpoint because it popularized the use of innings caps for all young starters, especially Tommy John patients.

L’Affaire 180 may be another flashpoint if this means the club no longer has full control over when and how much a pitcher pitches. The agent, the player and, at least by Boras’ proxy, the player’s surgeon all have been heard.