It was only one start, but Matt Harvey appears to be increasing his slider usage

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Monday April 10th, 2017

Matt Harvey made his first start since July last week, allowing two runs on three hits in 6 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking none while earning a win over the Braves. All things considered, it was a great outing for everyone with a stake in Harvey. He was far from dominant, but he was in control from the moment he took the ball. In the process, Harvey gave us a lot to work with from the perspective of breaking down the pitcher he will be after undergoing the second surgery of his career on his right arm.

Harvey threw 77 pitches in his 2017 debut. Of those 77, 36 were fastballs, 26 were sliders, 12 were changeups, and three were curveballs. Harvey’s average fastball velocity was 94.2 mph. With Statcast now in place of Pitch F/X in all 30 parks, velocity readings are taken when the ball first leaves the pitcher’s hand. That has resulted in an uptick of about one mph on all velocities from the Pitch F/X era. That means Harvey’s fastball is down two mph from last year, and three mph from 2013 and 2015. We’re not going to focus on his velocity in this column, but understand that this could be his new normal. Few pitchers are able to maintain the velocity of a pristine arm after undergoing Tommy John and thoracic outlet surgeries in a three-year window. Matt Kemp showed the difference between 94 and 97 spotted poorly with a pair of solo homers. Harvey likely will have to learn how to attack with a fastball that isn’t what it used to be, which he mostly did well against the Braves.

Velocity may be the headline-grabber, but Harvey’s pitch usage in his first start after missing three months of regular season baseball was far more interesting. Harvey entered the 2017 season with usage rates of roughly 58.7% for his fastball, 16.5% for his slider, 12.2% for his curveball, and 11.8% with his changeup. Last week against the Braves, 46.8% of his pitches were fastballs, 33.8% were sliders, 15.6% were changeups, and 3.9% were curveballs. We’re not going to make any sweeping conclusions off one start. Maybe the Mets scouting report said the Braves lineup was filled with hitters particularly susceptible to sliders, or maybe he was reluctant to unleash his best fastball in his first outing. Still, the differences in those percentages leap off the page, especially when coupled with Harvey’s dip in velocity.

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How out of character is it for Harvey to throw 26 sliders in one game? Well, in his previous 82 career starts, he had thrown at least 26 sliders four times. All of those were in his breakout 2013 campaign, before he blew out his elbow. What’s more, he threw at least 110 pitches in all four of those starts. Sliders made up one-quarter of his pitches in just two of those starts, and in neither of those did he approach the 33.8% slider usage rate he had against the Braves last week.

Clearly, Harvey’s slider usage will be something to watch early this season. If the rate remains comfortably higher than his career norm, we’ll be able to say that more sliders are part of the plan for his future. For now, however, let’s take a look at the pitch itself, as well as Harvey’s other offerings in his season debut.

Harvey broke off his first slider of the day against Matt Kemp in the second inning. It wasn’t particularly sharp, though it was spotted nicely on the outside corner.

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Harvey backed it up with another slider, and this one had a much better break to it, even though Kemp was able to easily lay off for ball one.

via GIPHY

Despite the volume of sliders, Harvey got just three whiffs with the pitch on 13 swings. Again, we’re not going to read too much into the results of one start. It was one outing on a cold night in April. Maybe he didn’t have a great feel for the pitch. The lack of empty swings remains notable, though, given that Harvey’s whiff rate with the slider through last season was 17.8%, and his whiffs per swing rate checked in at 35.2%. They were 12.5% and 23.1%, respectively, in his 2017 debut.

To be fair, that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, there are other ways to get hitters out, and Harvey found them with the slider. Of the 10 sliders the Braves contacted, they put five in play, and all went for outs. Four of those had exit velocities of 82.9 mph or lower, including three between 65.1 mph and 71.7 mph. Weak contact like that is nearly as good as a whiff and, in some instances early in the count, can be better than a whiff. Harvey also spotted the slider well, as indicated by this chart courtesy of Statcast. The pitches you see on the left side of the zone were attempts to backdoor left-handed hitters.

Only one of the sliders the Braves put in play was struck well, with Adonis Garcia hitting into some tough luck on a lineout to Curtis Granderson. As you might expect, this was one of Harvey’s worst sliders of the night, a true cement-mixer that sat up in the zone.

via GIPHY

As you can see by Harvey’s reaction after the play, he knows he got away with one.

via GIPHY

Two of those whiffs came in a strikeout of Dansby Swanson, including strike three. This was the only punchout Harvey got with his slider, and both empty swings in the bat are useful for our purposes.

I’m not in Swanson’s head, but judging by the location and break on the slider that produced his first whiff, I feel relatively comfortable positing that it was the velocity of the pitch, not its breaking nature, that got him to swing and miss. This really isn’t that tight of a slider, but Dansby appears to be sitting fastball.

via GIPHY

Strike three, however, is a different story. This was Harvey’s best slider of the night, in my opinion. From pitch selection, to his command of the offering, to the break on it, Harvey nailed this one. It also speaks to his confidence to deal with Swanson in a 3–2 count.

via GIPHY

If you’ve been hearing the faint sound of alarm bells throughout this column, then you are reading this correctly. The results were great and, as I said at the outset, this was an encouraging outing for Harvey. Yet, we have to keep an eye on his potentially changing pitch usage, as well as his velocity. If Harvey is going to be close to as slider-heavy all season as he was in his debut, the pitch will have to be much sharper. The good news, of course, is that pre-injury Harvey had a filthy slider. Based on what we saw last week, there’s reason to believe this version can throw that pitch, as well.

Pitchers to watch this week

Jameson Taillon, Pirates

Taillon was electric in his season debut, tossing seven shutout innings against the Red Sox. He allowed five hits while striking out six and walking three. The walks weren’t exactly a welcome sight, but he had a 4.1% walk rate in 104 innings last year, so we can chalk that up to variance, for the time being. He showed all four pitches in his arsenal, with his two-seamer sitting at 94-95 mph. There is a scenario in which the Pirates are a very good team, with Taillon and Tyler Glasnow at the top of the rotation. That scenario could come to fruition as soon as this year. Taillon gets two starts this week, facing the Reds on Tuesday and Cubs on Sunday.

Lance Lynn, Cardinals

Lynn made his first appearance last week since Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cubs in 2015. He missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but is once again a prominent member of the St. Louis rotation. Awaiting him in his first start were most of those same Cubs he faced the last time he was on the mound in a game that counted. It was a successful debut for Lynn, allowing two runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings, striking out four and walking one. He set down 13 of the first 14 batters he faced and kept the Cubs off the scoreboard until the fifth inning, exiting the game with the Cardinals ahead 4–1. The Cubs game back to win, but it was an encouraging outing for Lynn. He was the same pitcher he was pre-injury, relying almost entirely on a variety of fastballs while mixing speeds and locations to keep hitters off-balance It would be shocking if he weren’t an asset in all fantasy formats this season. He’ll next take the ball on Tuesday in Washington.

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Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks

Ray picked up in his 2017 debut right where he left off last season. He struck out six batters, but allowed three runs on three hits and three walks in 5 2/3 innings in what was eventually a 9–3 win for the Diamondbacks over the Giants. Ray did mostly a good job against all the righties in San Francisco’s lineup, holding them to a 2-for-15 line despite an Aaron Hill home run. Still, until he cuts his walk rate, he’s going to struggle to take full advantage of his ability to miss bats, from the standpoint of being a net-positive fantasy pitcher. As I wrote in on these pages while selling Ray during the winter and spring, I’m not a fan of a lefty who does not throw a changeup. He threw just three among his 99 pitches last week. That’s always going to be a liability against right-handed batters. He’ll make one start next week, facing the Giants again on Tuesday.

J.A. Happ, Blue Jays

Happ took a loss in his first start of the season, but there was far more good than bad in the outing. He surrendered three runs on five hits in seven innings against the Orioles, striking out nine and walking none. One facet of his game to watch is his usage of his two fastballs. Happ has always used both a four-seamer and two-seamer, with a preference for the former. In his first start of this season, however, he threw 43 two-seamers and 29 four-seamers. The two-seamer produced six of his nine whiffs and was the final pitch on four of his strikeouts. Happ has found another level since joining the Blue Jays, but he has still been just a 7.5 K/9 pitcher. If what he showed with the two-seamer against the Orioles was for real, we could see an uptick in strikeouts this year. He’ll start twice this week, taking on the Brewers on Tuesday and Orioles on Sunday.

Blake Snell, Rays

In the second and third innings of Snell’s season debut, we saw what makes him so intriguing and so maddening. In the second inning of an eventual 5–2 loss to the Blue Jays, he set down Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Justin Smoak in order, fanning the last two. In the third, however, he gave up a single to Darwin Barney, walked Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista in succession, and then surrendered a grand slam to Kendrys Morales. Snell walked five batters in 6 2/3 innings, and three of those came around to score. The 24-year-old had a 12.7% walk rate last year, issuing 51 walks in 89 innings. No matter how good his stuff, he will not be effective if he doesn’t cut that by about half. Snell’s next start is Tuesday against the Yankees in New York.

Two-start pitchers

Chris Sale
Jon Lester
Jacob deGrom
Carlos Carrasco
Justin Verlander
Matt Harvey
Cole Hamels
J.A. Happ
Adam Wainwright
Dylan Bundy
Jameson Taillon
Taijuan Walker
James Paxton
Alex Cobb
Tyler Glasnow
Brandon Finnegan
Drew Pomeranz
Matt Moore
Michael Pineda
Jeff Samardzija
Tanner Roark
Charlie Morton
Ian Kennedy
Jerad Eickhoff
Gio Gonzalez
Jharel Cotton
Tyler Chatwood
Hector Santiago
James Shields
Matt Boyd
Wily Peralta
Dan Straily
Antonio Senzatela
Rookie Davis

GIF of the Week

Lance McCullers is off to a great start early on in 2017, striking out 16 batters in his first 12 1/3 innings. Ten of those came in his second start on Sunday, an eventual 5–4 Astros win in which McCullers took a no-decision. He didn’t get the win, but he did his part, as we can see in rapid succession thanks to the video wizards at MLB.com. McCullers’s first five strikeouts of the game are in the first GIF. His next five are in the second.

via GIPHY

via GIPHY

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