A Few Warning Signs for Matt Harvey

The Baseball Gods giveth and they taketh away. For the Mets heralded young rotation, the Baseball Gods have done both in the span of only three weeks. Noah Syndergaard has rocketed to superstardom (I called it!), Jacob deGrom succumbed to a lat injury, and Steven Matz has been both fantastic and terrible in consecutive starts.

As for that other guy? And I don’t mean Bartolo Colon. We’re talking about Matt Harvey, who so far this year has 5.71 ERA and a paltry 4.67 K/9 rate after just three starts. 

It’s early, and I’m not truly alarmed yet, but there is some reason to worry at this point about Harvey. Let’s begin with his velocity, which is down. Harvey’s average velocity was 95.8 mph in 2013 and 95.9 mph in 2015, but has dipped to 94.3 mph this season.

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This alone is not reason to panic, as 94.3 mph is still very good (it ranks 12th among qualified starters). But it is reason to worry about Harvey, in particular. Some may think that is might only be a “dead arm” phase like he had last year, his velocity has never dipped to this degree. Also concerning is that his velocity trailed off within the last start itself: he averaged only 93.1 mph on the eleven fastballs he threw in the sixth inning. Stuff-wise, that’s the difference between Jose Fernandez and Michael Wacha. And not only is his average velocity down, but so is his max velocity.

Slightly diminished “stuff” is not a new story with Harvey, either, as he scuffled somewhat throughout the playoffs. He struck out only two batters in Game One of the World Series, a game in which Eno Sarris of Fangraphs observed that Harvey had “career worst stuff.” In Eno’s words, “If you average the ranks for each of his pitches Tuesday night among all of the games of his career, that game was his worst game for velocity, his second-worst game for horizontal movement, and the fourth-worst game for drop.”

This has continued this year, according to the excellent Timothy Finnegan:

He’s never had a three start stretch in his career where he struck out as few batters as he has to begin this season. He has had stretches where his ERA was even worse than it is today (from May 23-June 4, 2015, he had a 6.16 ERA over 19 innings; from September 2-September 20 he had a 5.94 ERA over 16.2 innings) although in both cases his peripherals were still very good.

As for the other metrics, they do not portend quite as much doom-and-gloom. Harvey has only an 8.3% swinging strike rate this year (compared to 11.9% career), but his batted ball stats are all pretty similar to where they have been in years past. He also seemingly hasn’t lost the “rise” on his fastball or the drop on his slider:

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Ultimately, we have to remember that the changes from Harvey 2013 to Harvey 2016 are all relative. He still throws pretty hard and his stuff is (or was) pretty good. He’s most certainly better than his 5.71 ERA would indicate so far (his 3.99 FIP may be a fairer estimate of his performance so far). But he bears watching very closely tonight and in his next few starts.