PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 26: Matt Harvey had an okay debut. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Back when the Mets drafted Matt Harvey in 2009, I wasn't a fan. Harvey was primarily seen as a power sinkerballer, and few doubted the quality of that fastball. However, Harvey's command and offspeed arsenal drew subpar marks from many evaluators, which caused me to view him rather coolly. I wasn't sure I saw any pitch that would help Harvey rack up strikeouts, and sinkerballers without the command required to pound the bottom of the strike zone have poor track records. Some even liked him better as a reliever.
However, if Thursday night was any indication, Harvey appears to have come a long way from the questionable prospect I saw him as in college. Here's how he's changed.
The breaking balls looked much, much better. When Harvey was in high school, scouts loved his curve, which needed tighter rotation, but when it was on it was a power curve with excellent 11-to-5 break. In college he wandered away from that, opting to use a slider as his primary weapon. Scouts weren't enthused with the pitch. Considering his arm slot, which is very conducive to a curve, I figured the Mets would immediately try and reinstate the curve's prominence in his arsenal.
Thankfully, they didn't, and both breaking balls are better for it. When I saw Harvey pitch for Buffalo a couple weeks ago, I thought the slider was definitely the better pitch, something that surprised me. Two nights ago, the slider wasn't just clearly the better pitch, it was a plus pitch, thrown around 90 with more depth than I've ever seen out of it. It was flat-out unfair when thrown to righties, and even lefties were struggling with it. And while I will often moan over pitchers throwing too many different types of breaking balls when one is clearly better than the rest, it works for Harvey, who appears to struggle spotting the slider to his arm side. Instead, he turned to the curve, and he impressively backdoored a couple to lefthanded hitters. Judging from what I saw last night, the slider would grade out as a plus pitch, the curve as an above average one.I think I was the only guy more surprised than the Diamondbacks Thursday night.
The changeup wasn't half bad either. It's clearly his worst pitch in my eyes, and he doesn't trust it like he trusts the other pitches. His first couple were quite ordinary. However, after that he threw a brilliant one against Ryan Wheeler, demonstrating both bite and fade. Wheeler stood no chance against the pitch. I don't think he quite equaled the pitch again that night, but he still managed to throw a couple of nice ones. It's more than just a show me pitch, and it will do wonders to keep lefties honest.
He's showed a lot more variety with his fastball than I was expecting. I knew Harvey would throw hard, even if I didn't quite expect him to touch 98 throughout the first three innings. What surprised me is how he's evolved as a pitcher who lives off his fastball. He was originally seen as a guy whose best weapon was a heavy fastball that lived 92-95 down in the zone. What we saw Thursday night was a guy who was willing to climb the ladder, could paint the outside corner, and could mix in the two-seamer to great effect. He didn't pitch like a sinkerballer, which is more or less what I was anticipating. Instead, he pitched like a traditional power pitcher, someone who could throw a 98-mile-per-hour pitch at shoulder level with two strikes and induce the whiff. The pitch still has much more life at lower velocities and when thrown belt-level or lower, but it's nice to see him as more than a one-note guy.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that I thought the pitch-calling was outstanding. Yes, it was fastball-heavy, but when your fastball is as good as Harvey's, it's not a problem. Rob Johnson deserves quite a bit of credit. He knew his pitcher and knew what he was capable of.
It wasn't all roses. Harvey still needs to work on his command, especially as he begins to tire out. In the fifth and sixth innings, it had clearly begun to deteriorate. I'm still a little worried about his arm action and his longterm health, but that's very much a secondary concern. But what I'd like to stress most about Harvey's performance is this: It wasn't necessarily characteristic with what we know about Harvey thus far. For Buffalo, Harvey rarely looked this dominant, even if he did pitch well. Had this Harvey been around all season for Buffalo, far fewer people would be talking about Zack Wheeler. Temper your expectations. Many pitchers can look fantastic for a start or two. Consider this: Keeping in mind that I missed Doc Gooden when he was the best pitcher on the planet, the best curveball I've seen thrown from the hand of a Met didn't belong to any of the great pitchers to have pitched for the team. It was thrown by Dave Mlicki. I used to wonder why Mlicki wasn't better, with a low-90s fastball and a true hammer curve that could buckle knees. And when you think back to, say, that 1997 game against the Yankees, it was very apparent that Mlicki could be dominant. But he didn't have the consistency required to show the same stuff from start-to-start. That is Harvey's real test.