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Is Matt Harvey Really A Better Choice Than Collin McHugh?

July 24, 2012; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets rookie pitcher Matt Harvey (33) during warmups before a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field.
July 24, 2012; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets rookie pitcher Matt Harvey (33) during warmups before a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field.

Thursday will mark the beginning of the Matt Harvey era for the New York Mets, an exciting time, no doubt, as the big league debut of a club's top prospect often is. It's even more exciting when said prospect is actually at or near Major League ready, a fact worth mentioning given the Mets' recent history. But I still can't help but wonder whether Harvey should be getting this start.

Amidst all of the requisite discussion and debate over Harvey's fate the past few weeks, the idea of summoning fellow Buffalo Bison Collin McHugh instead never gained as much attention as I expected. As the far more acclaimed, more visible, and frankly better prospect, Harvey, the former first rounder out of UNC, has overshadowed McHugh, the one-time 18th rounder out of little Berry College in Georgia.

Any outlets that took the time to mention McHugh mostly did so in passing only. Michael Baron, representing Team Metsblog, stated:

"If the decision comes down to Harvey or Collin McHugh, it’s a no brainer."

Accomplished Mets prospect watcher Toby Hyde fleshed out the idea a little further but arrived at the same destination:

"If you want to make the argument that Harvey is not prepared to help the Mets in 2012, that’s fine...However, in doing so, to be intellectually consistent, you must acknowledge that McHugh is less ready to help the Mets."

And that is no surprise. Again, Harvey is the more gifted of the two, boasting front-end stuff, whereas McHugh survives on average velocity, average stuff, and a heaping dose of pitching smarts. Yet as he has done for most of his pro career, McHugh has continued to quietly put up very strong results this year — strong enoug, in fact, that the race between Harvey and McHugh might not be nearly as much of a runaway as many are framing it.

Hyde's analysis of the pair revolved around their last seven starts, in which Harvey has fared much better. The problem, though, is that those seven starts represent the first seven at Triple-A for McHugh, which isn't exactly the same as seven ordinary starts. It stands to reason that there's probably some acclimation to a new level in there, especially considering he allowed 9 of the 19 runs over that span in the first two starts. Remember Harvey's four innings, six earned Triple-A debut?

If you allow McHugh those two starts as a transition period, the next five were excellent:

Player Games ERA K/9 BB/9 Opp Avg
McHugh 5 3.25
9.1 3.5 .236
Harvey 5 3.64
9.4 3.3 .206

As we can see Harvey's last five haven't been too shabby, either, but I wouldn't exactly call this a no-brainer. A five-start sample is obviously tough to evaluate so let's go back to our next apples-to-apples comparison: Double-A.

Both Harvey and McHugh moved through Double-A Binghamton in the last calendar year; here are those results:

Player Games ERA K/9 BB/9 Opp Avg
McHugh 30
2.6 .225
Harvey 12
3.5 .254

This time McHugh obviously comes out on top, which may be partly attributed to his profile -- as an older, strike-throwing pitcher known for his secondary mix -- but it's pretty clear that he's no slouch. Unlike other Mets prospects cut from that mold — say Mark Cohoon — McHugh features the high K-rates to suggest that there's some decent stuff to back up the numbers. His overall K/BB at that level (3.37) points to a profile much more like that of Dillon Gee (3.47 at the same level).

Again, Harvey's far superior prospect status and growing visibility have made him an easy choice in the minds of most Mets fans. Yet, despite the lack of caché if you look closely McHugh has been no less effective. In fact, with Harvey's continued command problems, there's a case to be made that considering the importance of his development to the long-term success of this team, perhaps McHugh is the more prudent option here. It should be noted that at two years his senior, McHugh is much further along in the development cycle.

Furthermore, the starkly contrasting profiles here are worth discussing as well if we're purporting to give the team the best chance to win in the short-term. As previously mentioned, Harvey lives off of his excellent fastball but if he's not hitting his spots -- which he's still not doing consistently -- Major League hitters won't be impressed. Meanwhile McHugh's much more developed secondary repertoire is arguably better equipped to keep first-time opponents off balance before scouting reports become widely available -- much in the same way Dillon Gee posted a 2.18 ERA in his initial five-start cameo back in 2010.

Ultimately, I'm not going to say conclusively that McHugh deserves the start on Thursday. I don't even know if I believe that statement. Harvey is no doubt the better prospect and there's every reason to believe that in the end he'll be the better pitcher as well. What I will say is that I think the question of Harvey or McHugh on Thursday deserves a little more consideration from the media than it's received thus far.

(Then of course there's the critically-acclaimed Aussie mini-series 'The Damnation of Harvey McHugh'.)