Two years ago, the Mets had a season filled with promise that spiraled into diminished hope. Matt Harvey dominated the major leagues as a young, homegrown power pitcher, the likes of which Mets fans had not seen since Doc Gooden in 1984. For the first time in a long time, things were looking up for the team. But on August 26, that all ended as Harvey tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He would eventually require Tommy John surgery.
The Mets shut Harvey down for the rest of that season and all of 2014, too. His absence was felt as the Mets suffered a sixth consecutive losing season despite the progress of several young players on the roster. This year will be an exciting year for Mets fans; the organization believes that Matt Harvey’s return will turn it into a legitimate contender. Contending might not be possible, however, if Harvey does not return to his 2013 form, and the Mets might be expecting too much from their young star this year. The experience of past notable pitchers returning from similar injuries suggests that Harvey may not yet be his former self.
Tommy John surgery has become more common among major league pitchers, and while many have returned to dominant form, others have seen their careers change dramatically. Harvey posted had a 2.27 ERA in 2013 with 191 strikeouts and 6.0 fWAR in 178.1 innings pitched. It might be too much to expect this type of production in 2015.
In 2010, the year before Tommy John surgery sidelined him, Adam Wainwright had a 2.42 ERA, 213 strikeouts, and 5.6 fWAR in 230.1 innings pitched. When he returned in 2012, Wainwright was good, but not quite as good. That year, the righty had a 3.94 ERA, 184 strikeouts, and a 4.1 fWAR in 198.2 innings. Similarly, in 1998, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood finished with a 3.40 ERA, 233 strikeouts, and 4.2 fWAR in 166.2 innings. After missing 1999 because of Tommy John surgery, he returned in 2000 and posted a 4.80 ERA, 132 strikeouts, and 1.2 fWAR in 137.0 innings of work.
It took both Wainwright and Wood a full season of trial and error before returning to their previous levels of dominance. It is not uncommon for pitchers to experience some growing pains when trying to return to their pre-surgery forms. It should therefore not be surprising if Harvey struggles at times in 2015. When he takes the mound in April, it will be the first time in 20 months that he'll face major league hitting. An extended absence may require some adjustment.
Even though Wainwright and Wood weren’t the same in their first seasons back from Tommy John surgery, it’s still possible that Harvey can pick up where he left off. Pitchers like Chris Carpenter and Stephen Strasburg actually became better immediately following their Tommy John rehabs. In 2006, Carpenter went 15-8 with a 3.09 ERA, 184 strikeouts, and 4.7 fWAR in 221.2 innings pitched. After two years of virtual inactivity, Carpenter exceeded expectations in 2009, finishing with a 17-4 record, a 2.24 ERA, 144 strikeouts, and 5.2 fWAR in 192.2 innings pitched. Stephen Strasburg's experience with the surgery and rehabilitation process culminated in an All-Star season in 2012, when he went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, 197 strikeouts, and 4.1 fWAR in 159.1 innings pitched. Strasburg helped lead the young Nationals to a playoff appearance but was shut down before the postseason, a situation the Mets are hoping to avoid with Matt Harvey.
Like Wood and Strasburg, Harvey had the surgery at the beginning of his major league career. While his relatively young and fresh arm could make this a positive, his inexperience could be a negative as he feels his way back into the league. Regardless, Mets management has committed to taking it slow with Harvey, and already confirmed that the ace will miss starts during the regular season so that he can be prepared for a postseason run.
So what can Mets fans expect out of Matt Harvey in 2015? Given that his innings will be curtailed, Harvey probably won’t contribute the raw production that we would expect from him in a full season of work. And, if some of these other pitchers' experiences are any indication, Harvey could be less productive than he used to be in the innings he does pitch. This might not be an ideal situation to hungry Mets fans, but be patient, because with proper caution and care, Harvey can once again be one of the top pitchers in baseball. It just may not be in 2015.