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Hope for Matt Harvey

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Reflections on Matt Harvey's early season returns.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is hard. It takes rare talent to play well enough to get drafted, or to hang around the fringes of pro ball at its lowest levels, and it takes an even rarer cocktail of talent, genetics, and luck to produce someone who is good enough to stick around, long-term, on a major league roster. It's all too easy to forget those things when we watch Major League Baseball games, and we get downright spoiled by watching guys like Matt Harvey, who is one of the few people on planet Earth so transcendently good at baseball that they excel beyond the majority of their wondrously talented peers at the very pinnacle of the sport.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Harvey, of course. His Tommy John detour, for instance, was fraught with media peril. A tidal wave of criticism, Monday morning quarterbacking, and second-guessing began the moment it was announced he had torn his UCL and was considering trying to rehabilitate the injury, and it flared up at each successive pit stop on the journey, whether it was the picture he tweeted of himself cheerily flipping the bird just before surgery, or the kerfuffle around his stated preference to stay with the team throughout his rehabilitation, and all the way through to the Scott Boras innings-limit sideshow late last year.

Matt Harvey eventually made it through all that stuff and continued to pitch, because, outside the actual business of undergoing Tommy John surgery and undertaking a successful rehabilitation process, most of it just didn’t matter very much, fundamentally. Matt Harvey is a star because, first and foremost, he is an extraordinary pitcher. Still, the New York media being what it is, Harvey’s personality being what it is, and Harvey’s agent being who he is, the perpetual motion machine that is the Matt Harvey Narrative Mill was probably an inevitability, in retrospect.

It should come as no surprise, then, that there has been much ado about Matt Harvey’s performance so far in 2016. It is undeniable that Harvey’s first six starts this season, taken as a whole, were subpar by his ridiculous standards. To be sure, a relatively subpar Matt Harvey over a stretch of six games is a little disquieting, if only because we never really saw him slump like that.

Still, it occurs to me that until something such as an injury is revealed to indicate otherwise, a plain old-fashioned slump is exactly what that was, and nothing more—especially now, today, on the heels of Harvey's strong performance against the Padres featuring double-digit strikeouts, a strong whiff rate, and high-90s heat. Matt Harvey’s excellence over his first few seasons calibrated our expectations such that it was easy to forget that every player endures a slump from time to time. Sometimes they only last a week or two, but sometimes they last a month or two, or for a half-season or longer. It happens. Check the splits over a course of time for any of the better pitchers in the game today, and you are practically guaranteed to stumble across the occasional clam of a month or two. Okay, fine: Now we add Harvey to that list.

Is it possible that, this most recent start notwithstanding, Harvey's stretch of six substandard games portends something more ominous than a temporary slump? Sure, it’s possible. Maybe he's fighting through an injury. Maybe, in the long run, he winds up being a guy who peaked hard and early, only to endure a quick descent into a career of tortured, protracted mediocrity. Neither seems plausible, however. Matt Harvey’s age, enormous talent, and impressive track record indicate he’ll be fine, even if "fine," in Harvey’s case, means almost impossibly good.