A year ago this week, the Mets were embroiled in controversy over Matt Harvey’s innings limit. After much public back-and-forth between the Mets, Harvey, and Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, the right-hander decided to pitch past his “soft cap” of 180 innings following Tommy John surgery.
The decision worked out well for the Mets in 2015, as Harvey helped carry them to the World Series. A year later, however, the right-hander is recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery after throwing 92.2 mostly ineffective innings in 2016. We don’t know if Harvey’s workload last year had anything to do with his current arm issues, but it’s fair to second guess the Mets’ handling of their star pitcher.
Boras can certainly claim that his concerns were validated. The agent warned that allowing Harvey to pitch over his innings limit would risk future arm injuries. Harvey blew past his limit and, sure enough, suffered a serious arm injury the following year. The Mets are now forced to make a playoff run without one of their best players.
The comparisons with Steven Strasburg are inevitable. In 2012, the Nationals made the highly controversial decision to shut down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, in the middle of a playoff run. The Nats went on to lose a closely played Division Series to the Cardinals in five games. This led many to speculate that Strasburg’s presence could have swung the series the other way and that the Nationals’ decision cost them a shot at a championship.
The next year, however, Strasburg came back healthy and pitched to an excellent 3.00 ERA (80 ERA-) and 3.21 FIP (86 FIP-). While the righty has missed some time to injury over the last few seasons, he has generally been healthy and effective since the decision to shut him down. The same cannot be said of Harvey.
On the other hand, the Mets got something the Nationals didn’t: the chance to play in a World Series. The Mets let Harvey pitch, and they went to the World Series. The Nationals shut Strasburg down, and they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Are any of these factors directly related? Who knows? But given that history played out the way it did, it’s fair to say that Harvey’s presence helped the Mets’ pennant run, while Strasburg’s absence hurt the Nats’.
Harvey’s shoulder injury makes the Mets’ decision even more fascinating and controversial, and raises some interesting questions. If the Mets knew how the next year would play out—World Series, arm injury, and all—would they have done the same thing? Would the fans have been so adamant in demanding that Harvey pitch if they knew that a major shoulder surgery would follow?
I suspect that the answer to both questions is yes. The opportunity to compete for a championship is so enticing—especially for a team like the Mets, whose opportunities don’t come around very often—that the Harvey decision seemed like a gamble worth making.
This year may have played out differently had the Mets shut Harvey down last September, but we don’t know that for sure. We do know that the Mets allowed Harvey to pitch. We know that Harvey helped the Mets reach the World Series for just the fifth time in franchise history. We know that Harvey played a key role in one of the most memorable and magical runs the Mets have ever had, and that he was at the center of a now-iconic (and, of course, controversial) World Series moment.
Would most fans have risked losing all of that for the possibility of a more successful 2016 season? Probably not. When a championship is legitimately within reach, most would likely risk some future health and success for the opportunity to win it.
The Mets took that risk, and here we are a year later: The team has had a disappointing season—relative to last year, at least—and Harvey is hurt. The 2015 season, however, became an unforgettable one and this year’s playoff door is still open to the Mets. If that was the tradeoff the Mets made by letting Harvey pitch, it’s one that we can probably live with.