Coming into 2017, it would have been foolish to expect Matt Harvey to immediately return to being the “Dark Knight.” The 28-year-old was never going to return to being an elite pitcher right off the heels of surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. There aren’t too many pitchers who have had TOS, but enough have had it that we at least know the recovery from the operation is not a quick process and fully returning to form could take several years, if it happens at all.
But nobody could have reasonably expected that Harvey’s 2017 season would be the total debacle that it was. The former ace was, simply put, one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this year. Among all pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched this season, Harvey’s 6.70 ERA was the fourth-worst in baseball, while his 6.37 FIP was third-worst, and his 5.39 xFIP was tenth-worst. Not only that, but his season was, by some measures, the worst season a Mets starting pitcher has ever had. No pitcher who has thrown 90 innings in a season for the Mets has ever had a single-season ERA, ERA-, or FIP as bad as Harvey’s was this year. And his xFIP, WHIP (1.69), and fWAR (-0.8) were all bottom-three marks in franchise history.
Basically, everything that once made Harvey great has completely eroded. His strikeout-to-walk abilities have evaporated, as he posted career-worsts in strikeout rate (15.6%) and walk rate (10.9%). He could no longer suppress home runs, either; his 2.04 HR/9 was the worst mark of his career by far.
And when looking at Harvey’s pitches, it’s not hard to see why his numbers were so awful. After his velocity had dropped substantially in 2016 due to his TOS, some thought that zip would return at some point this season as Harvey built up more strength in his shoulder. But the velocity only cratered even further this year, particularly on his fastball.
And not only did the velocity drop, but it got notably worse as the year went on:
Harvey has also completely lost the bite on his slider that once was his signature put-away pitch. The Fangraphs pitch value on his slider was -1.4 this season, when it was at +4.0 and +7.7 in 2013 and 2015, respectively. And the drop in value of the pitch was obvious from the results that it saw. From 2013 to 2016, Harvey would get whiffs between 17 and 18 percent of the time on his slider, but this year he got whiffs on just 11.7 percent of his sliders; that’s a precipitous drop.
Harvey used to make his name on his fastball and slider combo, with the curveball as the third potent weapon. But now, the fastball’s velocity is gone, the slider’s movement is gone, and the curveball isn’t even as good as it used to be. In fact, his only pitch that saw similar results to its 2013 and 2015 levels this year was his changeup, which has always been his fourth best pitch anyway:
All of that said, Harvey’s season actually wasn’t completely lost right from the start. In fact, in his first four starts, he had a 2.84 ERA and was walking just 1.84 batters per nine. But that was never going to last, as those numbers came with just a 6.04 K/9, a .203 BABIP, a 88.9 LOB%, and a 5.09 FIP. Harvey then immediately hit a wall in his fifth start against Atlanta on April 27, giving up six earned runs with five walks, and it was all downhill from there.
After stuggling through May and June, Harvey was placed on the disabled list on June 16 with what was called a “stress reaction” in his shoulder. He was sidelined until September 2 when he returned to the mound in Houston, but things only got worse from there. The post-game quotes from Harvey in the season’s final month probably illustrated the story best. The once-great pitcher became consistently agitated, frustrated, or just flat-out dejected when facing the media after his starts down the stretch.
And the argument could be made that Harvey should have never even been sent back out in September. Former pitching coach Dan Warthen revealed in July that the muscles in Harvey’s throwing shoulder were “totally atrophied,” so it appears that Harvey needs to re-build strength in that shoulder in order for him to even have a chance at being an MLB-quality starting pitcher again. So sending him out there before he had regained that strength was never going to yield positive results, and accomplished nothing.
After his final start of the season, Harvey said he was relieved that the “nightmare” season was over and was looking forward to the offseason so he can build up the strength back in his shoulder. The Mets will reportedly tender Harvey a contract this offseason, which is estimated to be in the neighborhood $5 million. But despite the price tag, Harvey will likely enter 2018 in a situation nobody ever thought he would be in so early in his career, with nothing guaranteed and having to compete with a number of pitchers to merely earn a spot in the rotation.