Three hours after news dropped that Matt Harvey’s time with the Mets was finished, Gary Cohen opened the Friday broadcast with this gut-wrenching line: “The brightest comet to flash across the Citi Field sky will pitch for the Mets no more.”
Harvey at his peak was the most electrifying Mets pitcher of this generation. He was so dominant that people starting comparing him to Tom Seaver, a comparison that seems crazy but really wasn’t that off base. In 2013, it felt like Harvey was capable of throwing a no-hitter in any start, at any moment. His start against the White Sox is the best example of that, taking a one hit shutout through nine innings with the only hit of the game an infield single that was rolled over on a well located slider.
Harvey’s 2013 season was in line with Seaver statistically. Harvey’s 2013 season is among the greatest and most dominant single seasons in Mets history for a starting pitcher. By baserunner prevention, it was the best single season for a qualified starting pitcher in Mets history with a 0.93 WHIP, just edging out Seaver’s career-best 0.95 WHIP from 1971. Harvey’s adjusted ERA- of 64 in 2013 was 7th best in Mets history, slightly behind Seaver’s 1969 season. 2013 Harvey’s 2.00 Fielding Independent Pitching—which focuses on strikeouts, walks and home runs—ranks as the 10th greatest single season among any club in the live ball era dating back to 1920. Only Dwight Gooden’s 1984 season and Tom Seaver’s 1971 season rank higher in Mets history, and the list is engulfed with Hall of Famers. Pedro Martinez, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, Hal Newhouser, Seaver, Gooden and Harvey make up the list. Peak Harvey unquestionable showcased Hall of Fame ability, and it was just a matter of maintaining it long term, which unfortunately he was not able to do—with parallels to Doc Gooden.
What jumps out most about Harvey at his peak was how incredible his pure stuff was. His fastball topped out at 100 mph and sat around 96-97 mph, and he was very good at throwing it for strikes. 58% of Harvey’s four seam fastballs were thrown in the strike zone in 2013, better than the league average of 53%.
His hard slider was ferocious, topping out around 92 mph and sitting around 90-91 mph. Harvey went to his slider as his key offspeed out pitch.
He threw a hard hammer curveball in the mid 80s that had a different, more vertically dropping shape than his slider. He used the curveball’s drop to play off his four seamer, which he often pitched up in the zone with.
His changeup was also a strong pitch, sitting at 88 mph with arm-side movement and drop, giving him a fourth weapon to keep hitters off his fastball. Batters had just a .440 OPS vs. his change up in 2013 with only one extra base hit.
Harvey debuted in 2012 in Arizona with a pitch repertoire that took everyone by surprise, including people within the organization. Two major components of Harvey’s major league debut stood out. Harvey was featuring noticeably harder fastball velocity than he had showcased in the minor leagues. In the 2011 Future’s Game at Chase Field, Harvey’s fastball sat at 94.5 mph in a one batter relief appearance, measured by the stadium’s pitch tracking system. One year later, during Harvey’s MLB debut in the same stadium in Arizona, his fastball sat 96.5 mph in a five inning start, a two mph jump. The second thing that jumped out was a newly developed nasty hard slider that he wasn’t throwing in the minor leagues.
The 2012 version of Harvey was high octane with a 28.5% strikeout rate, but he was not a finished product. Harvey dramatically improved his control and command in 2013, cutting his walk rate down from a worse than average 10.5% in 2012 to an excellent 4.5%.
Harvey flirted with no-hitters multiple times in 2013, first against the Twins in Minnesota where he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning and pitched eight innings while allowing only four baserunners and one run.
The aforementioned game against the White Sox in May 2013 is one of Harvey’s most dominant, taking a perfect game into the 7th inning and finishing with 12 strikeouts in 9 IP.
The next notable flirtation with a no-hitter came on the day that Harvey threw the hardest pitch of his career—a 100 mph fastball—on what was dubbed “Super Tuesday”. Top-ten global prospect Zack Wheeler was making his major league debut in the nightcap of a doubleheader in Atlanta on a Tuesday in June 2013, and Harvey started the day game. Harvey pitched with a furious rampage that day, striking out 13 of the 26 batters he faced, an obscene 50% strikeout rate. The fact that Wheeler was consistently ranked ahead of Harvey on prospect lists with Wheeler generally regarded as the better of the two prospects probably had something to do with the timing. It looked like Harvey took a swagger of “I’ll show you who the better pitcher is” to the mound that day.
Harvey’s dominance in 2013 earned him a start in the All Star Game at Citi Field, where he showed off his electric stuff on the national stage, most notably striking out Miguel Cabrera with a nasty 92 mph slider. He struck out three of the eight batters he faced in two scoreless innings.
Harvey tore his UCL after a start against the Tigers in late August, which caused him to miss the entire 2014 season. While Harvey would not quite fully regain his 2013 form in his return after the surgery, he was still outstanding in 2015, posting one of the best seasons off Tommy John surgery in baseball history with a 2.71 ERA and 1.02 WHIP.
Harvey made his return from the surgery in Washington against the Nationals in April 2015. Early in the season, Harvey backed off throwing his signature slider in favor of his curveball. The first curveball he threw was one of his best ever:
Bryce Harper—who went on to win the 2015 MVP NL award—would strike out three times in the game against Harvey, all on swings and misses.
Harvey’s first 2015 home start was arguably the most electric early season games in Citi Field’s history. His return was highly anticipated and created an aura that radiated through the Citi Field crowd. Harvey struck out the first two batters he faced, including Odubel Herrara on this nasty curveball, and the fans nearly tore Citi Field down with their excitement and noise.
Harvey was a key component of the Mets winning the National League East in the 2015 regular season, and Harvey fittingly started the clincher in Cincinnati in September. Harvey dominated Joey Votto with a three pitch strikeout sequence featuring a first pitch curveball for a called strike, a 96 mph fastball that was fouled off, and a 91 mph disappearing slider that fooled Votto so badly that his base got crippled.
Harvey has taken criticism recently for supposedly never learning “how to pitch” and being too much of a thrower, a criticism that is unfair. The best example of Harvey being a complete pitcher was against the Cubs in the 2015 NLCS, where he kept hitters off balanced by perfectly mixing all of his pitches and leaning heavily on his offspeed stuff, especially early in counts. He wasn’t just muscling heat past hitters. 14 of 29 (48%) of Harvey’s first pitches to batters that night were off-speed—curveballs, sliders or change ups—compared to the league average of 31%. He threw only 49% fastballs in the start, nine percentage points less than the 2015 league average of 58%. Anthony Rizzo commented on how Harvey was a pitcher and not a thrower: “from the first inning on, he was changeup, curveball, slider...that’s what separates him. Some guys are just throwers and leave stuff over the plate, but he hit his spots.” Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon added, “(Harvey) had about as good of command as you possibly can of all his pitches. The stuff is always good, but the command was outrageous tonight.”
In Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, Harvey nearly entered legendary status, hitting the gas and completely emptying the tank in his final start off a long recovery from Tommy John. Harvey threw eight dominant innings with nine strikeouts against a Royals lineup that was known for making contact before running out of steam in the 9th in a game that no Mets fan needs a thorough recap of.
After an offseason of rest and further strengthening of wrist, Harvey debuted in 2016 in spring training showing flashes of his 2013 version. His slider was absolutely lethal early in March, which he attributed to regaining strength in his wrist after a ligament was surgically taken from it to reconstruct his elbow.
Harvey was topping out at 99 mph and sitting an easy 95-96 with life on his fastball early in March. Harvey looked so good that Mets’ pitching coach Dan Warthen predicted that Harvey would be in contention for the best pitcher in baseball in 2016.
Then, everything started to unravel towards the end of March. Harvey had a mysterious blood clot in his bladder, and it was right at that point that his pitches lost their ferocious life and the symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome began to set in. Harvey started having trouble gripping and feeling the baseball and began to uncharacteristically tire early in starts, losing velocity and effectiveness around the fourth and fifth inning.
Thoracic outlet syndrome is a horrid injury for pitchers that can cause nerve damage, muscle atrophy and a weakened grip. The effects of the injury made it difficult for Harvey to feel the baseball, which had dramatic impact on his pitch command and ability to spin sharp breaking balls and generate backspin on his four seamer. The life on both his fastball and breaking balls totally cratered due to the injury, and Harvey has not been able to effectively get big league hitters out since.
Days after Harvey was designated for assignment, it’s still stunning that Harvey’s Mets career finished like this with the way it started. Harvey was once so good that even with a decline in stuff, there was a real good chance he’d still be effective enough to get major league hitters out as he aged. But the symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome couldn’t be overcome, at least not with this organization, and maybe not ever. Harvey’s career might essentially be over due to the injury, but he’ll have left his mark as, at one point, one of the most electrifying pitchers in the history of the Mets.