In today’s game, news of the game’s brightest young pitchers needing Tommy John surgery is all-too commonplace. It’s a little cruel to say, but it almost doesn’t even register anymore when a young, hard-throwing pitcher has a UCL tear anymore. A Tommy John surgery is still a really unfortunate and disappointing thing for a pitcher to go through, of course, but it’s practically viewed as a routine speed bump for a pitcher’s career these days; it’s basically inevitable.
But 10 years ago, it wasn’t quite so. Tommy John operations were certainly becoming more frequent in the early 2010s, but it wasn’t as if every pitcher felt like a ticking time bomb as it is today, either. A torn UCL diagnosis back then was still a Level 5 disaster for a pitcher and wasn’t seen as unavoidable as it is today.
We’ve covered all 26 starts of Matt Harvey’s 2013. We’ve talked about the zenith. Well, it’s time to talk about that tragic end now.
Two days after his start against the Tigers where he did not look like himself, Matt Harvey reported forearm tightness to the Mets. Out of precaution, they took him to the Hospital for Special Surgery for an MRI just to see what had been causing this issue. Harvey went in fairly unconcerned, he said, because he had no shooting or sharp pain, just small tenderness in his forearm that he thought was just inflammation.
So Harvey took his MRI in the morning. By mid-afternoon, no word was out on the diagnosis yet. But then Mike Francesa of WFAN, while doing his mid-day radio show, reported on the air that Harvey had received the nightmare diagnosis we had all feared. He had torn his UCL.
A few minutes later, Adam Rubin of ESPN confirmed it. It was a partial tear of the UCL for Harvey, and Tommy John surgery was on the table for the 24-year-old. He would be shut down for the remainder of the 2013 season at the very least.
The Mets then held a press conference featuring GM Sandy Alderson, Scott Boras, and Harvey himself, to discuss the diagnosis. Harvey was somber, clearly upset, and at times appeared to be holding back tears. He mentioned that he had been feeling the tenderness in the area for “a month or two,” which, in hindsight, explains his moderate decline in the month of August and the general evaporation of his strikeouts over his last few starts.
The announcement hit like a ton of bricks and sent shockwaves throughout the game, and especially among Mets fans. As Joshua Ryan put it in the AA news article, it was one of the worst days in the history of the franchise.
And that’s not hyperbole. Personally speaking, this day remains one of my lowest days as a fan. I had become as attached to Harvey as much as anyone over the course of his brilliant season, and now the threat of not seeing him pitch for another year-plus was staring us all in the face, with added uncertainty of what he would be on the other side. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach about this for days and feeling generally hopeless about the Mets. What was the point of any of it without Harvey?
I remember the game the Mets played that night having the feeling of a funeral. Not that Citi Field was always brimming with energy in 2013—especially for non-Harvey starts—but this one felt just different. Everyone was in mourning.
In the seventh inning, SNY stumbled upon the money shot, while perfectly captured the emotions of the day:
Since it was just a partial tear of the ligament, surgery was on the table for Harvey, but not guaranteed. In the presser, Alderson and Boras both mentioned the possibility of Harvey not needing surgery, and Harvey said himself that he would do everything in his power to avoid the operation.
So, true to his defiant character, Harvey attempted to rehab the injury for several weeks instead of relenting and going in for surgery. His choice was a tad controversial, given the slim likelihood of him successfully rehabbing the injury, but damn it if he wasn’t going to try.
On September 18th, Harvey went on the Dan Patrick Show to ostensibly discuss his choice and explain himself. But instead, in possibly the dumbest controversy in a career that would be littered with them, Harvey refused to discuss his decision to avoid the surgery and was only there to talk about Qualcomm.
More accurately, he wanted to “honor and support” Qualcomm. It was a complete misread of the situation by Harvey, and an objectively hilarious one at that, but he would call back in to Patrick’s show the next day and make good on his error. But still, the memes live on to this day.
Eventually, on October 4th, SNY reported that Harvey’s rehab attempt had failed and that he would, in fact, go under the knife. Later that month, successful Tommy John surgery was performed on Harvey’s UCL. He would miss the entirety of the 2014 season.
Harvey would return in 2015 and would regain his ace form, and pitch a complete season all the way to the World Series. He tossed 189.1 innings in the regular season to a 2.71 ERA, and 26.2 more innings pitched in the playoffs to a 3.04 ERA. He concluded the World Series by pitching one of the best games in franchise history in Game 5, though he was pulled in the ninth inning after letting up a run, and the Mets would go on to lose the game and the series in extra innings.
Obviously, we all know the story from there. Harvey would break again in 2016, this time with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, a much more devastating injury, and would never regain his form, or anything close to it.
By the time he came back in 2017, his velocity and slider were both completely gone, as was any hope of him being a major league quality starter any longer. He would be cut by the Mets in 2018 and spent time with the Reds, Angels, Royals, and Orioles in the following seasons, pitching to a 5.92 ERA in that time, an end that was completely unthinkable in 2013. He retired earlier this year at the age of 34, after a brief appearance for Team Italy in the WBC.
Harvey’s final line for his 2013 season looked like this: A 9-5 record with a 2.27 ERA and a 2.00 FIP over 178.1 IP, with 6.9 fWAR. It’s tied with Jacob deGrom’s 2019 for the ninth-best fWAR in a season for a Mets pitcher, though all of the seasons that rank above his 2013 had far more innings pitched. It also ranked as the ninth-best season for a Mets starting pitcher by ERA, and the only names above him on that list are Seaver, Gooden, deGrom, and Cone.
He was also a proven draw and brought people to the ballpark. His home starts averaged 28,421 fans, whereas the average Citi Field crowd in 2013 was 26,695. His starts generated a buzz in Citi Field that has not been seen in that ballpark yet, and would not be matched until the team’s postseason run in 2015.
When thinking about Harvey, I often refer to a passage written by Will Leitch, from an article written about Harvey on May 17, 2013, just a few days after the bloody nose game against the White Sox, entitled “Phenom.”
Harvey is so young, and you marvel, watching him pitch, because what you see seems so unlikely to last: You know that he is mortal, that time will ravage him, like it does all pitchers, young power-arm phenoms especially. Over the last generation, must-watch strikeout artists like Fernando Valenzuela and Kerry Wood have burned out early, leaving slow-learner masters like Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez to dominate their decades. And yet, in watching a stud like Harvey, there is always the hope that the first flash will never end.
The flash was bright. But it did end, and it ended so unfairly quick. The worst part, however, is that as time has gone on, the memories have faded away with the light. Sure, fans can look back at Harvey’s Baseball Reference page and see the raw numbers from that incredible 2013 season—and yeah, they look good—but you can’t re-tell the story of that season on a stat sheet.
That was the purpose of this series; to re-tell a story that I fear has been somewhat lost to the sands of time due to the unceremonious way it all ended. Even I, one of the biggest Matt Harvey fans on Earth, had forgotten a lot of the details of his 2013 season outside of the statistics. It was truly a transcendent season unlike anything this town had seen in a long time, and may never see again. It’s a story that deserved to be re-told.
Hopefully one day, when he’s ready, and when he’s put his mistakes and poor choices behind him, we can similarly put the bad times behind us as well, and Matt Harvey can be honored at Citi Field in some way. It’s the real ending this story deserves.