Matt Harvey’s injury and thoughts on player development

The baseball world got some bad news Monday with the announcement that Mets phenom Matt Harvey has a torn UCL, is headed to the disabled list, and will likely end up on the surgeon’s table to undergo Tommy John surgery. Regardless of your allegience, the loss of Harvey from the baseball world, no matter how temporarily, is sad.

And this is coming from a life-long Phillies fan. I have dreaded, for the better part of a year, having to watch a Harvey-lead Mets resurgence with the only hope being that the Alderson-led franchise would head down the same self-destructive road as did its Minaya-led predecessors. But I would never have wished this upon my worst enemy, which the Mets are, from a sports fandom standpoint, of course.

The news of Harvey’s injury conjured up all kinds of thoughts from all different angles of this issue, not all of which are necessarily connected. That can mean only one thing—an article in bullet form!

—A sad day for baseball. Look, this isn’t the end of the world. It feels like it for Mets fans, who have already mentally come to grips with the idea of not having Harvey in 2014, but the silver lining is that Harvey is still young and that the worst-case scenario is Tommy John surgery, which has an extremely high recovery rate.

This situation parallels the one the Nationals faced in 2011 when Stephen Strasburg hit the same road bump at a similar time of the season and in his career. Strasburg has returned just fine, which does not guarantee anything for Harvey, but does give the Mets a reason for optimism, assuming they don’t make a premature run at an NL East crown in 2015, only to shut Harvey down early due to poor planning.

—Just have the surgery already! There were two pieces of news rolled into one with Monday’s announcement. The first is that Harvey has a partially torn UCL, but the other is that he’s not having surgery on it just yet. In fact, he’s hoping not to at all. Harvey plans to take the rest and rehab course, hoping to return to the mound sooner.

Tommy John surgery, the likely destination along this journey, has become so commonplace in modern baseball that fans and media take it for granted. The procedure is treated with the same caution of a fantasy roster move. “Oh, Matt Harvey needs Tommy John? That sucks, but he’ll be back in a year and he’ll probably throw even harder than before!” Despite fans’ comfort with the surgery, it’s just not that simple.

This is still a medical procedure. Do you have unnecessary surgery? Unless you’re addicted to plastic surgery, you probably don’t, and certainly wouldn’t elect to go under the knife if a doctor you trusted offered rehab as a viable option. The road back from Tommy John takes a full year, but it’s not like Harvey will be spending that year eating naked room service. The rehab process is an incredibly difficult journey, both mentally and physically, and is far from guaranteed.

Armchair GMs who don’t know any better, and even beat writers who should, often suggest jumping right onto the operating table, but this isn’t a fantasy team. This is a real decision involving real surgery. Will he ultimately need surgery? Probably. The baseball landscape isn’t exactly littered with examples of pitchers returning from UCLs that are already torn. But I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell a player to jump under the knife.

—The Mets abused Harvey. This was a common reaction from fans on Twitter who were either uninformed or too lazy to actually research the point.

Yes, Harvey was allowed to cross the 115-pitch mark five times this season, something which has become the baseball equivalent of giving a drunk teenager the keys to his prom limo. It may be less cautious than some organizations are with their young pitchers, but if we want to point to pitch counts, we might want to point to the 157-pitch effort Harvey had in college before we point fingers at anything the Mets did.

But when it comes down to it, while we think we know that high pitch counts can lead to injury, we don’t have a magic number where injuries happen. No matter how much progress we make with baseball information, we don’t know what causes pitcher injuries.

We know that the throwing motion is an unnatural thing for human beings and that doing it excessively can greatly increase the risk of injury, but past that, we don’t know squat. We’ve figured out how to fix these injuries, but we don’t know how to completely prevent them. The pitching motion is something that man was not meant to do repeatedly, and every arm handles it differently. The Mets are no more to blame here than karma, God, Babe Ruth, or whomever you pray to to keep your favorite pitchers safe.

—Developing around pitching is risky. Well of course it is, but what’s the alternative? There are some who will philosophize that the best way to build a franchise with young players is to “build hitting and buy pitching’” based on the inherent risk of young pitchers staying healthy and the relative safety of young hitters when compared to the unpredictability of their pitching counterparts. But is it a better plan to spend big dollars on free agent pitchers as they enter their 30s and age less and less gracefully in the post-PED era?

Developing around pitching is risky, of course, but it’s also essential. The key is depth. The Mets have some impressive young pitchers in Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaardand Rafael Montero, but they don’t have a ton of developmental pitching depth. They are top-heavy as an organization when it comes to young pitching, with a lot of high-end talent, but not a lot to back it up. This is better than the alternative, of course, but a team like the Rays, which survives based on the success of its young pitchers, is successful because of the number of talented pitchers its has.

Sure, David Price and Matt Moore are aces they have drafted and developed, but both have spent time on the disabled list this season. The Rays are still in position for a playoff spot because their homegrown pitching depth enabled them to call up capable replacements when their studs went down. The Mets will have to replace Harvey with free agent castoffs or the Chris Schwindens of the world.

Which is not to say the Mets haven’t done a good job with their rebuilding. Years of under-spending in the draft left the farm system in bad shape, but credit must be given for drafting Harvey, trading for Wheeler and Syndergaard and signing Montero, among other moves the Mets made during their rebuilding process. The Mets have improved their organizational depth quickly, but they are not yet prepared to handle a significant injury like one that would cost Harvey a year. No organization is, but the Mets are less prepared than some others.

Still, Harvey’s injury is not an argument not to build around pitching. Aces are expensive to buy and are much cheaper to develop at home. The old adage, however, of never having enough pitching could not possibly be more accurate.

—This pushes back the Mets’ window to compete. Yes and no. Before Monday, it looked like the Mets were going to have a 2014 starting rotation of Harvey, Wheeler, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and (fill in the blank) with Syndergaard eventually joining in. That’s a solid staff and the makings of a competitive rotation. Still, the Mets offense would have needed at least two significant additions on offense to score enough runs to win.

What hurt almost as much as Harvey’s injury is the fact that Travis d’Arnaud missed most of this season due to injury. Part of the plan to aim for 2014 was based on him getting significant major league experience this season, along with Ike Davis taking a step forward, Daniel Murphy and Ruben Tejada establishing themselves as a big league middle-infield tandem, and some other pieces that didn’t fall into place. If Harvey misses the entire 2014 season, it’s clearly the part that will hurt the most, but even with a healthy Harvey the Mets were going to need to make significant offseason acquisitions to move up from third place.

We don’t know what the next step will be for Harvey or the Mets, but seeing this news is bad for all of baseball, regardless of affiliation. Harvey has been spectacular this season, and no one has battled the juxtaposition of enjoying baseball greatness on a team he hates more than this writer. In all likelihood, Harvey will be back in front of us in a year or so, once again dominating the National League. But nothing is for sure, and his injury forces upon us questions from all aspects of the baseball world, none of which we yet are prepared to answer.

References & Resources
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Comments

  1. Dave Cornutt said...

    Oh wow, this is terrible news.  Maybe the Mets and the Braves need to not play each other any more—it seems like every time they do, they both wind up with a bunch of injuries.  As for the rehab thing: does that ever work with this type of injury?  Not meaning to second-guess, but… from my admittedly imperfect memory, I can’t think of a pitcher who ever had this injury who didn’t have to have the surgery eventually.  If rehab is ineffective, then all it does is push back the date when the player will be ready for major league action again. 

    As for the Mets: whatever path he takes, I hope they are patient with him.  As was said in the article, the Mets’ major problem isn’t pitching, it’s offense, and that isn’t going to be fixed in one offseason.  I don’t expect the Mets to be competitive again until 2015.  By then, if they play their cards right, Harvey should be ready to go.

  2. Will H. said...

    Yes, it was such poor planning on the Nats part (with the 2012 Vegas opening line of 81.5 wins and not many taking much issue with that – though I think Brad was an exception). They should definitely have planned from the start to go “Joba rules” or something since it was clear a) that tends to go well, b) that they were a pretty sure thing for the playoffs, c) that his replacement in the post season wouldn’t actually be the only winning pitcher (oops, Detwiler) for the team, and d)that they could risk starting out the season with him – I dunno – as a reliever, even if that meant saving your best pitcher might result in not as many regular season wins, resulting perhaps in a wild-card playoff (oops, Medlen).

  3. Frank said...

    I’m curious about something. Current MLB “wisdom” is to severely limit the number of innings/pitches that you pitchers throw. Back in the old days, organizations did not limit the innings of their young pitchers (Mudcat Grant had 217IP as an 18 year old in the Northern league in 1954). Then, as now, some pitchers got hurt and washed out, some stayed healthy.

    My question is this. Has anyone ever done a detailed study that shows the frequency of pitchers developing elbow or shoulders problems, over a long period of time? I’d love to know if the current way of handling arms is better now in preventing injury, worse, or has no real effect.

  4. studes said...

    Jeff, thanks for the timely and thoughtful article.  As a Mets’ fan, I’m reminded of the Wilson/Isringhausen/Pulsipher days.  I’m sure many Mets’ fans have the same reaction.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

  5. pete said...

    Jeff – that was a good article and glad that you mentioned Strasburg.  Am I right in saying that both Strasburg and Harvey developed higher velocity than what was orginally scouted in them?  Which leads me to ask if that is a good thing or a bad thing in regards to the potential for injuries?  Then again, what can even be done about that?

  6. Paul G. said...

    @Frank: I’ve wondered the same thing.  It may be that the days of pitchers throwing 300+ innings year in, year out, was because most of the pitchers who could not handle the load blew out their arms, and, lacking the medical options we have today, did not return and/or were ineffective.  The durable arms were all that was left.  This also meant that you needed pitchers to throw 300+ innings because there was not as much depth to call upon.

  7. Marc Schneider said...

    I wonder if lowering the mound in the late 1960s has anything to do with what seems to be the plethora of pitcher injuries today.  I remember hearing one ex-pitcher (I think it was Don Sutton) suggest that pitching off the lower mound requires more effort to get the ball to break, thereby putting more stress on the arm and elbow.  It sounds reasonable but I don’t think there have been any studies of this.

    Another point that was alluded to in the article is whether the greater prevalence of pitchers coming from the college ranks-where they seem to be consistently overused-has had any impact.  Not to say that all the pitchers that have been injured have been ex-collegians, but I wonder if there is some correlation.  I also wonder if Little League has had some effect because it seems as if kids start throwing breaking balls at younger ages.

    I think it is harder to pitch in the big leagues today than it ever has been.  Back in the day, even the best lineups generally had some easy outs (typically middle infielders and catchers) who the pitcher did not have to worry about.  Guys like Mark Belanger could never start today. It seems as if pitchers could ease off on certain hitters or in certain situations.  Perhaps with deeper lineups, pitchers today have less ability to ease off. Also, the fact that hitters take more pitchers means fewer quick outs and, perhaps, more stress for pitchers.

  8. Mike said...

    Marc, you make a great point that I think is usually overlooked when we try to compare pitchers and pitch counts from today to previous generations.  I also think about the Omar Moreno-type batters who swung at just about everything.  Obviously these batters got hits and some of them were actually good hitters (Willie McGee comes to mind—not great, but good) but I wonder if the great pitchers, like Carlton and Seaver, were able to get some outs without much effort, by throwing those 58 foot curveballs that you don’t see as much of anymore.

  9. Marc Schneider said...

    I always thought that it wasn’t throwing overhand per se that was problematic but throwing breaking pitches that put stress on the elbow and shoulder.  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that you really put a lot of torque on the elbow when you throw a curve or slider. I think that’s what got Sandy Koufax.

    Perhaps calling it unnatural is incorrect.  Maybe the point is that the body is not optimized to perform at the high levels that pro sports require.  For example, golfers often have back problems because of the torque involved in swinging a golf club.  At a certain point, almost any kind of physical activity can result in injuries.

  10. Marc Schneider said...

    Mike,

    If you look at even the 1961 Yankees, considered one of the great teams of all time, the lineup included Bobby Richardson (.295 OBP), Tony Kubek (.306 OBP), Bill Skowron (.318 OBP), and Clete Boyer (.308 OBP). That’s half the lineup and, in those days, you also had the pitcher. So, even on that team, there were a lot of outs and, probably a lot of quick outs.

  11. Goody said...

    I think you will find that the guys who throw more sliders than curve balls tend to be the pitchers who need fixing the most. If somebody is throwing a true 12/6 CB I doubt if it is any harder on the elbow than a pitcher throwing a mechanically sound fastball. A slider requires much more lower arm rotation to get a real tight spin on a slider. I think any pitcher starting both his rotation of his upper body and going into external rotation with his upper arm in a vertical L position is subjecting himself to an early exit for Tommy John surgery also.

  12. Goody said...

    I can’t seem to accept the premise that overhand throwing is unnatural. When I look at the anatomy of the shoulder, it appears to me that the shoulder was designed to allow the upper arm to “windup” so a person could throw a rock or a spear at potential food sources back in the day. Also, if it was an unnatural action, not a lot of people would be able to throw things, only gifted people would be able to do it t and probably not 120 times in a baseball game at 90+ mph. What we do not know, is how many times one can throw it 90+ mph and not injure themselves. While our muscles and techniques allow one to throw 90+ mph, it is quite possible that our tendons, ligaments, and possibly our bones, cannot handle that load being placed throughout the throwing arm. We didn’t have these issues, at this rate, back in the day when nobody was paying some pitching instructor hundreds or thousands of dollars to teach some young player how to pitch like we do today. Survival of the fittest back in the days of Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbel, Bob Feller,and the Nolan Ryan’s of the baseball world. Those guys were workhorses and if throwing was an unnatural motion, I doubt even those great pitchers could have achieved what they were able to achieve.

  13. af said...

    One thing I wonder about in regard to injuries—not just pitcher injuries—is the baseball ethos about playing hurt. We regularly hear that players have to learn to play through pain and to learn the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. While some injuries are acute and dramatic (not simply those that occur because of baseball plays “gone bad”, such as Tim Hudson’s), many others aren’t. It might have appeared dramatic when Strasburg’s elbow “went”, but he had, no doubt, been experiencing tightness like that Harvey had, apparently, been complaining of. If players are taught that symptoms that we now know are potential precursors of serious injury are just a part of the game (and if their toughness is questioned if they complain of these symptoms), well that’s creating a culture that increases the likelihood of serious injury.

    Over the decades, there have been advances in surgery that enable players to return to the playing field who wouldn’t have been able to in the past. There have been advances in medical imaging that enable more precise non-invasive diagnosis. There have been bio-mechanically- and statistically-informed advances in training methods, with the goal of preventing serious injuries, as well as, of course, improving performance on the field of play. I’d like to see corresponding advances in identifying risk-factors earlier earlier in the process; if there is a sense that something is different, it should, at the very least, be tracked (and perhaps it is; teams certainly don’t advertise everything they do).

  14. Paul G. said...

    The 1961 Yankee’s status as a great team is disputed, especially by Bill James.  It was a great home run hitting team but in an expansion year and they didn’t even lead the AL in runs scored.  Offensively it was a good team but it was hardly the 1927 Yankees.  On the other hand, Skowron was a serious danger to hit a home run in a stadium that hated him, so he was hardly an easy out; Kubek was a doubles machine that year, if a less than ideal top of the order type batter; and Johnny Blanchard put up one of the greatest half seasons of all time off the bench.  It was neither the great offense you suggest, nor as hole filled as you assert.  Just don’t bring up Hector Lopez.  Ugh.

  15. Marc Schneider said...

    Paul G.,

    You are probably right about the 1961 Yankees; they were good but flawed.  I was just using them as an easy example of how teams had more quick/easy outs than today.  Kubek did have a lot of doubles, as you point out, but he also had an OBP of .306 and an OBP+ of 90.  I’m not really denigrating him, but my point was that hitters, especially top of the order hitters,did not work the counts as much as they do today, thereby possibly reducing the stress on pitchers.

  16. Paul G. said...

    @Marc: Do remember that OPS+ is a relative statistic.  Kubek’s 90 is actually good for a middle infielder in 1961.  His OBP of 306 is a bit low, but not terrible compared to the league’s 329 (including pitchers).  But, yes, he didn’t walk much.

    If you want to research this theory, look at the raw numbers, not the normalized numbers.  The fact that someone led the league in walks with 50 and gets a higher OPS+ because of it means little.  The fact that the league didn’t walk much means a lot.  Also consider other factors that might wear out a pitcher such as having to deal with more/less base stealing and the general length of games (the longer he sits around, the more he fatigues).

  17. Marc Schneider said...

    Paul,

    That’s an interesting point and I certainly did not consider it. I’m not trying to get into a debate about the merits of Tony Kubek. I think you make the point that the league did not walk much and that would, I think, support my general thesis that pitchers today generally pitch in more stressful conditions.  Your other points are valid but I never meant to suggest that less patient hitters was the only factor that made it easier to pitch.  As I noted in an earlier comment, I suspect that the higher mounds also played a role.

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