Matt Harvey. His name has the ring of an ace. His presence on the mound is imposing at worst and terrifying at best. His tobacco-packed lip, bloodied nose and lightning fastball hearken back to a less delicate generation of pitchers.
Word is that the 24-year-old right-hander will be kept to an innings limit for the second half of his first full season in the Show, skipping some of his scheduled starts for the New York Mets, who are out of the playoff picture from every angle but the mathematical. Much as the world wants to see him pitch, you would struggle to find a Mets fan willing to risk such a promising young arm on anything less than a playoff push.
And for good reason. The Mets have won two World Series titles, 1969 and 1986. In both of those years their success followed strong young pitching. With Harvey and Zack Wheeler already major league ready and [pitchers like Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero climbing the prospect ladder, the Amazin’s and their fans look forward to have a future of solid pitching depth.
Harvey is the closest thing to a sure bet among them. On the surface he is a power pitcher with finesse ability. He throws (and controls) four plus pitches at high velocity. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds he’s built for the high-stress innings of a workhorse.
After his stellar first half and his performance starting the All-Star Game, it’s worth a look at how his numbers at age 24 stack up against some Mets greats of yesteryear at the same age. For the purpose of this article, I’ve dubbed a pitcher’s first full season in which he ended the year at age 24 his “Harvey year.”
Why not start with the Ryan Express? Mostly a reliever for the Miracle Mets of ’69, Nolan Ryan surpassed 150 innings in a season for the first time in his Harvey year of 1971. Pitching for an average team, he went 10-14 in 26 starts. He managed a good (though not Ryan-esque) K/9 of 8.11 and posted one of the lowest home run rates per nine innings of his career at .47. Metrically, however, the 1971 campaign was dismal for Ryan. He set career-worst full season marks in BB/9 (6.87), K/BB (1.18), strikeout rate (19.4 percent), WHIP (1.59), ERA+ (86), and FIP (3.92). My goodness.
Following that season he was traded to the California Angels, for whom he blossomed into one of the all-time greats, harnessing his triple-digit fastball and leading the league in strikeouts for 1972 at age 25.
When Jerry Koosman was 25 the Mets won their first World Series. The year before that, his Harvey year, was his first full season. This may sound familiar: In 1968 Koosman was a National League All-Star on a team that missed the postseason. He went 19-12 with a 2.08 ERA during the Year of the Pitcher, striking out 178 and walking 69 in 263.2 innings. Koosman posted a good ERA+ of 145 and WAR of 4.3, and would best his 2.70 FIP only with a 2.67 mark in ’69. His WHIP was the second lowest of his career at 1.10. Excellent numbers for a 24-year-old rookie. Remind you of anyone?
Koosman’s teammate during those years, Tom Seaver, had his Harvey year coincide with a world championship in 1969. It’s hard to criticize a line of 25-7, 2.21 ERA, 165 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP. It’s impossible to downplay 18 complete games in 35 starts (five of them shutouts). But surprisingly, the ’69 campaign was a relative down year for Seaver compared to the seasons that sandwiched it. His sophomore season in 1968 was his breakout, and he posted a WAR of over 9.0 in both ’70 and ’71. In fact, Seaver’s 1969 FIP of 3.11 was his worst between ’68 and ’77, his K/BB was just 2.54 (compared to 4.27 in 1968, 3.41 in 1970, and 4.74 in 1971), and his WAR dropped to 5.2 from 6.6 before rocketing up in 1970.
Certainly these are all fantastic numbers on their own, but even though Seaver won the Cy Young and finished second in the MVP voting, 1969 was not his best statistical year.
Fast forward now to the next World Series championship for the Mets, 1986. I refuse on moral grounds as a Red Sox fan to get into the details, but I will say that a certain Dwight Gooden was just 21 during that season. Having made his debut at 19, and a stellar debut at that, it’s tough to compare Gooden’s Harvey year with Harvey at 24. That year for Gooden was 1989, and he threw just 118.1 innings due to a bum shoulder.
I had a lot of trouble deciding which year of Gooden’s to examine for this article, and for the sake of simple comparison I’ve settled on his rookie season of 1984. Doc exploded onto the scene in ’84, with a ridiculous K/9 of 11.39. He went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA, a 1.69 FIP, a sparkling 8.3 WAR, and a crazy good .29 HR/9, all despite a .296 BABIP. His WHIP was 1.07, his ERA+ was 137, and the list goes on. That was a sensational rookie season for Doc Gooden, and has been the most common comparison with Matt Harvey in 2013.
Mets fans have waited almost 30 years for another Dwight Gooden, another Seaver or Koosman, a Nolan Ryan they can lock down for more than four major league seasons. Look no further than Matt Harvey. He has thoroughly dominated all forms of competition this year. He’s made 19 starts (my guess is he’ll finish with about 30) and is 7-2 with a 2.35 ERA. He has ravaged my favorite stat, strikeout-to-walk ratio, with a 5.25 mark to go along with 10.18 K/9.
A half season is a small sample size, and many of his numbers have been inflated by his last two starts (13 innings, 15 hits, eight earned runs), but even with that inflation these numbers are fantastic: .92 WHIP, 2.17 FIP, 153 ERA+, and already a 4.2 WAR. Through 130 innings his metrics stand up against any of the four guys mentioned above.
What really excites me about Harvey, at the risk of cliché, goes somewhat beyond the statistics. His K/BB demonstrates how confident he is in his stuff and his ability to throw strikes, and he should be. His fastball averages above 95 mph, his slider is almost as fast as the average major league fastball, and his curveball and change-up are plus pitches as well. Robinson Cano in the All-Star Game was just the second batter Harvey has plunked all year.
But articles like this, and comparisons like mine, have put the weight of the whole Mets franchise almost entirely on Harvey’s shoulders. He started the All-Star Game at home in front of the biggest crowd in All-Star Game history, and after his first three pitches resulted in two baserunners he proceeded to strike out the best hitter in the world, induce a weak pop out from the other best hitter in the world, and go on to complete two shutout innings against a positively disgusting lineup.
Perhaps the most reassuring thing about Harvey is that he has a repeatable, clean, efficient delivery. We all saw the ESPN Body Issue; no one is questioning whether that machine can hold up over the course of the season. But Dylan Bundy has good mechanics and a strong body too, and overuse in high school probably doomed him to Tommy John surgery. The Mets are doing the right thing by limiting Harvey’s 2013 innings.
Matt Harvey is a gifted athlete with great mechanics, legendary stuff, and a confident makeup. He’s already put up numbers to rival the great young pitchers of the Mets franchise. Can he spearhead the charge to another ring? We’ll find out. But in the meantime, how exciting is this?