As Matt Harvey prepares to take the mound Thursday night in Atlanta, he is a very different pitcher than he was just a few years ago -- one who finds himself fighting for a rotation spot. What has changed in how Harvey pitches and what can he do -- if anything -- to succeed in this new incarnation?
Thoracic outlet syndrome, a career-ender for many, first and foremost has drained Harvey's once-formidable velocity. His average fastball came in at or near 97 mph in 2013 and 2015 and is below 93 in his three starts thus far in 2018. The cold weather may be a factor, though, and it's not much of a stretch to see him reaching the 94 he averaged in 2017. His other pitches have slowed as well -- slider, changeup, and curveball have all dropped two or more miles per hour since 2015.
Many pitchers survive and even thrive with a velocity along the lines of what Harvey is currently throwing, but his performance is still a long ways off from his days as an ace. He's struggling to fool batters, with swing rates well below his peak and contact rates well above. His swinging strike rate has dropped almost 3 percent from his 2015 mark, though it is up slightly from last year.
There are a combination of factors that give batters an edge here. A a slightly slower pitch allows major league level hitters an extra split second to try to "read" the pitch and decide whether or not to swing at it. Harvey is also likely pushing for a little extra velocity and getting less movement on his pitches. While it's not necessarily an easy adjustment for a pitcher to make, he might do well to learn from pitchers like Bartolo Colon, and accept the lower velocity while focusing on movement and location.
It's clear that Harvey is no longer a strikeout machine and likely never will be again. He is striking out just under eight batters per nine innings, an uptick from the last two years and a number he can certainly survive on. Promisingly, his walk rate is below two batters per nine innings -- his best mark since 2015 and a major improvement over last year. As he is going to be hittable at this stage in his career, it's essential he keep walks at a minimum in order to limit the damage.
Harvey also needs to keep the ball in the yard and so far, he is not succeeding in those efforts. His home run rate is near last year's, which was quite poor, and at this point in the season, it is a definite cause for concern. Home runs will only increase as the weather warms up. And that along with his career-high 40 percent hard-hit rate spells trouble. If he can't rein in the long balls, it could seriously limit the team's options, as it makes him a poor candidate for the bullpen. Once one of the league's best when it comes to allowing home runs, it is now his biggest liability.
Two seasons removed from a career-altering surgery, the new Matt Harvey is still emerging. The pieces are there for a solid back-end starter, especially if he can continue to limit walks. But if he doesn't start to limit the home runs, it's going to be very hard for him and pitching coach Dave Eiland to put all the pieces together.
Maggie Wiggin (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Archive Posts) has been a Mets fan since birth and a MetsBlog contributor since 2013. She loves throwing hard and hitting hard and hates the DH. When baseball is out of season, she fills her days with data analysis and evaluation and patiently waits for Spring