Mets RHP Matt Harvey is among the 10 players in baseball that could end up determining his team's success in 2018, columnist Richard Justice wrote in February for MLB.com.
Harvey will make his fourth start this spring when the Mets face the Marlins at 1:10 p.m. today on SNY at First Data Field in St. Lucie.
I'm fascinated by Harvey's story this season. It's easily the most intriguing track to follow on this year's team. Because, the fact is, if Harvey can get results like he did in 2015, let alone 2013, the Mets should end up having the best rotation in baseball.
However, given that he's 9-17 with a 5.78 ERA during the 36 sporadic starts he has made the last two injury-plagued seasons, there's no way to know what should realistically be expected of him.
These days, Harvey isn't focused on being the best, most dominant pitcher in baseball. He is no longer focused on demoralizing opponents with a devastating fastball and slider. He no longer does high-profile interviews with non-sports publications talking about fashion and style and dating supermodels. He no longer speaks about wanting to be Derek Jeter.
Instead, as his manager Mickey Callaway told him when they talked in the off-season, Harvey's goal now is to simply be the best Matt Harvey he can be...
"Going in to this year, I strive to be better than I was before," Harvey explained in late February. "I'm still 28, 29 years old. There's a lot left in the tank. I'm ready to go, I'm excited."
To make his story even more compelling, Matt will be a free agent after this season, which is something he's been dreaming about since being named the best high school pitcher by Baseball America in 2007.
His agent, Scott Boras, had been telling teams that Harvey would not sign unless he received at least a $2 million signing bonus, which is why he slipped to being selected by the Angels in the third round. However, the Angels would only offer a $1 million signing bonus, so Harvey gambled on his arm and age and rejected the offer -- instead choosing to pitch for the University of North Carolina and test his luck in the draft a few years later...
Harvey had a nice career in Carolina, which helped him get drafted with the seventh overall pick by the Mets in 2010. He inked a contract to play professional baseball for the Mets, which included a $2.5 million bonus -- $500,000 more than he insisted on getting three years earlier.
The point is, to Harvey, money clearly matters and this had always been the offseason when he'd finally get a $100 million contract paying him as one of the best pitchers in baseball. At least that's what he was likely imagining when -- at 24 years old -- he stepped on field to roaring cheers and flashbulbs popping at the 2013 All-Star Game in Citi Field.
Prior to that amazing night's first pitch, Harvey had a 2.35 ERA, while striking out nearly 30 percent of the batters he had faced that season. It was the pinnacle moment of his professional career. He was all the rage and center stage. And, I don't think anyone looking at him could imagine a world that didn't pay him nine figures to pitch in five years when finally becoming a free agent.
Yet, here we are...
In three season since undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow, despite a tremendous season in 2015, Harvey is just 22-25 with a 4.23 ERA (3.98 FIP), while averaging less than one strike out per inning. He has also missed time for a major surgery to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and questioned whether he'd ever be able to pitch again during his recovery.
His recent track record and current state of the market likely means he will be offered numbers and years significantly less than he expected to see in 2013. How much less, though, largely depends on how he pitches this season. Similarly, much of his team's success largely depends on how he pitches this season as well, so it all lines up for one terrific, tipping-point style storyline...
According to three baseball executives, had Harvey been a free agent this current winter coming off the injuries and poor performance he had in 2017, he would have been offered multiple one-year deals paying him less than $5 million guaranteed.
Thankfully for Matt, he'll get one more summer to establish his value during a season when the Mets desperately need either him, Steven Matz, or Zack Wheeler to stay healthy and fulfill their potential.
The way it stands, Mets manager Mickey Callaway is hoping to get roughly 90 starts and 40 wins out of Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, and Jason Vargas. In other words, Harvey leads a group of four or five other pitchers expected to combine for 70 or so starts and -- if the Mets want to play postseason baseball -- at least 25 wins, which is what the bullpen will need to account for, as well.
Assuming he makes around 25 starts this season, the general consensus has Harvey ending 2018 with as many wins as losses, an ERA at or slightly below 4.50, 100 or so strikeouts and 130 or so innings pitched. According to FanGraphs.com, this would be roughly a 1.2 WAR season and a tad less productive than what Matt produced during his rookie season.
Is, say, 25 starts, 9-9, 4.50 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP good enough to help the Mets in the way Callaway is needing help? And, if so, what will this do for Harvey's next contract?
Again, according to the same executives I referenced above, if Harvey can make 25 starts and net between 1.0 and 1.3 WAR, he can expect offers worth around three and four years and roughly $12-15 million each season. He would need to return to pitching like he did in 2015 to get himself in to the upper echelon of next winter's free agent pitchers -- a list that will include Dallas Keuchel, Drew Pomeranz ,and most likely Clayton Kershaw. Otherwise, he can expect to more realistically be competing in the second-tier market.
The good news for Harvey and the Mets is that, so far, Matt has looked mentally and physically strong this spring. I also like that he has looked upbeat and comfortable in his skin.
He has been ranging 93 to 95 MPH with his fastball, which is about where he should be at this point in his career. However, most important, he has returned to having command of his slider, which is making his fastball look appropriately powerful.
Harvey threw his slider 22 percent of the time last season, which was the most of his career. But, because he lost its handle, batters were not fooled. As a result, opposing hitters repeatedly took it for a ball, ended up walking or simply waiting on Harvey's fastball, which they crushed for hits.
"When your feel goes away, your confidence goes away, too," Callaway said recently about Harvey's command last season, according to Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com. "I think that was the root of the struggles he had in the last year and a half. He didn't know if he could throw the ball where he wanted to." Now, though, "he's dotting the glove. He's locating again, and I know he's really excited."
I've heard from friends in St. Lucie that Harvey has totally given his mind up to Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland. He's buying in to everything they're asking of his body and he's believing everything they are telling him about himself. Harvey is a smart, meticulous guy that can overthink things and get lost, spiraling down in to anxiety and a debilitating lack of confidence.
"We want the challenge of helping this guy out. He deserves it," Callaway said earlier this spring. "He was labeled The Dark Knight. He might never be The Dark Knight again. But the Mets don't need him to be that. His teammates in there don't need him to be The Dark Knight, and the guy he used to be. We need the best version of who Matt is today. And that version is gonna be good enough."
The fact that Callaway and Eiland may be acting as baseball psychologists and father figures, as well as mechanical pitching coaches, will play a major, major factor in everyone's success this season.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!