A recent MLBTR poll asked whether the Mets ought to move Matt Harvey to the bullpen. As poll respondents recommended, the team elected to do just that. For many pitchers, such a move would be disappointing but not otherwise terribly momentous. In Harvey’s case, though, everything occurs against the backdrop of his often-glorious, sometimes-tumultuous history in New York. Let’s take a look at the situation before posing a somewhat different question in a follow-up poll.
There was little reason entering the season to think that Harvey would resemble the ace of old. If anything, the question was whether the Mets ought even to tender him a contract. MLBTR’s Steve Adams examined that question as a disappointing 2017 Mets campaign wound to a close. Despite Harvey’s marginal recent track record, Adams explained, it’d be hard to find a bounceback candidate with a more promising outlook for a lesser price. (Player and team ultimately settled at $5.625MM for Harvey’s final season of arbitration eligibility.)
At the time the tender decision was made, there was still some reason to believe that Harvey could yet emerge from his struggles. After all, he had just completed his first season of work after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. A full offseason was available for Harvey to rest and build up normally, rather than rehabbing back from a procedure. And his 29th birthday would not come until just before Opening Day of 2018, putting youth on his side.
Things, clearly, have not turned out as hoped. Through 23 innings in four starts and one relief appearance, Harvey has allowed 15 earned runs on 28 hits (including four long balls) while recording 19 strikeouts and five walks.
There are some conflicting signals when you dig further. Both xFIP and SIERA grade Harvey’s output thus far at sub-4.00 levels, and his .324 BABIP-against and 66.9% strand rate could each be viewed as signals of some poor fortune. Then again, Statcast suggests Harvey has actually been somewhat lucky, as the wOBA he has allowed (.356) trails the xwOBA (.371) indicated by the quality of opponents’ contact.
More importantly, perhaps, those numbers don’t really paint a full picture of the concerns. Harvey, who once worked in the upper nineties with his fastball, has lost nearly a mile-and-a-half off his average heater just in comparison to his 2017 effort. And like last year, he’s generating swinging strikes with less than eight percent of his pitches, well off his previous career mean and well shy of league average.
The Mets neither expected nor demanded that Harvey return to being a front-of-the-rotation starter, though surely the gamble presumed there was real upside left in his arm. There’s always a downside scenario, too, of course, and that seems to be the case here. If the bet isn’t going to pay out, you have to have a backup plan. The Mets certainly did not assume that Harvey (or other talented-but-oft-injured hurlers like Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler) would pan out in 2018. The club knew it needed some additional steadiness on the staff, too, and thus added Jason Vargas. But what to do with Harvey himself?
For the time being, the former star is going to work from the bullpen, where he’ll at least be able to give some length while remaining available if a rotation need arises. The organization will no doubt prefer to bide its time before making any irrevocable decisions, and skipper Mickey Callaway says he expects Harvey will return to the rotation at some point. Still, the long-time starter’s transition to the pen does not appear to have been a smooth one to date. Harvey expressed consternation with his the idea of relief work both before and after the decision was made. And if his outburst to the media yesterday is any indication, plenty of tension remains.
The situation might look quite a bit different if we were discussing a less prominent player with a different track record with a different team. But this is the Dark Knight of Gotham. How would you handle the situation if you were Mets GM Sandy Alderson? (Link for app users.)