It's been said, by no less an authority than the great Ted Williams himself, that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sport.
And Mr. Williams never even had to face Matt Harvey.
Harvey, of course, is the New York Mets' ace right-hander. He's also one of the biggest stories in baseball this year, as the 24-year-old former first-round pick has become one of the best pitchers in the game—in about the same amount of time it takes one of his 98 mph fastballs to leave his hand and arrive in the catcher's mitt, having missed the hitter's bat along the way, no doubt.
But just how "unhittable" is Harvey, and how is he doing it?
For the Record
At 4.31, Harvey's hits per nine rate so far this season looks more like the time it might take Mike Trout to moonwalk to first base. It's also easily the best in MLB and almost a full hit per nine better than Yu Darvish's.
Additionally, Harvey currently sports a batting average against of (ahem) .141, tops in the game by more than 20 points for the year.
If Harvey were to maintain those two statistics through 2013's end—he won't, but just play along—he would beat both Nolan Ryan's hits per nine record (5.26 in 1972) and Pedro Martinez's batting average against mark (.166 in 2000).
The chart at right shows the top 10 seasons in those two categories.
Here's where we pause to remind you the season is barely a month-and-a-half old. While Harvey is proving to be record-setting so far, well, so is Darvish (5.13 H/9, .163 BAA) and his fellow countryman Hisashi Iwakuma (5.23, .165).
In other words, even in this day and age of pitching domination, don't expect Harvey's rates to last to this extent. Sorry if that bursts your bubble.
Still, when a hitter stands in the batter's box against Harvey right now, he's basically attempting to do the single most difficult thing in sport—against the single best person at preventing the hitter from doing that very thing.
More Whiffs, Fewer Hits
So we know the "how," as in how hard it is to hit Harvey. But what about the "why?"
First, let's take a look at Harvey's plate discipline section on FanGraphs, which measures how often hitters swing and how often they make contact against him.
We could bore you with more numbers (that's what the chart at right is for), but suffice it to say that it doesn't take long to interpret the data. Not only is Harvey getting batters to swing more than the average pitcher, especially on pitches outside the strike zone, he's also making them swing and miss much more than average, again especially on stuff that wouldn't be a strike if they didn't chase.
In other words, Harvey's stuff is hard both hard to hit and hard to lay off.
By the way, the above goes for 2013 and 2012, so it's not exactly a flukish eight-start outlier limited to this season alone.
All of this jibes with the fact that Harvey has a nasty 12.7 swinging strike rate, which ranks third-best in the majors, and is striking out a crazy 30.1 percent of the hitters he faces—sixth-best overall.
Simply put, Harvey is registering so many swings and misses and so many strikeouts, that hitters are putting fewer balls in play, which of course, means fewer hits.
But what about when hitters actually do make contact and put balls in play? Because, believe it or not, that does occasionally happen against Harvey.
For this, we turn to FanGraphs' batted ball data, which shows that Harvey has been inducing a combination of weak contact and fly balls.
Harvey's allowing line drives on only 14.8 percent of balls put in play against him, which is seventh-fewest. As we know, of all types of batted balls, liners become base hits most often, so Harvey is limiting hits that way, too.
He's also in the top 20 in both fly ball percentage (40.6 percent, No. 20) and infield fly ball percentage (15.4, No. 11), and fly balls are easier to convert into outs than ground balls, especially when hitters are having so much trouble squaring them up.
At this stage, it's fair to question that whole "squaring up" concept.
It's true that certain pitchers are capable of limiting hard-hit balls, and thus maintaining BABIPs (batting average on balls in play) well below the typical league average (usually around .295 to .300). In general terms, these hurlers are the types who induce either an extreme amount of fly balls or ground balls and/or throw hard enough to result in weak contact. As we've established, Harvey falls more into the latter category.
This year, the Mets righty has—and here's where the cold water comes in—the lowest BABIP in the sport at .190. That's a full 100 points below the league-average BABIP of .290 for 2013, according to FanGraphs.
Now, Harvey's BABIP as a rookie was .262, so through his first 18 big league starts, it looks like he could be one of the low-BABIP electric arms noted above.
Still, Even though batters are hitting lower than normal on balls in play overall, and even though Harvey has shown so far he can keep his BABIP below league average, his current .190 is absolutely unsustainably low.
There may not be quite as large a regression as some might expect, but unless Harvey is going to put up an all-time BABIP (see chart), he'll start surrendering more hits. Which is why it's pretty much guaranteed we won't be seeing Harvey establish a new record in either hits per nine or batting average against.
Now that we've cut him down a peg, let's leave on a positive note.
What's scary about Harvey is that he's getting better in one extremely important aspect of his approach that has helped him subdue hitters—the first-pitch strike.
While his walks per nine rate improved in each of his three seasons at UNC, Harvey did average 4.7 BB/8, so there was at least some concern over his control and efficiency at the outset.
Those issues remained, at least to an extent, as he made his way up through the minors and during his first taste of the majors, as the chart to the right shows.
Through eight starts this season, though, Harvey has dramatically improved in those two areas. The reason? He's throwing strike one 65.1 percent of the time, per FanGraphs, which is five percent better than league average—as well as his 2012 rate.
This shows Harvey is more than capable of adjusting. And if he can continue to throw a first-pitch strike that frequently, well, it's only going to be that much harder for hitters to do much of anything when they're behind in the count. Which means more leverage for Harvey to generate more feeble swings and allow fewer hard hit balls—and hits.
Beyond the Stats
We could spend all day looking at the stats (too late!), but there are also factors like repertoire, mechanics and delivery. No surprise, Harvey has made noteworthy advancements in those, too.
Following the 2010 draft, Baseball America had this to say about Harvey (subscription required):
Scouts agree that Harvey's arm action is longer now than it was in 2007 but they aren't sure why. It affects his command, as it's harder for him to repeat his delivery and find the same release point. When he does, Harvey has explosive stuff, and he has worked harder than ever, thanks to improved maturity, to improve his balance and tempo.
Combined with that, here's video of Harvey's delivery from his UNC days:
Harvey's mechanics were relatively fluid even in college, but he's certainly polished up certain aspects. He gets better extension and is a much smoother today. Go back and click the video of Harvey owning the White Sox, and you can see how much easier the upper-90s heat looks coming out of his hand.
Again, this is yet another example of how Harvey has the ability to adapt, adjust and learn as he progresses.
Harvey's combination of stuff, mentality and drive makes him fun to watch.
And almost impossible to hit.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
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