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Has Matt Harvey Already Become the Best Pitcher in Baseball?

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Has Matt Harvey Already Become the Best Pitcher in Baseball?
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Just how good is Matt Harvey?

Well, the absolute least you can say about the guy is that he's for real. The 24-year-old right-hander has dominated at every turn since joining the New York Mets late last July. And with 26 starts and nearly 170 innings to his name, his sample size has just about outgrown small-sample-size caveats.

According to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com, the thinking among scouts now is that Harvey is better than Washington Nationals righty Stephen Strasburg. That's high praise seeing as how Strasburg was arguably the best pitching prospect in history not too long ago.

But never mind Strasburg. How about the rest of the league? Is Harvey better than, you know, everyone?

The answer shouldn't be yes; Harvey doesn't even have a full year of major league service time under his belt, and it generally takes a lot longer than that to earn the crown of baseball's best pitcher. 

When the question first popped into my head, that was the first reason I could think of to say "No." But then I pondered some more and got to digging around, and eventually came to a slow realization that there really aren't many other reasons to say "No."

There are, in fact, more reasons to say "Yes." As baffling as the notion is, there's plenty of evidence that says Harvey is indeed that good.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The usual numbers have plenty of kind things to say about Harvey. His 2.05 ERA ranks third in MLB behind Clay Buchholz and Jeff Locke, and he's tied for third in ERA+ and for fifth in innings with CC Sabathia.

Elsewhere, Harvey ranks first in in the whole league in WHIP and first in the National League in strikeouts. He's also tops among pitchers in Baseball-Reference.com WAR and second in FanGraphs WAR.

Not a bad list of accolades right there, to be sure, but Harvey is not without worthy challengers.

Adam Wainwright has a better fWAR than Harvey, and Buchholz, Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw are hot on his heels in rWAR. If you prefer old-fashioned measures of pitcher effectiveness, than the 11-0 Max Scherzer has to be considered. Ditto fellow unbeaten Patrick Corbin. 

Bob Levey/Getty Images
"What am I? Chopped liver?"—Justin Verlander, probably.

Then there are those who deserve to be grandfathered into this discussion, such as Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander. And in the past calendar year, Yu Darvish has been about as good as anybody. If you look hard enough, you will find various numbers that favor these guys over Harvey. You're more than welcome to do so if you have the time and/or the energy.

Beyond his own impressive numbers, however, what Harvey has working for him is the fact that he's really good at the whole pitching thing. It's an art form, and these days he might as well be Leonardo da Vinci.

We all know Harvey can throw hard. He throws hardest, in fact, as Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) has his average fastball velocity at a league-high 95.6 miles per hour. Only Strasburg is remotely close to Harvey in that category (95.4).

But Harvey's no mere hard thrower. He doesn't get enough credit for two things, the first being his ability to pitch in and out of the zone and the other being his ability to mix his pitches.

Baseball Info Solutions has Harvey's Zone%—that being the percentage of pitches he throws inside the strike zone—at 47.5 percent. That puts him in the top 25 among starters, which is otherwise known as a "good place to be."

But Harvey doesn't need to live inside the strike zone as much as other pitches do. He's in a league of his own in terms of expanding the strike zone.

Harvey is one of only six starters in the league with an O-Swing%—that being the percentage of pitches outside the zone that he gets hitters to chase—of at least 35.5 percent. But consider how he compares to the company he keeps in terms of actually missing bats.

Pitcher O-Swing% O-Contact% SwStr%
 Cole Hamels 37.7  64.2  12.0 
 Adam Wainwright 37.1  65.1  10.4 
 Hisashi Iwakuma 36.6  62.2  11.0 
 Julio Teheran 35.8  69.3  9.9 
 Matt Harvey 35.5  57.6  12.2 
 Homer Bailey 35.5  68.0  10.7 

Harvey doesn't have the best O-Swing%, but he's easily the best of these six at limiting contact outside the strike zone. It's therefore not surprising that Harvey also has the best swinging-strike rate of these six. Harvey is able to do this in large part thanks to his repertoire, which is unique in two ways.

Harvey is primarily a fastball-slider guy, as he throws hard stuff over 50 percent of the time and his slider over 20 percent of the time, according to BIS by way of FanGraphs. What makes him a little different is that he also throws his curveball and changeup over 10 percent of the time.

There aren't many other pitchers who have such a balanced attack. In 2013, Harvey is among a select group of qualified starters who go to their sliders, curves and changeups at least 10 percent of the time, and that group looks like this:

So there's that, but there's quite a difference between a four-pitch pitcher and a pitcher with four pitches that are actually effective.

Harvey's the latter. Per Brooks Baseball, the highest batting average against any of his four primary offerings is .220 against his curveball. Hitters are hitting below the Mendoza Line against his slider and changeup. Not surprisingly, linear weights speak volumes about Harvey's arsenal as well. Those can be found on FanGraphs, and they tell how many runs above or below average pitchers save with various pitches.

Going back to the list of names above, here's a look at how many runs above average each pitcher saved with each pitch on a per-100-pitch basis as compared to the league average for starters. The English translation of that would be: "Here's a look at how many of their pitches are legitimately above average."

The only other starting pitcher in baseball who can boast about having above-average hard stuff to go along with an above-average slider, above-average curveball and above-average changeup is Madison Bumgarner.

However, the only primary pitch of Mad-Bum's that's better than Harvey's is his slider. Harvey's fastball, curveball and changeup are all better.

Is Matt Harvey baseball's best pitcher?

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Wainwright can't match Harvey's repertoire (see FanGraphs). Neither can Kershaw (FanGraphs). Or King Felix. Or Strasburg. Scherzer barely makes the grade with a passable changeup and a solid curveball, but he rarely throws the latter. Darvish's slider and curveball are nasty, but his other secondaries are lacking.

And so on. You can search for hours, days even, and you're not going to find a pitcher going right now who has a four-pitch mix as devastating as Harvey's.

So killer velocity? Harvey has that.

The ability to beat hitters both in and outside the strike zone? Harvey has that.

A deep arsenal of effective pitches? Harvey has that.

Spectacular numbers? Harvey has those.

Hence the reason it's hard to argue that this guy isn't the best pitcher baseball has to offer. We haven't known Matt Harvey that long, but what we know at this juncture is that he's everything you could possibly ask for in a pitcher.

Not bad for a guy who wasn't even considered the best pitching prospect in his own system this time last year.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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