Saving Matt Harvey: New York Mets Work to Avoid Stephen Strasburg-Style Shutdown
While the baseball world debates the effect of 148 no-hit pitches on San Francisco Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum, there's another debate going on in Queens. The New York Mets are trying to figure out how to best handle their ace, Matt Harvey, as he gets ready to start the All-Star Game.
The Mets are watching Harvey closely. Inside their front office and training room, they're using what they hope are the most effective methods for figuring out when and if to shut him down. The Mets are basing this on both tangible factors and gut, because baseball simply doesn't know how to deal with the issue of young pitchers at risk for arm injury.
The Mets are trying to use more evidence-based measures than most teams. They are hoping to avoid the same kind of controversies seen last season when the Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg.
The Mets are still using a standard 15 to 20 percent increase over last years' inning count as a guideline for Harvey, as manager Terry Collins noted to MLB.com. They want to keep him healthy and make sure he's available into September. That percentage increase would take Harvey—who threw 169.1 innings last year—out at 190 to 200 innings. It can be more casually stated as a 30-inning increase.
A team source told me that the team has milestones set up at 170, 190 and 210 innings. At those points, they will check Harvey's fatigue levels, velocity, release point and pitch movement. The Mets are doing their best to be as objective as possible.
The downside is that even if the Mets had purely objective measures, there's really nothing to compare them with. Baseball doesn't know how to handle young pitchers, as the sheer number of wrecks alongside the bullpens show. An educated guess like they're trying to make with Harvey is still a guess.
The Mets don't have a hard innings limit on Harvey or anything of the sort. Instead, team sources tell me that there's a number of "milestones and tests" that they will be watching for in regards to when and if Harvey will be shut down.
How the Mets handled the blister that kept Harvey from making his last between-starts workout signals part of that plan. If at any point he can't recover enough from a blister to make all his side sessions, the team will adjust his upcoming workload. That could include delaying or skipping a start as happened here or even starting the shutdown process, as noted by Sandy Alderson to the New York Daily News. While Harvey has been pitching with the blister over his last couple starts, it wasn't until his routine was affected that there were changes to his workload.
From the outside, the easiest way to follow along with the Mets' measures is watching his velocity. Harvey's normal velocity charts well and has remained very consistent throughout the season to this point. Any sort of dip in that velocity, as we saw last year with Lance Lynn when his arm fatigued, could result in changes to Harvey's workload. (The spike at the end of the season in Lynn's chart reflects a shift to the bullpen.)
The Mets are also using any opportunity they can to buy Harvey a bit of extra rest. While many saw skipping his last start prior to the All Star break as a way to get Harvey into the hometown game, it was a chance to trade off 10-14 innings in return for one. Harvey will in essence skip two starts, one done the weekend before the break and then slotting into a later slot after the break, while not getting drastically off turn or changing his routine. That's the sort of simple but smart move that the Nats ignored last year with Strasburg.
The Mets don't have long term data to use in determining his fatigue status. They don't have biomechanical measures that show how the forces on his elbow and shoulder are changing as he gets deeper into the season. It comes down to trusting the medical staff and the field staff to be able to find the right sort of crystal ball while at the same time having discernible standards for formulating that plan.
Harvey has been a revelation through the first half of the season, giving them the ace that Mets fans have been looking for since Dwight Gooden burst on the scene. (Harvey is 7-2, with a 2.35 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 130 innings.) In fact, Gooden is in large part the reason for the debate. Gooden's workload at such a young age may have cost him a Hall of Fame career.
Given the way Gooden burned out, both on and off the field, as well as the crushing use of "Generation K"—Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson—that led to even more Mets futility, fans are reasonably concerned how Harvey, as well as other young pitchers like Zach Wheeler, Rafael Montero and Noah Syndegaard, will be protected.
In this pitch count era, the last 15 years informed by the research of Craig Wright, Dr. Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner, we have not been able to stem the tide of pitcher arm injuries. In fact, in going from an era where Lincecum's pitch count would have been ordinary or at least not unusual, we've seen a massive increase in the number of injuries. Just fifteen years ago, Randy Johnson averaged over 120 pitches a game! This season, three pitchers—Yu Darvish, Chris Sale and C.J. Wilson—lead the league with an average of 109 pitches per start.
Last season, the Nationals made the controversial move of setting an innings limit for Strasburg. Their young ace was coming off Tommy John surgery and would be in his first full season back. The Nats used the 160-inning mark as the cutoff, a number based on nothing more than their experience with Jordan Zimmermann the previous season.
Zimmerman, like Strasburg, was in his first full season back from surgery, but had no real hard limit. One hundred sixty innings is where he ended up, not a hard limit like Strasburg. (Few remember that 160 was the innings limit that Strasburg was given in 2010 as well, the season he slowly progressed through the minors and then blew out his elbow anyway.)
Strasburg didn't pitch in the playoffs, despite his pleas to perform and his showing off a solid fastball in the side sessions he threw to keep his arm ready, just in case the team changed its mind. The move may have hurt the Nats chance in the playoffs and did nothing to make Strasburg a less risky pitcher, now or in the future.
In 2012, Harvey threw 169.1 innings between Buffalo (AAA) and the Mets. While research I did back in 2003 indicated that minor-league innings do not have the same stresses as major-league innings, I was never able to find a consistent multiplier. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci has tracked a similar rule, but does not differentiate between major and minor league innings. In 2012, Russell Carleton attacked Verducci's research, leading many to conclude the Year-After Effect to be moot.
Mets fans will be watching Harvey's progress closely and if necessary, they'll likely accept a late-season shutdown better than Nats fans did. The Mets aren't fighting for the playoffs yet, but if they can keep Harvey and their other young pitchers healthy, the team will have a better shot to get back there soon. Not only that, they may be a new example of pitcher management that's slowly creeping into the game.
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