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Matt Harvey's Wild Rebound from On- and Off-Field Nightmare to Golden Trade Chip

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 24, 2018

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Matt Harvey (32) works against the Atlanta Braves in the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, June 26, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Matt Harvey was on the wrong end of a shellacking his last time out. If he were still a member of the New York Mets, that would be a case of more of the same.

In his time with the Cincinnati Reds, however, it was an exception to the rule.

The eight-run dud Harvey laid Sunday against the Pittsburgh Pirates pushed his ERA through 13 starts with the Reds to 4.50. Before that, the right-hander was rocking a solid 3.64 ERA with a 49-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64.1 innings.

That isn't going to be lost on contenders who are looking to trade for a starting pitcher. As Cincinnati's one and only pending free agent, Harvey may be the lone Red who's available ahead of Major League Baseball's July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. He could be worth a prospect or two in a trade.

Not bad, considering where Harvey stood when the Reds picked him up.

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Cincinnati acquired Harvey from the Mets on May 8 in a trade that sent catcher Devin Mesoraco to New York. That was only three days after he had been designated for assignment and just five days after his performance as a Met had finally hit a nadir.

After the Atlanta Braves lit up the 29-year-old for five runs in a two-inning relief stint May 3, he owned a 7.00 ERA for the season and a 5.93 ERA since the start of 2016.

Since the Mets had already demoted Harvey from their starting rotation to their bullpen, they had to decide if he was more trouble than he was worth. One can imagine that his many off-the-field controversies—including a couple that interfered with his professional obligations in October 2015 and May 2017—factored into their decision.

Certainly a far greater concern, however, was whether Harvey was simply broken beyond repair.

His injury history included Tommy John surgery in 2013, thoracic outlet surgery in 2016 and a scapula injury in 2017. And it showed. Harvey's average fastball sat just south of 96 mph when he broke out as an All-Star in 2013 and returned to acehood in 2015. Through eight appearances with the Mets this year, it had declined all the way to 92.6 mph.

Once the Mets made the decision to DFA Harvey, the question became whether there was any team out there that fancied itself as his savior. Enter the Reds.

"It was primarily watching him pitch, scouting him, watching video," president of baseball operations Dick Williams said of the team's decision to take a chance on Harvey, per John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "We did make some calls to learn what we could about some of the things that have been talked about. It was primarily mechanics to see if there's something we could do to help."

Cut to now, and there is a subtle difference in how Harvey is throwing the ball. Rob Friedman, Twitter's resident pitch GIF specialist, highlighted it:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

92mph Matt Harvey (2018 Mets) vs 97mph Matt Harvey (2018 Reds), Mechanics. https://t.co/nOcSakxkhH

Harvey's arm action has changed, going from long and out of sync with the rest of his body to shorter and very much in sync with his body.

Lo and behold, his fastball velocity has improved dramatically this season:

  • With New York: 92.6 mph
  • With Cincinnati: 94.3 mph

And as Harvey's fastball velocity has increased, so has his fondness for high heat. The average height of his fastballs has increased:

  • With New York: 2.4 ft
  • With Cincinnati: 2.7 ft

This has had the desired effect of stopping hitters from annihilating his fastball. Hitters were hitting it an average speed of 92.8 mph, complete with a .686 slugging percentage. Those figures are now down to 91.3 mph and .446.

Such is life when hitters are tasked with hitting pitches like this one:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Matt Harvey....97mph on his 96th pitch. https://t.co/tgQYXKGvdN

Harvey's mechanical change has had another, no-less-important benefit: His command is better now than it has been in years.

He's walking only 2.0 batters per nine innings, compared to the 3.0 walks per nine he issued earlier in 2018 and the ugly 4.6 BB/9 he had in 2017. This is no accident, as he's been throwing more first-pitch strikes and more pitches in the strike zone in general:

Mind you, it isn't all sunshine and rainbows.

Harvey's fastball has come back to life, but his ability to miss bats hasn't. His contact rate remains far above what it used to be. Hence his strikeouts-per-nine rate barely budged throughout 2018. He was at 6.7 with the Mets. Now he's at 6.8 with the Reds.

Harvey is also never far from hard contact. He peaked with a 26.5 percent rate in 2013. He was at 43 percent with the Mets earlier this year, and he's only improved to 37.7 percent with the Reds. That's above the MLB average of 35.5 percent.

Still, if the question is whether Harvey has been reclaimed by the Reds, the answer is an unequivocal yes. He's back to being a power pitcher who throws strikes. Regardless of what warts they may have, pitchers like that aren't to be taken lightly.

And despite Harvey's misstep against the Pirates, the stars are aligning for the Reds to deal him.

Other rental starters on the market include J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels, Tyson Ross, Nathan Eovaldi and Lance Lynn. It's not the most spectacular group, and Happ and Hamels have done more damage to their value of late than Harvey has. Though they almost certainly won't get any blue chips for him, the Reds should be able to market him to enough teams to end up with something of value in a trade.

Wherever Harvey ends up, his next step will be into free agency for the first time. In a world in which even Tyler Chatwood got three years and $38 million, a respectable contract should be in order.

In short, Harvey is an asset again. That may not be the same as an ace, but it's sure better than damaged goods.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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