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Matt Harvey’s Quick and Agonizing Decline With the Mets Is No Mystery

Matt Harvey’s Quick and Agonizing Decline With the Mets Is No Mystery
07 May
9:22

The divorce between Matt Harvey and New York was inevitable, probably since August of 2013, when his elbow blew out. It was too much for Harvey to be The Dark Knight again, to live up to the superhero persona he created with the kind of power pitching that recalled his boyhood idol, Roger Clemens, and his contemporary template, Justin Verlander.

The truth is, for all the times he wound up in the tabloids other than the sports section, Harvey failed because his arm failed him. This is a baseball story. His arm likely failed him because of how he threw a baseball. And when his arm failed him, he knew no other way. He couldn’t pitch without an A-plus fastball, he couldn’t embrace using a bullpen role as a way back, and he couldn’t believe in himself again.

It is not a mystery. This is what happened to Matt Harvey:

YEAR

VELO

SPIN RATE

2015

96.5

2,338

2016

95.1

2,232

2017

94.0

2,181

2018

92.7

2,129

At age 29, he is in indisputable, steady decline. The Mets cut Harvey because his once-fearsome fastball became the almost exact definition of a mediocre fastball (MLB averages: 92.7 mph, 2,261 rpm). Because he couldn’t find another way to get hitters out, because he could not change his mechanics and because he could not buy into the bullpen, the Mets could not keep sending out to the mound as a starter.

The decline in his stuff was obvious. And there was no way his fastball was coming back with the way he throws.

Harvey pulls the ball far behind him—crossing the airspace over the rubber, a strenuous maneuver that rarely leads to long careers.

“My dad taught me,” Harvey once told me about his signature arm swing, referring to Ed Harvey, a well-regarded high school baseball coach in Connecticut. “He said bring it down, show it to second base and then go.”

The pushback arm swing, the “showing” of the ball to second base, and the way he raised the ball high and far from his head helped Harvey gain velocity, but over time those maneuvers also strained his arm. I wrote just the other day that Harvey’s “forearm flyout” way of throwing would not allow him to regain his good fastball.

The Mets knew this, especially with Mickey Callaway, as informed a modern pitching mind as you can find, as their manager.

There was a time last season that the Mets’ top baseball executives and staff huddled to decide what to do about Harvey and his five-something ERA. They saw a fragile pitcher.

“He’ll throw on the side, the coaches will come in and say, ‘Man, that’s the best stuff we’ve seen from Harvey in a year,’” said one former Mets staffer. “‘The ball’s coming out of his hand great.’ Then you’d see Harvey and he’d go, ‘My bullpen was unbelievable.’

“But then, the very first inning he runs into trouble, the game is over. You were holding your breath every start because if he had any issues, he’s done. He had zero confidence. His velocity was down. Without it, he was aiming the ball as badly as you could.”

Someone at the meeting came up with an idea.

“He hasn’t won a game in two months,” the staffer said. “He’s teetering every inning. Why not put him in the bullpen? Let him just come into a game and just let it loose. His velocity may play up. He might build confidence off such a role.”

But the Mets knew such a move would not be easy. They worried about how it would play out, both in Harvey’s mind and in public. He was Matt Harvey, the Dark Knight, The New Franchise Arm, the pitcher who turned game day at Citi Field into a holiday—Harvey Day. There would be no other way to see it than as a demotion.

New York Mets Matt Harvey

Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

The Mets could have cut him after last season, but they couldn’t bear the thought of Harvey bouncing back somewhere else. Winter reports of his throwing program—here we go again—was that “the ball was coming out of his hand great.” They signed him for $5.625 million, his last year before free agency.

And then once the games started, his fastball grew worse. His confidence eroded some more. When the Mets gave him the life preserver of a bullpen role, he threw it away. He snapped profanely at reporters. He gave up seven runs and 12 runners in six innings out of the pen.

The decline happened quickly, but not nearly as fast as his rise. Harvey was a happening. He bullied people with his fastball and he knew it. When I profiled him for SI, I gave him The Dark Knight nickname, because I saw in Harvey someone who not only had the stuff to save the Mets in Gotham—they were in the middle of six straight losing seasons when Harvey arrived—but also the desire to play the role. He embraced not just being a staff ace but also a dominating personality.

FROM THE VAULT: Matt Harvey, the Dark Knight of Gotham

“I was born with the edgy fire of wanting to win, and wanting to be the best,” he told me. “I was never going to settle for anything other than that.”

A touted high school pitcher, Harvey dropped to the third round of the draft, picked by the Angels, after not flashing elite velocity as a senior. The Angels offered him a million dollars. Harvey said he wouldn’t sign unless they gave him $2 million, and not a penny less. He wanted enough money so that after taxes, commissions and a brand new car, he could put $1 million in the bank. Ed was pacing in the backyard as the midnight deadline neared. The Angels didn’t call back.

The episode made Harvey bitter about the business of baseball. He vowed not to forget what he perceived to be the slights of his draft position and the Angels’ offer. He told me someday when he hits free agency, “What happened when I was 18 will be in the back of my mind.”

Suddenly, by getting cut now, he will be a free agent earlier than expected, and with little value to exact his revenge.

Harvey attended North Carolina, where he was supposed to pitch with Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner, but those high school pitchers signed as first-round picks of the Tigers and Giants, respectively. Harvey pitched well his freshman year, but as a sophomore, hoping to win a national championship and turn himself into a top-five pick, he regressed. He gained weight, lost velocity and pitched poorly.

“All those added pressures, I let it get to me,” he admitted.

He bounced back so well as a junior that the Mets took him with the seventh overall pick in 2010. Within two years he was in the big leagues. His debut was spectacular. He became only the sixth pitcher ever to strike out 11 batters and not allow a run in his first major league game. Nobody has done it since. This is where you must remember the greatness of Harvey, because it has faded like an old photograph. He made 36 starts before he first hurt his arm. Take a look at his career to that point in historical terms:

Most Strikeouts, First 36 Starts

1. Dwight Gooden: 310
2. Yu Darvish: 293
3. Kerry Wood: 290
4. Hideo Nomo: 288
5. Mark Prior: 281
6. Herb Score: 276
7. Matt Harvey: 261

The list is filled with both brilliance and sadness. The blessing of a power arm at a young age is a curse when it comes to longevity. All those strikeouts, all those pitches, all those forearm flyouts took their toll. Over the past 10 years, only two pitchers threw more than 120 pitches more than once in their first 36 starts: Harvey and Darvish.

Harvey made it back in 2015, throwing more innings after Tommy John surgery than anybody in recent memory. It ended with what now is the quintessential Matt Harvey/Dark Knight moment—running to the mound to start the ninth inning of World Series Game 5, holding a 2–0 lead, 216 innings deep into his post-Tommy John season and sitting on 101 pitches. Manager Terry Collins admitted he listened more to his heart than his head in sending him out.

I was in the booth for Fox that night, and I said as Harvey took the mound he should not throw another pitch out of the stretch—should a runner get on base, Collins needed a fresh arm. Asking Harvey to pitch with the bases empty and a two-run lead was one thing. Asking him to work out of the stretch facing the tying run was too big an ask.

You know what happened. Lorenzo Cain bled more gas from his tank not just with a walk but also one that required seven pitches. Collins didn’t move as Eric Hosmer came to bat. Cain stole second on the first pitch. Hosmer, his former teammate in travel ball when they were high school kids, ripped the next one for a double.

There would be no superhero ending. Gotham was not saved. And nothing would be the same again. And now that era is over—the braggadocio, the big fastball, the Escalade he bought because as a kid he would watch the Yankees climb into their big SUVs in the Yankee Stadium player parking lot, the gossip items, the Dark Knight logo in his locker, all those nights when Citi Field rocked simply upon the sight of Harvey walking out to the mound like he owned the joint … and, in his own way, he did.

This, though, is not a eulogy for his career. Harvey is still only 29 and, in time, may see getting out of New York and out from under his own long shadow as the opportunity he needs. Harvey will have to change. He will have to change the way he throws a baseball, as well as the pitches he throws and maybe even his role.

Corey Kluber was dead-ended in the minors until one day he learned how to throw a two-seam fastball. Rich Hill went to indy ball to learn how to throw more curveballs and in various shapes, parlaying his re-invention into $73 million worth of contracts. Charlie Morton changed his delivery and pitch selection, and closed the seventh game of the World Series. Jake Arrieta was the worst starting pitcher in Orioles history, changed the way he threw a baseball, and won a Cy Young Award.

There is another chapter for Matt Harvey. Reinvention is hard work, and Harvey, who spit on a million dollars as a teenager, may rise to this challenge. The crowds may never be as loud again as they were on Harvey Days, the fastball might never hop again the way it once did and the champagne life of an A-list celebrity may never again be so bubbly. But now, done with the Mets and the Mets done with him, another, if quieter act is at least possible.

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