The trouble with the curve

https://twitter.com/AdamRubinESPN/status/223210758023036929

OK, a few notes first. A) Yes, this is sort of trolling, and I promised to stop that. But the way the Mets have been playing (John f@#$ing Lannan? Really?) must make trolls of much stronger men than me.

B) That quote — referring to Matt Harvey — comes from a scout texting Adam Rubin, not Rubin himself. Rubin’s merely reporting what the scout said, and just a few days later he presented more thorough and balanced scouting takes on Harvey in a forum not limited to 140 characters. I intend to troll the scout in question only.

C) The quote above came after one of Harvey’s starts in late June. And though Harvey didn’t pitch appreciably better in terms of results in his handful of Triple-A appearances after that one, perhaps he spent the month refining his secondary stuff and preparing to strike out buttloads of big-leaguers in his first turn around the Majors.

But still.

Here’s a fun thing: In Matt Harvey’s first nine Major League starts, he has 63 strikeouts. If you go through all of Pelfrey’s 149 big-league starts, isolate the nine outings in which he struck out the most batters and add up the total, you only get to 61 strikeouts. Pelfrey never at any point showed anything like the capacity to fool Major League hitters that Harvey has already demonstrated. Harvey’s tiny-sample career K/9 rate is more than twice Mike Pelfrey’s.

That’s not to hate on Pelfrey. Big Pelf, for all he’s reviled in some circles, provided the Mets nearly 900 roughly league-average innings in their starting rotation and should not really be faulted for failing to develop the swing-and-miss stuff necessary to become the front-line starter we hoped he’d be.

But that was like the main thing about Mike Pelfrey! He didn’t strike anybody out. And the main thing about Matt Harvey, so far at least, is that he strikes everybody out. That’s a massive distinction, because with the strikeouts comes the legitimate hope that Harvey can develop into a dominant starter. Matt Harvey is like Mike Pelfrey in that he is a big, hard-throwing white dude* drafted in the first round by the Mets out of college. But that’s really it.

I’m not just trying to be a jerk here. I aim to emphasize the problem with relying too heavily on anyone’s eyes to evaluate baseball players. This person, who is thought so good at watching baseball players and judging their talents that he is actually paid to do so, said in June that Matt Harvey was “Pelfrey without the split or breaking ball.” Think about that.

Again: Maybe a lot changed between late June and Harvey’s debut in late July. Maybe one very bad start colored a good scout’s perception on Harvey enough that he compared a guy a month away from a double-digit strikeout start in the Majors to Pelfrey, who never did that once. Or maybe this is one bad scout. After all… Pelfrey’s breaking ball and splitter?

In any case, it’s kind of damning. Indisputably, scouts have a ton of value in the development and evaluation of young baseball players and can very much benefit reporting on the subject. But scouts are human beings and human beings all pretty much suck at stuff. We are biased in so many ways: by our deeply ingrained cultural perspectives, by our first impressions, by our preconceived notions, by our moods, by the weather, by the quality of our breakfasts, everything. And this guy making the Pelfrey/Harvey comp should theoretically be one of the very best in the world at keeping all those biases at bay. Think of what that implies for the untrained scouting fodder you sometimes read here and elsewhere.

This is why I get frustrated when I see a lot of baseball analysis seemingly swinging back toward the subjective stuff from the hard data that came into vogue after Moneyball: All the issues inherent in relying on traditional scouting still exist. We better understand the flaws in relying too heavily on certain stats or in relying only on certain stats, but there was plenty of evidence even back in July to suggest that Harvey and Pelfrey didn’t have much in common.

Harvey’s big-league success, of course, has come across only 52 1/3 innings, a more or less insignificant sample. Maybe he’ll spend the next six years pitching exactly like Mike Pelfrey, proving this scout correct and making the previous 750 words look either silly or like a massive jinx.

All I’m saying, I guess, is that I’d recommend against taking anyone’s word for anything. Not some anonymous scout’s and certainly not mine. People are generally full of it, and Matt Harvey is sweet.

*- I don’t know anything about this particular scout, but I mention Harvey and Pelfrey’s shared whiteness because I read a ton about baseball and it’s very rare that you see an interracial scouting comparison. I suspect that if Matt Harvey were an Asian dude** — even if he still grew up in Connecticut and pitched at U.N.C. — he’d never be compared to Pelfrey.

**- I really only mention that as an especially awkward segue into a discussion of rookie pitchers and Asian dudes. Harvey’s first nine big-league starts look pretty similar to Yu Darvish’s first nine big-league starts: Tons of strikeouts, a few too many walks, not a lot of hits, good ERA. Darvish now has an extra 100+ Major League innings under his belt, plus five years’ worth of being the best pitcher in NPB history. But Darvish is two and a half years older and owed about $50 million through 2017. The Mets, I believe, should control Harvey through arbitration through 2018 if he stays in the bigs continuously. He could make more than Darvish over that time, but only if he’s good. Would you trade Harvey straight up for Darvish? Not rhetorical.

One thought on “The trouble with the curve

  1. Pingback: Super Tuesday: It’s A Great Day To Be A Mets Fan | Welcome to My World!

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