If you’re still watching these woeful Mets — and heaven help us, we’re still watching these woeful Mets — then yesterday you saw Matt Harvey finish his first season with a flourish, striking out Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz to end the seventh and close out a one-run, one-hit, seven-strikeout effort on the night the Mets determined would be his last outing of the year. Then, to add awesomeness to excellence, in an interview immediately afterward he said he felt great and not at all tired, and basically suggested he’d pitch tomorrow if the Mets asked him and that he would spend the offseason getting super jacked because he believes six-inning starts are unacceptable. So that was cool.
Despite some rather unfortunate pre-callup comps, Harvey’s first turn around the big leagues went about as well as anyone could have hoped. In 59 1/3 innings across 10 starts, he struck out 70 batters and yielded a strong 2.73 ERA. The only part of his stat line that’s at all troubling is his relatively high walk total for the year, but he mitigated that by limiting hits and in so doing maintained a strong 1.146 WHIP.
But you were watching, so you don’t need stats to tell you this: The guy is great. His fastball’s a bullet. His slider makes you chuckle and his curveball makes you weep. In a once-promising Mets season that fell apart so thoroughly and so triumphantly, he was the One Awesome Thing of the Second Half.
Still, pitchers are pitchers, and young pitchers even more so. Does Matt Harvey’s success over his first 10 starts tell us anything about what we can expect from him moving forward beyond the obvious, surface-level stuff we’ve all seen? Has he set the expectations unreasonably high for himself? I took to baseball-reference‘s awesome play index to find out.
What follows is a lot of lousy math. Since I’m starting at Harvey and working backward, I’m tailoring every search to what Harvey did this year. Every endpoint is pretty arbitrary. I just set out to find if there were good examples from history, based on statistics alone, to compare to Harvey. And Harvey’s 59 1/3-inning sample is tiny. If he threw 40 more innings and they weren’t as good, all the rate stats I used below would change. So he benefits here from how long he stayed in the Minors in 2012.
First, using park- and league-adjusted ERA+, I looked up every rookie starter under 25 years old who threw at least 50 innings and managed at least a 135 mark in that stat since 1951. Fifty pitchers have done that, and not surprisingly they represent a broad range of Major League success — from Wayne Simpson to Mike Mussina. They include great pitchers like Dennis Eckersley and Tim Hudson, the forever-linked Doc Gooden and Mel Stottlemyre, and sad stories like Herb Score and Mark Fidrych.
All told, by my count the 49 pitchers on the list besides Harvey averaged about 18.6 WAR over their careers — roughly as good as one of the group’s most durable innings-eaters, Aaron Sele. Of course, that average includes early flame-outs like Jason Jacome (remember Jason Jacome!) and a slew of guys who are still active, so it’s not really a good indicator of much at all.
Interestingly enough — or maybe not interestingly at all, I don’t know — the group seems to be trending upward, perhaps due to improved knowledge about how to keep pitchers healthier longer, the type we saw in action last night when Harvey was shut down. If you take the same qualifiers but look only at the players who have entered the Majors since 2000, the search returns a group that includes three of the best pitchers going today: Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg.
There are crappy guys on there too, but if you exclude Harvey and fellow rookie A.J. Griffin, the ten under-25 rookie starters who have come up to the Majors since 2000 and thrown at least 50 innings with a 135 ERA+ have compiled 206 WAR over parts of 74 seasons, or 2.8 WAR a season — a hair better than Jon Niese has been this year, as a point of comparison. That’s good news. The list of ten includes six All-Stars (those three, Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt and Barry Zito), three Cy Young Award winners and one potential first-cousin of a Grammy-nominated pop trio. So that bodes well for Harvey, or at least his cousins’ pop outfit.
And just isolating ERA+ ignores the other aspect of Harvey’s dominance: His strikeouts. So I did the same thing, only searching instead for 25-and-under rookie pitchers who averaged at least a strikeout an inning over at least 50 innings. Most of the guys on this list are active or recent, as pitchers strike out more batters now than they did in the past. The group includes Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Mark Prior and, terrifyingly, Oliver Perez. Because so many of them are active this number is meaningless but I’ll give it to you anyway: They’ve averaged 14.6 WAR for their careers.
Finally, what about rookies who strike out tons of batters and suppress runs at the rate Harvey did? There just haven’t been many of them. In fact, before Harvey there have been all of four rookie pitchers under 25 who threw at least 50 innings with an ERA+ over 135 while striking out a batter an inning: Gooden, Score, Oswalt and Strasburg.
Again, it’s bad math because the endpoints are tailored to Harvey. And all those guys pitched more innings than Harvey did in their rookie seasons, and all but Oswalt were younger. But it’s a pretty great group regardless. Gooden, for all his fortunes are rightfully lamented, still had several good years. Score, sadly, was off to a stunning start before he was hit in the face with a line drive that ultimately doomed his career. Oswalt was great. Things seem to be going pretty well for Strasburg so far, surgeries and ill-considered shutdowns notwithstanding.
I’ve been clicking around the play index for a while trying to find a good way to temper people’s expectations about Harvey. The best I can come up with is Jose DeLeon, whom some of you might remember. DeLeon busted into the league with an excellent part season that looks a hell of a lot like Harvey’s at age 22, then went on to an only OK 13-season Major League career. But an OK 13-season Major League career is nothing to sneeze at.
In shorthand, it looks like Harvey could very well be great. He could get hurt or go crazy, both of which sometimes happen to pitchers — the former way more likely than the latter. He could also be just OK. It seems exceptionally unlikely that he’ll flat-out suck. But then you knew that from watching last night, and Harvey’s his own unique snowflake, as we all are.