We are excited about Matt Harvey.
In the eighth inning against the Twins on Saturday, Matt Harvey faced Chris Parmelee with one out and nobody on. The sequence went like this: 95 MPH fastball (strike looking), 95 MPH fastball (strike swinging), 96 MPH fastball (fouled back), 84 MPH curveball (ball, high), 96 MPH fastball (fouled back). And finally:
That is Matt Harvey’s 98th pitch, an 87 MPH changeup beautifully painting the outside black. Parmelee’s harmless groundout marked his 23rd out of the night; he’d get one more to finish with eight innings of one-run baseball, two hits and two walks allowed, and six strikeouts.
By the way, it was 35 degrees in Minneapolis at game time.
Harvey’s fastball seems to explode into the catcher’s mitt. His breaking pitches bite. His changeup is faster than some starters’ fastballs. And he carries it all through 100 pitches.
Yeah, we’re excited about Matt Harvey.
It’s early, of course. Harvey has faced just 320 batters in his career and completed just 81.1 innings. A whole host of bad things lurk in the shadows, waiting to derail everything: arm injuries, a resurfacing of the control issues that briefly held him back in the minors, general Mets-related malaise, et cetera.
But it’s hard to find a better 320 batters from anywhere in a career, much less one’s beginning. These 320 hitters have a collective .250 wOBA. No qualifying player was that bad last year — Drew Stubbs finished 143rd of 143 at .271. The closest comparison to Harvey’s .168/.262/.291 line allowed from last year is Brendan Ryan — he hit .194/.277/.278 in 140 games for Seattle, and his .252 wOBA still slightly outpaces Harvey’s opponents.
Harvey has struck out 95 in his 81.1 innings. His 29.7 strikeout percentage nearly equals that of another 24-year-old starter and his opponent this Friday in Washington: Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg has struck out 328 of his 1094 opponents so far, a practically indistinguishable 30.0 percent.
As much as the two are being hailed as near equals heading into Friday’s matchup, Harvey’s path through the minors was never the can’t-miss style fascination that defined Strasburg’s minor league career. Harvey was just the Mets’ fourth-ranked prospect by Baseball America heading into 2011, his first professional season. He was the second-ranked pitcher of the bunch, behind Jenrry Mejia. Mejia is probably destined for the bullpen thanks to 2011 Tommy John surgery and a mediocre 2012 season at Triple-A Buffalo.
For a while, Harvey wasn’t even a sure thing to stick as a starter. His Baseball America report following the 2011 season reads, “Harvey holds his velocity deep into starts but has below-average command and presently lacks a reliable changeup, so evaluators project him as anywhere from a No. 2 starter to a high-leverage reliever.”
Harvey’s stuff could only carry him so far. We’ve seen far too many top picks and prospects flame out at the major league level (or lower) because they couldn’t find the strike zone, or when they did, they caught too much of it. MLB hitters are too good to be beaten by pure stuff alone.
Throughout his first three starts this year, his control has been sharp: 2.5 BB/9, with eight percent of hitters taking walks. That will be the test. His career walk rate still sits at 10 percent even; just eight qualified starters eclipsed 10 percent last year, with four of those eight recording ERAs above 4.00 and none recording an ERA below 3.61. Since the comparison has already been invited, Strasburg’s career walk rate is a crisp 6.6 percent (2.4 BB/9).
Front-line stuff like Harvey possesses gives a pitcher plenty of leeway. Perhaps the walks show up again and he is merely very good, like he was in 2012 (2.73 ERA, 3.30 FIP in 59.1 innings). But we’ve seen over his first three starts of 2013 — and indeed, the sum of his entire body of work — the great heights to which his devastating arsenal can carry him.