SP Matt Harvey is coming off of another setback to what had been a promising career, hampered by injury. In 2013, he was one of the best pitchers in the league, pitching to a 2.00 FIP and going 9–5 with an otherwise lackluster Mets squad. In 2014, he missed the entire season with Tommy John surgery. In 2015, he was almost as brilliant as he was in 2013, with a 3.05 FIP and going 13–8, powering the Mets to the World Series. In 2016, he crashed and burned thanks to thoracic outlet syndrome.
That brings us to 2017, where Harvey is still on the mend from TOS surgery. The results have been mixed in Spring Training — Harvey is right now sitting at a 7.30 ERA, but he’s displayed good off speed stuff, gotten into grooves, etc. His velocity looks to be diminished at around 93–92 MPH on his fastball (compare that to Harvey’s usually dominating 96–97 MPH stuff), but he’s been able to dial it up at times.
Harvey and Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen have cautioned Harvey’s ST results. Harvey said that he wanted to “stay back and make sure [he’s] going through [his] mechanics properly”, which would indicate that Harvey is less concerned about the numbers and more about how well he feels.
Ultimately, the numbers are what matters. So how could we expect Harvey to do? If Harvey were coming off of Tommy John surgery, we could compare pre- and post-TJ-surgery pitching results and make a prediction based on that, but TOS surgery is nowhere near as widely spread as Tommy John. Let’s take a look at the few cases and see where Harvey’s prognosis falls.
Case Study 1: Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett was a stellar pitcher throughout his career — he was never consistently good enough to garner any Hall-of-Fame talk, but he still pitched impressively well, collecting 35.6 fWAR over a 14 year career. Beckett underwent TOS surgery towards the end of his career, in 2013. Prior to the surgery, Beckett had been ineffective for the Dodgers, pitching to a 4.66 FIP in 8 starts, and after the surgery, it was a similar story — 4.33 FIP in 2014 after coming back from the career.
That having been said, Beckett was rapidly approaching the end of his career. In 2014, he was pitching through a hip injury that would ultimately end his career — so there were a number of confounding variables affecting his performance. But he was also able to come back and pitch at roughly the same level that he had been pitching at before the surgery. This is Harvey’s worst case scenario — he can come back from TOS and pitch at a league average level, at the very least. This is Harvey’s floor, I suppose.
Case Study 2: Matt Harrison
Harrison’s name might not ring too many bells, unless you happen to be a Rangers fan who was paying attention during the 2012 season. Harrison was a Rangers’ pitcher who went under the knife for TOS surgery in 2009, and then suddenly came back with a vengeance in 2011 and 2012. Harrison posted two stellar seasons in ’11 and ’12, winning an All-Star game selection and some Cy Young votes in 2012 en route to an 18–11 record with a 3.29 ERA (albeit with a slightly ugly 4.03 FIP). He fell off a cliff in 2013 thanks to back issues, and was never the same pitcher again, but his back issues weren’t necessarily caused by TOS.
What does that mean for Harvey? Dominance is still possible! It took Harrison a while, but he managed to be not just a league average pitcher, but a highly effective one, post TOS-surgery. Harrison is also a much closer analog to Harvey than Beckett because of age — Harrison and Harvey are having TOS at fairly young ages (Harrison was 23, Harvey was 27), whereas Beckett had his surgery towards the end of his career, when he was 33. Harrison and Harvey both had/have youth on their side, which bodes well for recovery.
Case Study 3: Jaime Garcia
Before Harvey, the most prominent example of a great pitcher falling to TOS was the Cardinals’ Jaime Garcia. We can draw parallels to Garcia’s story and Harvey’s: both underwent Tommy John surgery fairly early in their careers (after his age-21 season, Harvey was 24 at the time of his surgery), came back, and was brilliant the year after the surgery (Garcia went 13–8 with a 2.70 ERA post surgery, Harvey went 13–8 with a 2.71 ERA), then underwent TOS surgery at the age of 27.
While we have yet to see Harvey’s “bounce back” season, we’ve seen Garcia’s, and it looked fantastic — in 2015, Garcia pitched to a 2.43 ERA, worth 3.9 rWAR in only 129.2 IP. His velocity post surgery was actually better than it was before the surgery. Not only did he bounce back in a big way from TOS surgery, he improved — likely a result of his youth.
Garcia struggled in 2016, hampered by mechanical issues, but he’s believed that he’s fixed them, so he could feasibly rebound in 2017. The important thing, though, is that Garcia’s velocity didn’t suffer in 2016, which should be Harvey’s principal concern — velocity loss. Garcia shows that Harvey can rebound and be at least 90% the pitcher he was in the past, if not better.
Harvey’s future is uncertain, and there’s nothing to say that injuries won’t plague him again the future. But he’s still here and still throwing — the 2017 season will tell if he’s really himself after the surgery.