Matt Harvey was amongst the game’s best pitchers in 2013. More than a year later, can the ace come back strong from Tommy John surgery in 2015?
New York Mets fans haven’t had much to look forward to the last…my entire lifetime, pretty much. The Amazin’s have made the playoffs only three times in my lifetime, and not since 2006, when this happened:
The Mets followed that up with a pair of September collapses, followed by a still-active, six-year streak of finishes under .500. So it’s been a while since Mets fans had something to be excited about. Two seasons ago, something finally came along; a 6’4”, 215-lb. righty with a rocket arm named Matt Harvey. Harvey actually made his first appearances in 2012, but made only ten starts. The following season, he made a name for himself, finishing 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA, 157 ERA+, 2.01 FIP, and an All-Star Game start – in his home stadium, no less. Mets fans finally had something to be excited about – just in time for Harvey to tear his UCL and require Tommy John surgery. The Mets, everyone.
After missing all of 2014, Harvey is healthy and looking to make his comeback this season. In fact, Harvey has already reported to the Mets’ Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie, ten days before New York’s official report date for pitchers and catchers. He says he feels good, and is ready to go. The only question now is, what will he look like when he does.
This is the question keeping Mets fans awake at night. A healthy Harvey – one that resembles the Harvey they saw in 2013 – could make the Mets a playoff contender. Between him, Zack Wheeler, and reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, these Mets may finally give their fans something to be excited about. That is, if they get the Matt Harvey of old back. And that’s a big “if.”
Tommy John surgery is nothing new; dozens of pitchers have had the surgery and come back from it. I have no doubts that the 25-year-old Harvey will be able to come back from this injury. The question isn’t “can he come back,” it’s “what will he look like in his first season back?”
How Harvey rebounds from the surgery is largely dependent on him; as a 25-year-old, I expect his body to be able to recover fairly quickly. Every person is different, every body is different, and every recovery is different. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no way to guess how he may look in 2015.
First, let’s take another look at Harvey’s 2013, so we have a baseline for what peak-Harvey looks like:
Matt Harvey 2013: 9-5, 2.27 ERA, 178.1 IP, 2.01 FIP, 157 ERA+, 6.61 K/BB
Matt Harvey has set the bar quite high for himself; he was one of MLB’s best pitchers in 2013. His stellar season earned him a starting All-Star nod, and a fourth-place Cy Young finish. We’ll come back to those numbers later; first, let’s look at some other current pitchers who underwent the same surgery.
Lackey underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, missing the entire season after several down-seasons in Boston. Lackey was much older than Harvey when he had the procedure (he was 33) so keep that in mind. Here are Lackey’s numbers in 2011, his last full season pre-surgery:
John Lackey 2011: 12-12, 6.41 ERA, 160 IP, 4.71 FIP, 67 ERA+, 1.93 K/BB
I’m not here to break down whether Lackey was good or bad in 2011; it doesn’t matter. We just need a baseline, so the numbers are what they are. Lackey missed all of 2012 recovering from the surgery, then came back in 2013, when he posted the following numbers:
John Lackey 2013: 10-13, 3.52 ERA, 189.2 IP, 3.86 FIP, 117 ERA+, 4.03 K/BB
Hey now! Lackey didn’t just come back, he improved dramatically. That’s an 82 percent decrease in ERA, nearly 30 more innings, and a drastically improved FIP and ERA+. Lackey also improved his strikeouts and command, more than doubling his K/BB ratio. All in all, this is a great sign for Mets fans. Sort of.
Lackey’s 2011 was really bad. Like, “one of the worst pitchers in the league” bad. Remember when I said that wasn’t important? I lied. Lackey’s 2011 was an outlier; he was bound to come back to the pack at least a little bit, and he did. I would attribute the improvement he saw more to the law of averages than anything else. Now, that said, the surgery clearly did not impede Lackey’s ability to do so, which is a genuinely good sign for Harvey and the Mets.
Still, that’s only one example. Who else can we look at?
Whereas Lackey was a terrible pitcher leading up to his Tommy John surgery, Wainwright was, like Harvey, one of the league’s best. Before the surgery, Wainwright was coming off an All-Star appearance and back-to-back top-three finishes in the Cy Young voting. Here are his numbers the season before his surgery:
Adam Wainwright 2010: 20-11, 2.42 ERA, 230.1 IP, 2.86 FIP, 160 ERA+, 3.80 K/BB
Wainwright was named an All-Star and finished second in Cy Young voting, even earning a couple of low-ballot MVP votes. In that sense, he’s a far better analog for Harvey. Wainwright then missed all of 2011, coming back in 2012. His first year back, he posted the following line:
Adam Wainwright 2012: 14-13, 3.94 ERA, 198.2 IP, 3.10 FIP, 96 ERA+, 3.54 K/BB
Ruh-roh. Now we’re seeing what Mets fans are so worried about with Harvey; Wainwright’s numbers went down across the board in 2012. He won six fewer games with an ERA a run and a half higher. He also tossed 32 fewer innings, and saw his K/BB ration drop slightly. Wainwright went from a Cy Young-caliber pitcher before his surgery to an average starter after it; this is precisely what Mets fans are fearing.
Wainwright’s story does come with a happy ending; after his down-year in 2012, he bounced back in 2013 and 2014, posting ERAs of 2.94 and 2.38, including two All-Star Games and two more top-five Cy Young finishes. This is why I’m not worried about Harvey in the long-term; he’ll be fine. But we’re not talking long-term right now, we’re talking 2015; in that sense, Wainwright’s numbers have to worry you a bit.
There’s one other player I’d like to look at, who I believe is the perfect Harvey fill-in: his division-mate Stephen Strasburg.
Strasburg is a perfect Harvey baseline test. Harvey made 36 career starts before his surgery; Strasburg made 12; basically, Harvey had one extra season on him. Still, both were very young, coming off their first real MLB experience. Here’s how Strasburg fared before his surgery:
Stephen Strasburg 2010: 5-3, 2.91 ERA, 68 IP, 2.08 FIP, 139 ERA+, 5.41 K/BB
His rookie season, Strasburg was a strikeout machine with a devastating fastball (more on this in just a minute). It’s not a perfect gauge, since Strasburg was a new pitcher nobody had ever seen before, but it’s a fairly solid baseline for his abilities, pre-surgery. Strasburg missed almost all of 2011, making five starts at the end of the season. For what it’s worth, he finished 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings that September, which is pretty good. Here’s his first full season following the procedure:
Stephen Strasburg 2012: 5-6, 3.16 ERA, 159.1 IP, 2.83 FIP, 126 ERA+, 4.10 K/BB
Forget the win-loss record, it doesn’t matter. The rest of the line is what I’m looking at. His ERA increased, but only slightly. He was able to pitch most of a full season, though the Nationals did have him on a pitch-count which actually ended his season early and forced him to miss the postseason. His FIP increased as well, while his ERA+ dropped (by less than his true ERA, though). The real worry spot is the K/BB ratio; Strasburg became less adept at striking opposing batters out, lost control of his pitches and walked more guys, or both.
Still, Strasburg made the National League All-Star team in 2012, and by all accounts was a very good pitcher, even if he wasn’t quite as electric as his rookie season.
The last thing I want to look at is pitch speed; specifically, did these pitchers lose some action on their fastball the year following the surgery. For that, I made the following chart:
So for the most part, these guys lost just a bit on their fastballs. Nothing all that major, but a slight dip in velocity which could account for a slight dip in strikeout ratio. I wouldn’t be too concerned with the velocity drop, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind.
So, what can we take from this as far as Harvey is concerned? Honestly, not much. In doing this research, a few things became clear. Lackey had to have been struggling with the injury the season before the surgery; his awful season makes his comparisons almost moot. A turnaround was coming with or without surgery, which is why he is the only one of the three to clearly improve the season following the surgery.
Wainwright, on the other hand, clearly was worse the season following his surgery, but eventually did find his groove; it just took him a season to shake off the rust. Now, he’s once again one of the top pitchers in the league. Strasburg’s pre-surgery numbers are a bit skewed because he was such a new commodity; his numbers the season after his surgery have been much closer to his career lines. Does that mean the surgery permanently made Strasburg worse? Eh, maybe, but I doubt it. More likely, it just shows that you can’t always trust a pitcher’s first go-round in the Majors when the sample-size is that small and guys have never seen him.
As far as Harvey goes, I’m going into 2015 cautiously optimistic. Will he win 20 games, keep his ERA below 2.50, and win the Cy Young? Probably not, but not because of the surgery. It’s just really hard to do that.
Mets fans can take solace in this though; the guys over at Baseball Prospectus have pretty high hopes for Harvey this year. Prospectus gives Harvey a 40 percent “breakout” chance, which they define as a 20 percent improvement over career marks. They give Harvey a 67 percent “improvement” chance, which is improvement of any amount over his career numbers, and only a 14 percent chance at “collapse,” which is a regression of 25 percent or more. In short, Baseball Prospectus expects Harvey to be as good, if not better, than he was last season, with a 40 percent chance at being dramatically better than his career marks. On the flip side, they give him only a 14 percent chance of dramatically regressing.
I think Prospectus nailed it. Harvey will almost certainly be on par with his career numbers, with a better chance of improving than collapsing. Finally, I think Mets fans have something to be excited about. It’s about damn time.