On Tuesday, May 7, the New York Knicks were playing the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs—as important a game as they’ve had in fifteen years. But midway through the third quarter, almost everybody in Press Row and the skyboxes above it turned their attention away from the game and toward their televisions, to a Mets game. Matt Harvey was on fire. Again.
Harvey—who, as a nice touch, had a bloody nose through the first few innings—ended up losing his perfect game in the seventh, but it hardly mattered. While he was pitching, everything else in sports stopped—all this city cared about was a young pitcher and the promise of a new tomorrow.
At 24, and already probably one of baseball’s ten best pitchers, Harvey is an admirably taciturn superstar. He has an incredible arsenal we break down on the coming pages: a blazing fastball, a Cheddar-sharp slider, a cruel changeup, and a Bugs Bunny curveball, and he can control all of them as if on a yo-yo. It seems like magic. Harvey himself also seems dropped from the sky, particularly because as recently as this offseason he wasn’t even considered the Mets’ top prospect. That was Zack Wheeler—in part because Harvey was seen as really a two-pitch pitcher. Then, suddenly, the curveball, the changeup, and the two-seam fastball matured, and he became a control master at an age when that shouldn’t be possible. Harvey is so young, and you marvel, watching him pitch, because what you see seems so unlikely to last: You know that he is mortal, that time will ravage him, like it does all pitchers, young power-arm phenoms especially. Over the last generation, must-watch strikeout artists like Fernando Valenzuela and Kerry Wood have burned out early, leaving slow-learner masters like Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez to dominate their decades. And yet, in watching a stud like Harvey, there is always the hope that the first flash will never end.
The Mets have always been a franchise for pitching stars. The team can be defined, largely, by the stories of two of them: the easy dominance of Tom Seaver and the tragic, denied destiny of Dwight Gooden. The first led the youngsters that won the 1969 World Series; the second led the ones who won in 1986. One is a Hall of Famer, a golden boy from the team’s golden era, tellingly and typically let go, via trade, in 1977.* The other, the greatest rookie pitcher of all time, would have gotten there, too, had he been able to escape his demons. When the team is at its best, like it was in Gooden’s heyday, there is a raw, unapologetic, outer-borough raucousness that seems to mark the Mets as different, more primally enjoyable, than their Bronx rivals—and makes their intermittent successes seem all the more unsustainable. It’s one reason it’s been so thrilling—and scary, memories being what they are—to see Gooden embracing Harvey so thoroughly, tweeting Harvey’s strikeout totals as they happen, like a Belieber writing “Mr. Dwight Harvey” on a Trapper Keeper.
But no matter how fantastically out-of-nowhere his success seems, Harvey does not look like a flash-in-the-pan. He has the grumpy countenance of Seaver while also harnessing the pinpoint control of vintage Gooden. And he has been, so far, actually better than both. Of Mets at the beginning of their careers, Sports Illustrated has pointed out, Harvey wipes out every other starter with his 2.12 ERA and obliterates Seaver (2.65) and Gooden (2.84), despite pitching in a far-higher-scoring era. (Nolan Ryan, a rookie reliever on that ’69 team and shortly thereafter traded away, was 3.45, if you’re curious.) Harvey is on pace to finish the season with the most strikeouts by any pitcher in nine years, the second-best ERA since 1961, and the best WHIP (number of base runners per inning pitched) of all time.
But those are just facts, and you can’t encapsulate what Harvey stands for, to a Mets fan, in statistics: He represents a break from everything that has been so awful about being a Mets fan for nearly seven years now. In an odd way, he has even finally christened Citi Field. Since the stadium was built, the big question has been how it will handle important playoff games. Citi is more charming than Shea, but will it have that rumble of import, that thick, floor-shaking quake the old park would get in October, when freezing blue-and-orange masses would roar and stomp? Harvey’s starts give us a clue: The new park has never felt more alive than it does when he is pitching.
Harvey is the first representative of the Sandy Alderson–remake era, the one who heralds the coming of Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Snydergaard and Brandon Nimmo—the prospects who promise to make all this Flushing mediocrity go away. Matt Harvey currently plays for these Mets, this lousy, scuffling bit of transition. But he belongs to those Mets, the ones that will matter. This makes him stand not only for the future; it makes him stand for the act of forgetting the past.
*This article has been corrected to show that Tom Seaver was traded, not let go via free agency.