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.
How Dominant Is Harvey? A Breakdown
1. Matt Harvey’s historic debut.
The incredible (half) season.
Harvey has started eighteen games for the Mets, dating back to the middle of last season. It has been a spectacular, record-breaking start—here is how he stacks up against the best pitchers of all time through as many games.
1st: in Hits Allowed (74)
3rd: in Earned Runs (29)
3rd: in ERA (2.12)
5th: in Strikeouts (138)
The incredible month.
In April, he became the first pitcher since 1900 to win his first four decisions with only ten hits allowed in total.
The incredible night.
On May 7, Harvey was one infield hit away from a perfect game: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 12 K. According to GS (game score), a geeky stat that measures pitcher performance, Harvey’s start was the best by any pitcher this season, the best by a Met since 1991, and the best by a pitcher with twenty appearances or fewer since Kerry Wood’s twenty-strikeout one-hitter in 1998. Since 1916, only three pitchers new to the majors have had as dominant a game. Also: He did it with a bloody nose, making it the best blood-soaked pitching performance since Curt Schilling’s bloody-sock ALCS game in 2004.
2. Why is he so good?
Some things in baseball are complicated, but it’s not hard to see what makes Harvey so impressive.*
*Pitch data through May 16.
3. How did he get so good?
Last year, Harvey was a good but unspectacular prospect. A few theories about what changed.
1. He added velocity.
In college, Harvey had clean mechanics but could rush his throwing motion. Since, he’s focused on keeping his windup “long,” extending his throwing arm for as long as possible, then letting the momentum of his body drag it forward. This adds a couple of miles per hour to his fastball.
2. He mastered new pitches.
In the minors, Harvey relied on his four-seam fastball and his slider, but he’s added a two-seamer and a changeup and reembraced his curveball.
3. He began throwing his fastball less and his breaking pitches more.
Last year, he threw his four-seamer 66 percent of the time and his slider 12 percent. Now, he’ll use his off-speed ensemble to set up that fastball.
4. Mechanical adjustment.
In the minors, Harvey realized he was sometimes “opening up” his motion early, squaring to the batter and losing momentum, or too late, affecting his command. He drew a line on the mound and made sure he landed on it every time, ultimately improving his control.
5. He’s gotten lucky.
A lot of pitching is luck—a pitcher’s skill set determines only strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Over time, hitters’ batting averages on all other plays (called batting average on balls in play, or BABIP) will regress to the mean.
Harvey’s BABIP: .197
League Average: .290
6. He had been bored.
Old baseball hands see everything as a referendum on character, and many think Harvey got lazy in the minors. Of course, they’ll also tell you the 24-year-old is a fierce competitor. A likelier (partial) explanation is that Harvey has been paired with a veteran major-league catcher for the first time.
4. How long will he be this good?
The half-life of a pitching phenom can be tragically short. Below, the rapid decline of five of the most exciting phenoms of the last 30 years, as measured in a catchall stat called WAR (wins above replacement).
5. Who’s the next Harvey?
Until a few weeks ago, the question would have been: Can Harvey tide us over until Zack Wheeler arrives? Another hard-throwing right-hander, Wheeler has been dominating AAA and should be in Queens for good by mid-June.
Compiled by Joe DeLessio and Matthew Giles.