by Paul West
The career of Matt Harvey has gone from apparent sure thing, to rollercoaster ride, to soap opera. And now, his future is more uncertain than most would have imagined even a year ago.
It could be reasonably argued that his troubles began in his last game of 2015, when he famously insisted his way back into a must-win World Series game in which the Mets held a 2-0 lead. At the time, and even in the months since, manager Terry Collins has been defended for his decision to allow Harvey back on the field; Harvey had battled his way through recovery from Tommy John surgery, then his doctor-recommended innings limit, then controversy over his perceived allegiance to his team, and he’d pitched eight scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals, reasserting himself as his team’s ace when they needed it most.
Then the ninth inning came, and like a sergeant leading his troops headlong into battle, he demanded to be given the ball to finish the game. Again, this was understandable on his part; not just because of the myriad perceptual battles he was fighting, but because he was pitching brilliantly…and the moment felt like his.
The problem was, instead of pitching in the way that had baffled the fastball-hunting Royals, he charged onto the field and threw one hopped-up fastball after another. He seemed to be pitching mainly on adrenaline, fueled by–and captured by, along with thousands of others–the enormity of the moment. This was where it behooved Terry Collins–and I said this at the time, lest I be accused of Monday morning quarterbacking–to save Harvey from himself, and the Mets from doom, by pulling him after he walked the first batter he faced in the ninth. Instead, Collins left him in, and Harvey did himself in. The road to Hell, it’s famously been said, is paved with good intentions; and on a cold November night in Citi Field, Matt Harvey’s desperation to prove his mettle and demonstrate his allegiance–and finish what looked like an epic postseason performance–led to the end of the Mets’ Cinderella run.
This season has begun, unfortunately, as many have predicted since that fateful night. In the first full season after blowing well past his post-surgery innings limit, Matt Harvey hasn’t just been hittable–he’s been a shadow of his former self on the mound. Even on his good days, he can only sustain a strong performance through the first, maybe second, time through an opposing lineup. His fastball hasn’t just lost its velocity; its lost its electricity, rendering his once lethal changeup a room-service offering that batters pounce on confidently. Harvey insists that his arm feels fine, and maybe he’s telling the truth: maybe his arm isn’t wrecked from obliterating his post-surgery innings limit. Of course, maybe the problem is that he blew through his innings limit, but the issue isn’t his arm or shoulder but systemic fatigue. 2015 was a rollercoaster ride for Matt Harvey, and it ended with nationally televised heartbreak. His emotional postseason interviews provided a glimpse into the effect he year had had on him, and his display of emotion endeared him once again to Mets fans and much of the baseball world.
But after his latest outing, in which he was pummeled yet again, it was his lack of display that was most telling. In a widely decried move that was publicly criticized by the normally tight-lipped David Wright, Harvey declined to speak with the media after his latest poor performance; this has drawn comparisons to Cam Newton’s infamous post-Super Bowl demeanor, and Harvey is once again falling from favor. And his decision to avoid the media was, indeed, poor form–not so much because one should be forced to publicly dissect a lousy performance, but because Harvey himself was such a part of building his own public spectacle. Watching a clearly uncomfortable Kevin Plawecki struggle to explain Harvey’s struggles–when Plawecki himself is dealing with suddenly being the everyday catcher while batting a painful .186–only increased the sour impression created by the Dark Knight’s disappearance. Meanwhile, this all underscores the looming problem of Harvey’s precipitous decline. And it further highlights the importance of the Mets intervening on both his, and their team’s, behalf.
Matt Harvey isn’t the first ace to have a slow start, with or without major arm surgery as a variable. But his Tommy John surgery, last season’s physical and emotional tribulations, the length of the postseason, and his highly unadvisable albeit strategically understandable innings total from last season, are all factors which much now be taken into account. Again, maybe the effect isn’t on his arm, but on his mental or general physical endurance; maybe this explains his self-described confusion at this year’s difficulties. He seems to be at a loss for answers, or even theories, as to the source of the problem, and the fact that he now seems weary of the spotlight might be the strongest evidence of all that he just needs a detour.
Returning to the matter of aces having the occasional slump: Collins, and others, have alluded to the idea that, as shooters shoot themselves out of slumps in basketball, aces pitch themselves out of slumps in baseball. But not all slumps can be cured by working harder and pitching more. The Mets have tested the ‘pitch through it’ theory in Harvey’s past few starts, and the result has been resounding failure and demoralizing losses. The answer might lie in one, or numerous, areas, but it’s seeming more and more clear that Harvey can’t bulldog his way out of this one. The Mets should consider giving him a start off to refresh, retool, recharge, or whatever he needs to do to get to the bottom of what ails him on the mound. Because right now, they seem to just be letting him wriggle his way deeper into a quagmire.