Even as we gaze in awe at Matt Harvey’s brilliance — the combination of raw power, tight command and preternatural pitching acumen that has made the New York Mets’ right-hander baseball’s next Great Pitching Phenom — we harbor dark thoughts and questions. Because we’ve seen it all before. We’ve seen how the story ends: usually at the business end of a renowned surgeon’s scalpel.
We know the names of the ones who came before Harvey: Kerry Wood; Francisco Liriano; Stephen Strasburg; Dylan Bundy. All of them young flamethrowers who wound up with the same scar across their pitching elbows.
The monumental task confronting the Mets’ braintrust this season is how to avoid the same fate for Harvey, the 24-year-old ace who carries an 8-2 record and 2.23 ERA into his start Friday night against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. The Mets will limit Harvey’s innings down the stretch, monitor his pitch counts, skip an occasional start, perhaps shut him down early.
But it may very well be the case that nothing can be done to avoid a bad outcome. It may be the case that the human arm, even one so magnificently constructed and maintained, is simply not designed to withstand the force of thousands of 98-mph fastballs, year after year.
“There’s not a scientifically based, research-based protocol” for protecting young pitchers, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said. “But there’s a sort of generally accepted notion, based on some history, of what’s acceptable and what’s not, in terms of workloads. It’s not an exact science by any means, but prudence dictates and history suggests there are certain limits you ought not to exceed.”
To that end, Harvey will be limited to somewhere around 200 innings this season — about 30 more than he threw in 2012 (in Class AAA and the majors combined), but about 25 fewer than what his 2013 total would be at his current pace. Already, the Mets held him out of his final scheduled start before the all-star break, which had the added benefit of allowing him to start for the National League in the All-Star Game.
“We are not going to hinder this kid’s health by killing him now, when the future is so bright,” Mets Manager Terry Collins told reporters before the all-star break.
But even the most cautious approach doesn’t always prevent a blown-out elbow. In 2010, the Nationals were extra careful with Strasburg, limiting his innings and capping his pitch counts, and he still blew out. The Orioles did the same with Bundy, only to see him require the ligament-replacement elbow surgery in June. The problem is that workload is only one part of the equation.
“You start with a certain set of anatomical givens: the guy’s shoulder and his mechanics,” Alderson said. “Those are going to dictate the result in many instances. And then all you can do from there is manage the workload.”
Harvey’s fastball is the hardest in baseball this season, averaging 95.8 mph and routinely reaching into the upper 90s or triple-digits. But history shows that type of velocity is typically unsustainable for starting pitchers. Take Strasburg. In 2010, his rookie season, Strasburg’s fastball averaged a blazing 97.3 mph. But then he blew out his elbow that August, and when he returned from surgery at the end of 2011, his fastball averaged 95.8 mph. This year, it averages 95.3, which still ranks second in the majors to Harvey.
That type of decline is common, even when surgery is not involved. In that same 2010 season, the top 10 starting pitchers in average fastball velocity — among pitchers with a qualifying number of innings pitched — were Ubaldo Jimenez (96.1), Justin Verlander (95.4), Josh Johnson (94.9), David Price (94.6), Edwin Jackson (94.4), Clay Buchholz (94.1), Felix Hernandez (94.1), Mat Latos (93.7), Liriano (93.7) and Zack Greinke (93.5).
All of them were 27 or younger during that season, and all 10 have experienced declines in velocity since — ranging from precipitous (Jimenez is down 4.6 mph, to 91.5 in 2013) to slight (Liriano has fallen from 93.7 mph to 92.8 mph in 2013). Some on that list, such as Johnson and Buchholz, have suffered serious injuries since then. But others, including Verlander and Hernandez, remain perennial 200-plus-innings-per-season workhorses who have simply learned to pitch at lower velocities.
“When I first got up [to the majors], I threw in the upper 90s the whole game,” Verlander said. “Once you start piling up 230 innings a year, you might have to dial [the velocity] down on occasion. I didn’t do it to save my arm. I did because I found it was more effective. . . . I think the main thing is mechanics. That’s where guys get hurt.”
All the evidence linking velocity to injury risk is more than circumstantial. According to Glenn Fleisig, research director of the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., velocity alone doesn’t make a pitcher an injury risk, but, “If two pitchers are identical in all other aspects — the amount of pitching, mechanics, physical make-up, etc. — then a pitcher who throws 99 mph certainly has a higher risk of injury” than one who throws softer.
If there are reasons to believe Harvey could be an exception — that he can avoid the surgeon’s table and maintain his 96 to 99-mph heat deep into his career — they are that his mechanics are impeccable and he mixes in his other pitches well(including a filthy, low-90s slider).
But that scarcely makes life any easier for Alderson, Collins and the rest of the Mets’ braintrust. They may do and say all the right things about Harvey’s future, but in the end, all they can really do is sit back and hope.
Staff writer Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.