Making Sense of the A’s Signing Matt Harvey

by Louis Addeo-Weiss

While they may not win the AL West, the 2019 version of the Oakland Athletics have shown themselves to more than just a one-year wonder. 

After winning 97 games in 2018, and advancing to the American League Wild Card game, where they were defeated by the 100 win New York Yankees, Bob Melvin’s team followed up a surprise season with continued levels of high-performance, posting a 68-52 record, good enough for second in the aforementioned AL West. 

According to mlb.com, the club currently sits 2 games out of the second wild card spot, with the two slots being held by the Cleveland Indians (72-49), and the Tampa Bay Rays (71-51), respectively. Baseball-reference also give the A’s a 45.5% chance of making the postseason.

However, despite what looks to be the club surging to a second consecutive playoff appearance, the team recently announced the signing of recently released starting pitcher Matt Harvey to a minor-league contract.

Pitching this season for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Harvey, as many had presumed he would be, was among the least effective pitchers in the sport, being released on July 21st.

Making 12 starts, the former “Dark Knight” pitched to a dismal 7.09 ERA, allowing 47 earned runs over 59.2 innings pitched. 

A further look into his season only reaffirms just how bad Harvey really was during his stay in Anaheim.

According to baseball-reference’s version of WAR, Harvey was worth -0.5 WAR, indicating he was below league average. This below average notion is further supported by his measly 65 ERA+ (league average being 100), and his ghastly 6.36 FIP and 1.54 WHIP.

And while the A’s have seemingly already been here before this season, acquiring Homer Bailey from the Kansas City Royals, Harvey’s track record doesn’t comfort a club in contention for a playoff spot.

Once considered one of the premier, up-and-coming pitchers in baseball, Harvey dazzled in 2013, pitching to a 2.27 ERA, 2.01 FIP, and 0.93 WHIP, en route to a 4th place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting. 

The tail end of the 2013 season saw reports leak of Harvey being diagnosed with a torn UCL, requiring Tommy John Surgery, ultimately costing him all of the 2014 season. 

Returning in 2015 with what looked to be the same lively arm, as indicated by an average fastball velocity that year of 96.6, not far off from his average of 97, which he posted in 2013, Harvey pitched great, leading the Mets to the World Series that year, where they would lose against the Kansas City Royals.

Harvey posted a 2.71 ERA across 189.1 innings pitched, averaging 8.9 SO/9, and posting a 4.8 WAR (5.4 WAR in 2013), 8th among all NL pitchers. 

Matt Harvey was back right? 

Well, we all hoped so, but as the expression goes, all that glitters doesn’t always turn to gold (or something along those lines).

Following the brutal performative meltdown in the 9th inning of game 5 of that year’s World Series, Harvey never seemed to fully regain command and overall confidence.

Since the start of 2016, Harvey, who had a tremendous 146 ERA+ in parts of his first three seasons (2012-13, ‘15), has posted a lackluster 74 ERA+.

Why would the A’s, a team, while known for taking on an island of misfit toys of players, even encourage this idea.

For a team steeped in analytics, advanced metrics, as we’ve already seen, have not been privy to Harvey, as he has posted -0.7 WAR since the beginning of the 2016 season. 

In a game where the emphasis is on high velocity, Harvey has shown regression in that regard, and his performative regression can be traced, in part, to his decline in fastball velocity. 

At the start of the 2016 season, one which Harvey lost prematurely due to undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, his fastball averaged 95.4 miles per hour. In 2019, that number is down to 93.6. 

While a two miles per hour difference may not seem like a lot, in most cases, especially those like Harvey who pitch off their fastball, it is everything, as it greatly shapes the makeup of his ensuing repertoire. 

Example? 

Every other pitch regularly featured in his arsenal has experienced a similar degree of decline to his fastball.

Here is a brief overview of these respective velocity drop offs. 

Avg. Changeup Velo: 2016: 87.7, 2019: 86.3, Total drop off: 1.4 mph 

Avg. Slider Velo: 2016: 89.6, 2019: 87.8, Total drop off: 1.9 mph

Avg. Curveball Velo: 2016: 82.9, 2019: 81.9, Total drop off: 1 mph

What this tells me is that Harvey is more of a thrower than a pitcher, as his reliance on velocity has hindered his performance given his declining nature.

Though the club doesn’t plan on starting him in the major leagues, with him slated to start Friday for Triple-A Las Vegas, the idea of Harvey being used for a team with playoff hopes at the major level is terrifying, and not in a good way. 

Should he pitch well, it is assumed he’ll be a September call-up, and with the A’s seemingly not going anywhere, why would you consider using someone who has been a liability, not only on the field, but off. 

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