In the decade or so since baseball found itself in the throes of omnipresent Tommy John surgery dread, almost nothing has changed. Buck-passing rules the landscape. Competing interests married with a paucity of facts leads to ruinous consequences. And this entire Matt Harvey debacle – so easy to telegraph, so difficult to prevent – highlights how baseball not only fostered this sort of environment but isn’t doing enough to prevent another generation of players from facing the same wasteland of decisions.
Harvey is a victim and a culprit simultaneously, reared in a sport that leaves its youngest arms to profiteers who ignore arm care and now a professional in a landscape that runs away from what it fears as risk because it’s the easiest thing to do.
This is a complicated, heady subject, impossible to boil down to good and bad, smart and stupid, all of the black and white that dominated Labor Day weekend as the story trickled out in increments. First it was superagent Scott Boras telling CBS Sports that he wanted Harvey, the New York Mets‘ ace, on a strict innings limit of 180 in this, his first season back from Tommy John, the elbow-ligament-replacement surgery. Then Harvey himself said the same, flabbergasting the Mets, whose front office counted on him finishing their resurgent season and pitching into the playoffs. After that was Sunday’s offering, words under Harvey’s byline that said he plans to pitch in October, even if that seems incompatible with his dictum of 180 less than 14 innings away. And finally Monday’s announcement from Mets general manager Sandy Alderson that provided little clarity as to what the plan actually is.
For more than three years, I’ve studied the pitching arm for a book on it, and one common theme emerged: Baseball, as a sport, still refuses to band together and figure out any kind of a solution to the issue. Whether macro (teams siloing medical information while the sport suffers) or micro (the sort of disagreement embodied by Harvey’s case), the arm is divisive, and selfishness continues to get in the way of progress.
Baseball’s natural order almost demands it from the teams, who face a reality with every player: He is the team’s property for just shy of seven years, and after that, he is free to play wherever he wants. Free agency creates an enormous incentive for teams to burn through arms while still young and spry, and in wanting Harvey to surpass his previous high in innings (178 1/3) and continue his brilliance (2.60 ERA this year with nearly a 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio), the Mets are simply trying to wring out of him what they can. It’s a cold and callous way to look at the world; it’s also the most intelligent, considering the number of torn ligaments that dot the landscape.
If they are guilty of not hammering out a concrete plan – and the Mets are, considering what happened – then Boras and Harvey are similarly so for not doing the same and then, in the midst of a pennant race, going public with the matter. Whatever the intent, it backfired severely. The tabloids pilloried Harvey for not wanting to pitch in the postseason – which he clarified Sunday with his spin-doctoring headlined: “I Will Pitch in the Playoffs.”
The rationale behind Harvey’s innings limit is what rang so hollow. Boras, the king of cherry-picking numbers and earning his clients monstrous contracts with them, justified shutting down Harvey based on the results of a sample of six players who hadn’t exceeded 200 innings in a season. Even though each pitcher’s situation differed – not just the length of rehabilitation but his size, his medical history, his body type and the hundreds of other things that actually make up a person – Boras used the success of those shut down at a certain point as Harvey’s defense. Even though one of them on his tsk-tsk list, Kris Medlen, actually was handled the most conservatively of the six and still needed a second Tommy John surgery anyway.
This is junk science dressed up as something worth abiding by. While innings thresholds may ultimately prove correct, this sort of thing takes time to study and understand, and …
1. Matt Harvey does not have time. And because of that, he faced the most difficult choice of all, and he opted to sugarcoat his reality instead of copping to it.
Harvey couldn’t come out and say he chose himself over his team because that won’t play anywhere, especially in New York, even if that’s exactly what he did. And this is not to say it’s a bad decision or a wrong decision or a morally repugnant decision, because all of those descriptors accept the idea of putting one’s team above oneself no matter how many teams don’t hold themselves to the same standards of loyalty in return.
Three years separate the 26-year-old Harvey from free agency, and if Harvey weren’t thinking about that he’d be a fool. When teams don’t know how to protect players – and they don’t – the players are left to protect themselves. And increasingly that has meant paring back on innings, even if the association between excessive innings and arm troubles is more correlated than causative.
In fact, multiple doctors suggested the near-18-month layoff for Harvey because of the Mets’ insistence he didn’t pitch last season actually makes him the perfect candidate to extend beyond 180 innings. Just how far they don’t know. “It’s just a guess,” one doctor said. “This whole damn thing is a guess.”
There wasn’t resignation in his voice so much as honesty. Until baseball gathers enough data on current pitchers and works together with youth organizations to track injuries and makes the sport a place not divided by fiefdoms but united by the desire to make some sort of inroads to better figure out why arms are blowing, so the debate will go. It’s a reminder that since …
2. Stephen Strasburg shut himself down before the 2012 postseason, little about the sport’s knowledge has changed. Certainly not enough to avoid a situation that has played out with similar dysfunction. Rather than negotiate with Boras (also Strasburg’s agent) a plan that would manage innings efficiently and bank some for the postseason, the Washington Nationals burned through his 160-inning limit over the season’s first 5½ months and sat their best pitcher for a quick October out.
Strasburg is one of Boras’ success points, jumping up to 215 innings last season and striking out a National League-high 242. This year has been helter-skelter, a panoply of injuries limiting Strasburg to just 18 starts, and at 27 he remains more potential than reality. To call him a disappointment is accurate only in that the expectations for Strasburg were so high that anything short of superstardom was failure.
To this day, he is best known for the 2012 shutdown, proof that such moments superglue themselves to players, which should make …
3. Kris Bryant thankful he plays third base – and better than expected, truth be told. For the surprise in his glove, Bryant’s bat is performing about to expectations, which is quite impressive considering they were Strasburgian.
Had a pesky scoreboard not gotten in the way, the home run Bryant hit Sunday would have traveled an estimated 495 feet, the longest of the 2015 season. It was his 11th in the second half and 22nd on the season, and it pushed his line to .267/.367/.481. Only 26 players in baseball have a higher OPS+ than Bryant’s, and just two are younger than him: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Bryant is running away from Jung Ho Kang, Matt Duffy, Noah Syndergaard and the rest of the pack trying to snake the NL Rookie of the Year from him. The award, at this point, is almost a fait accompli, his performance that superior, his breakout that real. Of course, when compared to …
4. Joey Votto he looks like a slacker. Votto is turning in one of the most remarkable runs in recent baseball history, and only the most fervent stat spelunkers realize it because he spends his days playing for the mess that is the Cincinnati Reds.
Since the All-Star break, Votto has played Godzilla to diamonds across the land. He is hitting .401/.581/.730 over 217 plate appearances. Which means 40 percent of the time he’s up he gets a hit, 58 percent of the time he’s up he gets on base and there doesn’t need to be a third part of this sentence because the first two fill it with enough ridiculousness.
Sustaining this sort of excellence for another month seems a bit too much to ask of Votto, though if he does, he’ll find himself in the sort of echelon thought a near impossibility. One of the best measures of offensive performance is weighted on-base average (wOBA), which takes into account a hitter’s overall contributions. Anything over .400 is elite; the only players there for the full 2015 season are Bryce Harper, Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson.
In the second half, Votto’s wOBA is .539. That is more than 100 points above last year’s second-half leader, Buster Posey. To get a figure close, rewind 11 years to a juiced Barry Bonds, whose .359/.589/.832 slash line still didn’t produce a wOBA as high as Votto’s. For that, go back two more years, and Bonds’ .404/.608/.825 line gave him a second-half wOBA of .563.
Votto’s lead in second-half OBP over runner-up Bryce Harper is 100 points. He does not lead the league in slugging percentage, however, with …
5. Carlos Gonzalez putting up a Bondsian second half himself. Gonzalez’s isolated power – that is, his slugging percentage minus his batting average, a figure that separates empty batting averages from those with vim and vigor – is .453 since the All-Star break.
The last second-half number that high? Bonds in 2003, with .473. Gonzalez finds himself in such illustrious company on account of a home run binge that doesn’t seem to want to end. In just 170 at-bats, Gonzalez has 23 home runs. That’s a homer every 7.39 at-bats. In 2001, when Bonds set the single-season home run record, he hit one every 6.52 at-bats.
The Rockies find themselves in an interesting place this offseason, with Gonzalez suddenly very tradeable as $37 million remains on the final two years of his deal. Colorado has quietly built one of the best farm systems in baseball, loaded with high-ceiling position talent and enough arms to dream on. If the Rockies do deal CarGo like they did Troy Tulowitzki, they could take advantage of the smaller-market teams that won’t be able to hunt the tremendous group of outfielders coming off strong seasons (Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist) and likely to demand high dollars.
Considering he has played 29 games there …
6. Chris Davis could be thrown in among the outfielders as well. Of all the free agents this offseason, he might be the most fascinating: a tremendously flawed player whose greatest asset happens to be the one in most demand across the sport.
Following a disappointing 2014 that included a suspension for taking ADD medication without the go-ahead to do so, Davis has rebounded mightily. His 40 home runs lead baseball, just like his 180 strikeouts. His swing-and-miss style does not portend well for a slugger whose bat speed may slow, as many other sluggers’ have, and Davis without home runs is like gin and tonic without the gin.
Still, the homers. Teams drool at the idea of dropping a 40-homer lefty into the middle of their lineups, and so the market should be rousing, particularly with Boras stoking the fire. The nine-figure deal Davis could find himself bathing in gives even more appreciation for how Toronto locked up …
7. Edwin Encarnacion, who is like Davis without the strikeouts, to a four-year deal that will pay him just $37 million after the Blue Jays exercise the option on 2016, its final season.
When the Blue Jays signed Encarnacion to the deal July 12, 2012, he was hitting .295/.382/.565 in his first full season as a regular. Since that date, only one player has hit more home runs than Encarnacion: Chris Davis. Encarnacion’s 119 are more than Trout, more than Cabrera, more than Giancarlo Stanton.
Not bad for a guy the Blue Jays let go after 2010. Oakland picked up Encarnacion on waivers Nov. 12 before non-tendering him three weeks later. He went back to Toronto on a $2.5 million deal that included a $3.5 million option for the next season. Meaning for the .273/.362/.526 slash line he has put up that includes 159 home runs and 460 RBIs, Encarnacion has received $33 million. If he’s not the biggest bargain in baseball, he’s certainly among them. Though, in truth, the best deals always come from the players who have yet to hit arbitration. And among the incredible rookie class of 2015 …
8. Francisco Lindor has arguably been the best player in the second half. Among position players, the Cleveland Indians’ 21-year-old shortstop is fifth in all of baseball in FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement. Since the break, Lindor is hitting .351/.391/.511, tapping into unforeseen power and playing the sort of shortstop that should win him Gold Gloves starting soon.
Cleveland waited until mid-June to call Lindor up mainly so he would remain cheap for the next three seasons and not hit arbitration until the 2019 season. Cleveland could have one of the best shortstops in baseball – someone who alongside Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts should be fighting for All-Star spots like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra once did – for less than $2 million over the next three seasons, and there is enormous value in that.
The value is tangible, there every day in box scores and highlights, recognizable to the layman and astrophysicist alike. It’s not the kind that people like …
9. Don Orsillo bring on an everyday basis. The value of a good play-by-play person is that you don’t even realize his or her value. The words are a familiar soundtrack, the voice a noise that blends in rather than lingers, the tone appropriate for the moment, the affect tuned to the audience.
A good play-by-play person isn’t like an ace or a slugger. A team’s fortunes don’t turn on it, and ultimately in baseball all that matters is the on-field product. The best team can have the worst announcers and people still will tune in. Media, in so many respects, is fungible.
To topple a well-liked, eminently competent play-by-play man like the Boston Red Sox did Orsillo, however, necessitates better reasoning than that the organization thought a change was necessary. Tom Werner, who has taken the hits after the fallout of Orsillo’s firing turned into a classic late-season Red Sox blowup, did not understand the truest value of a longtime play-by-play man: familiarity.
For however good Don Orsillo is in the booth – and he’s very good – he’s not the thing that makes people tune in to Red Sox games. He does an awfully good job at keeping those who do around, though, and there is great value in that. We like what we know, what we’ve grown to trust, what makes us comfortable. Something new and different can be terrifying. And at the heart of the …
10. Matt Harvey debate is what underscores every Tommy John case: fear. Sitting out for a year and a half is a lonely, sad, slow grind, day after day of monotony, of patience for men bred to stand atop a 10-inch mound and channel all of the aggressiveness they can muster toward a plate 60 feet, 6 inches away.
History scares Harvey, and it should, because Tommy John surgery is not some panacea. For every Jordan Zimmermann or A.J. Burnett, there is an Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano, guys who took years to get back to their former selves. There are the Carlos Carrascos and Brett Andersons, tantalizing talents who, when they stay healthy, are brilliant. Plenty never get back to where they were, though that doesn’t seem to be an issue with Harvey.
It’s almost as though things have gone too well. Only Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta – two of the three best pitchers in the NL this season – have better second-half ERAs than Harvey’s 1.64. It’s what made the last four days so harrowing. The Nationals expect to shut down rookie Joe Ross, and it barely registered a pulse. Harvey, because of who he is and where he is, would’ve generated less controversy wearing a Trump for President sticker on his uniform. Now the Mets need to figure out how to spread out his 14 remaining innings over a month, beginning with a start Tuesday night against the second-place Nationals.
The unknown pushed Harvey toward the cautious route. No evidence exists to suggest it’s the right one. The doctors don’t know. The team doesn’t know. Boras doesn’t know. Harvey doesn’t know. And all of that reminds of something once told to the man after whom the surgery is named.
When Tommy John was rehabilitating his arm from the original ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery in 1974, his doctor, Frank Jobe, gave him just one piece of advice: “Listen to your arm.” Players today are so loath to do that, concerned about how it will affect their salary and their roster spot and their standing and everything. There is good soreness and bad soreness, and pitchers know the difference. The body is a remarkable machine that self-regulates and informs, and there is great power in the knowledge it delivers.
If Matt Harvey is listening to his arm but doesn’t want to share publicly what it’s saying, that’s fair and understandable. If that’s not the case, though – if his arm feels fine 166-plus innings into this fantastic season of his and the Mets’ – then he’s making a false choice, because there is no guarantee, nothing even close to the sort, that limiting his innings this season will keep him any healthier going into the future.
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