Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2018

Dark Days For The Dark Knight

It’s been a week since the superhero movie Avengers: Infinity War opened, so it hardly counts as a plot spoiler to note that the blockbuster ends with the deaths of several of the stars of the Marvel Comics universe. To the uninitiated it might seem that killing off key members of the movie franchise is an unwise plot decision. But in the world of comic books having heroes confront mortality is actually a relatively common and rather popular device.

With more than six million copies sold, “The Death of Superman” was far and away the best-selling comic book of 1992. Short of outright demise, stars of the superhero genre of illustrated fiction are frequently faced with a loss of their powers or a fall from grace. The beauty of the make-believe worlds these comic book characters occupy is that in the very next issue they can be brought back to life or restored to full strength or find themselves redeemed, sometimes through a deus ex machina plot device and occasionally without any explanation at all. With Disney having assorted Marvel titles scheduled for release through 2022, including another Avengers film next year, odds are that fans haven’t seen the last of Black Panther, Spider-Man, or any of the other characters who quite literally disintegrate at the end of Infinity War.

For our real life athletic heroes, overcoming the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune requires something more than simply waiting for the release of next month’s new issue. That truth is currently on display at Citi Field, where a pitcher once known by a superhero’s nickname now finds himself at a career crossroads.

The Mets made Matt Harvey the seventh overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, and the right-hander made his major league debut just two summers later, called up after an injury put Johan Santana on the shelf. Harvey set a franchise record by striking out eleven batters in his first start, and recorded seventy strikeouts in just 59 1/3 innings during that rookie season. In 2013 he claimed the title of staff ace and was one of the leading power pitchers in the Great Game, with a four-seam fastball consistently clocked in the high nineties. He was the NL Pitcher of the Month in April, with a 1.56 ERA and a batting average against of just .153. He took a no-hitter into the 7th inning in early April, and a perfect game into the same frame less than a month later.

Harvey’s dominance and brooding presence on the mound led to a Sports Illustrated cover story entitled “The Dark Knight of Gotham,” a reference to the Batman comic book franchise. He was the starter for the National League in that year’s All-Star Game, which was played at Citi Field. In August he threw his first complete game shutout, a four-hitter against the Rockies. But later that month, just when it seemed certain that all of New York would be cheering Matt Harvey on through a long and brilliant career, he was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow of his throwing arm.

Tommy John surgery soon followed, and while Harvey hoped to return late in the 2014 season, the Mets eventually squashed that idea, opting for a longer rehab period with the team out of that season’s playoff picture. It was the first fissure between star pitcher and front office. Others would follow.

In 2015 Harvey made a career high 29 starts. In the first of those, against the Washington Nationals, he struck out nine over six scoreless innings. After the game Nats slugger Bryce Harper predicted a Cy Young Award in Harvey’s future, adding “he’s one of the toughest at-bats I’ve ever had.” As the season wore on his stats, both advanced and traditional, were comparable to his breakout 2013 season. But Harvey’s agent Scott Boras complained publicly about the number of innings his client was throwing, with more to come as New York headed for the postseason. Harvey initially agreed with him, wondering aloud whether he should pitch in the playoffs. The backlash from both the Mets and their fans was swift, and Harvey’s tough guy “Dark Knight” image took a hit.

He went on to make four postseason starts. The last was in Game 5 of the World Series, when Harvey talked manager Terry Collins into letting him go back out for the 9th inning with the Mets leading the Royals 2-0, despite having already thrown over 100 pitches in the game and over 200 innings in the year. Harvey gave up a leadoff walk to Lorenzo Cain and an RBI double to Eric Hosmer before being pulled. Hosmer later scored to tie the game, and Kansas City went on to win the contest and the Series in 12 innings.

Since that November night Harvey has been a shadow of the pitcher who once showed such power and promise. Over the next two seasons he compiled a record of 9-17, with an unsightly ERA of 5.78. He missed the second half of 2016 after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome. Last year he missed time with a stress fracture in his shoulder and was suspended for three games after not showing up for a game at Citi Field following a night of partying. In four starts this year he was 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA, leading the Mets to demote him to the bullpen.

Harvey is certainly not the first pitcher to have his career threatened by a string of injuries. But so far, he seems unable or unwilling to adapt to his changed circumstances. Rather than pitching with finesse, he’s relying more heavily on his diminished fastball than when it was truly an “out” pitch – nearly 90% of the time compared to about 75% in 2013 and 2015. He also seems oblivious to the role his own actions have played in eroding his support with both his team and its fans. He lashed out at reporters in the wake of his demotion and showed up at a Hollywood party while the Mets were in San Diego last week, inviting comparisons to last year’s antics.

Harvey entered New York’s Thursday afternoon home game against Atlanta in the 5th inning to a chorus of boos. The catcalls only got louder as he needed to face twelve batters to record six outs, allowing five runs, all earned. He’ll be a free agent at the end of this season, and while things could change over the next five months, right now it seems likely that the one-time Dark Knight of Gotham will be calling some other city home next year. Matt Harvey is only 29, so perhaps in a different uniform he can rebuild his career. Or perhaps, like all those characters in that movie doing such boffo box office, Harvey will be just one more superhero who disintegrates right before our eyes.

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Responses

  1. Sounds like the Dark Knight is about to become the Good Night. It’s difficult to watch the once-mighty fall. George Costanza had it right, “Always go out on a high note!”

    Have a good weekend, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Apparently Mets GM Sandy Alderson reads On Sports and Life! As you may have heard, Matt Harvey was designated for assignment today after refusing to accept a move to the minors.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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