Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 20, 2018

Riding The Matt Harvey Rollercoaster

“We count everything in baseball. God, that’s all we do.” The words came from the mouth of Kevin Costner, playing the fictional pitcher Billy Chapel in the 1999 film “For Love of the Game,” the last of the actor’s trifecta of baseball movies, after “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams.” Though the source may be a screenplay, the statement reflects a reality as old as the Great Game itself. Baseball, as every fan knows, has always been about its numbers. From the standings to the statistics, the latter running from the age-old and simple calculations of a hitter’s batting average or a pitcher’s wins and losses (Costner delivers his line in response to his character’s new love interest expressing surprise that he knows the number of games he’s lost in his career), to the complex modern metrics of WAR and FIP and ERA+, generations of fans have followed baseball by tracking its plethora of numbers.

For the modern game deep in the offseason, the numbers that attract attention this time of year are those preceded by dollar signs. The hot stove is ablaze, and even as the Yule approaches fans hang on every rumor of a free agent signing and assess every announcement of a done deal for how it impacts the likely fortunes of their favorite franchise.

Where will Manny sign? Will he or Bryce really get $400 million? Did the Nationals overpay for Patrick Corbin? Did the Red Sox get a deal bringing back Nathan Eovaldi? The real answer to all those questions is the same, namely that only time will tell. But the conventional wisdom seems to be, New York or Philadelphia, probably not, probably so, and only if everything goes right. And then there is the story behind the hot stove’s latest numbers, which are 1, 11 and 3 – one year, $11 million, with incentives that could push the deal another $3 million higher. That’s the deal the right-hander Matt Harvey, once a New York Met and more recently a Cincinnati Red, inked with the Los Angeles Angels Tuesday.

We refer to the career arc of athletes, but that conjures an image of a rising line curving smoothly up to a peak, before starting a gradual decline as time, the enemy of every one of our sporting heroes, takes its inexorable toll. Rollercoaster would be a far more accurate description of Harvey’s path through the major leagues. Like a fully loaded string of cars chugging up a coaster’s initial climb, Harvey moved straight up through the minors after being selected by the Mets as the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Just two summers later he was making his big league debut, filling in for an injured Johan Santana. He set a franchise record by fanning eleven batters in that initial outing and averaged nearly that many per nine innings over the balance of his rookie campaign.

With a four-seam fastball that regularly flirted with triple digits on the radar gun, Harvey had established himself as the ace of starting rotation by the very next season. He was the National League Pitcher of the Month in April, when he took a no-hitter into the 7th inning of a contest early in the month and then a perfect game into the same frame a couple of weeks later. The Mets were the hosts of that year’s All-Star Game, and Harvey got the start for the NL before adoring fans at Citi Field. But his first stomach-churning career plummet came before season’s end, when Harvey was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. Tommy John surgery swiftly followed.

The usual year-long recovery period stretched longer when the Mets front office chose not to bring Harvey back toward the end of the 2014 season, since the team was hopelessly out of the playoff race. The decision displeased the pitcher, who had been aggressively rehabbing in hopes of taking the mound before that year’s campaign ended. It would not be the last dispute between Harvey and Mets management.

Back in the rotation in 2015, Harvey again seemed destined for greatness when he debuted with six scoreless innings against the Nationals while striking out nine. Gotham “Dark Knight,” as he had been dubbed by Sports Illustrated, continued to post impressive numbers all season long. But as his innings count climbed after more than a year on the shelf, first his agent Scott Boras and then Harvey complained about the workload. The carping dented his tough guy image and soured a segment of the team’s fans on their one-time hero, marking another downward turn in his image.

But once again Harvey rebounded, this time by throwing well in the postseason as New York worked its way to the World Series. He beat the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, and the Cubs in Game 1 of the NLCS. He took a no-decision in the first game of the Series against Kansas City, and was back on the mound for Game 5, with the Royals looking to close out the Mets and claim the title. With a capacity crowd of 45,000 cheering him on, Harvey handcuffed the Royals through eight scoreless innings, while his teammates pushed across one run in the 1st and another in the 6th for a 2-0 lead. When he walked off the mound at the end of that effort, his pitch count up over one hundred, Mets faithful stood as one and saluted their hero. It was to be Harvey’s final highlight moment in a New York uniform.

In the dugout Harvey convinced manager Terry Collins to let him pitch the 9th. He surrendered a leadoff walk and a run-scoring double before Collins came to get him. The Mets bullpen allowed another run in to tie the score, and Kansas City eventually tasted glory in the 12th. Over the next two seasons his fastball velocity plummeted even as his ERA rose while Harvey shuffled on and off the disabled list with various injuries. Along the way he incurred the wrath of management, his teammates and fans by failing to show up for a game after a night out on the town. In 2018 he went 0-2 with an unsightly ERA before the Mets relegated him to the bullpen. He was no better in a relief role, and New York tried to demote him to the minors. But Harvey had sufficient seniority that he had to consent to being sent down, and he refused. Shortly thereafter New York traded the one-time superhero to Cincinnati.

Where he staged yet one more comeback. Just when it seemed like his career was destined for the junkpile, Harvey was, if not the dominant pitcher of old, certainly serviceable. He went 7-7 for the Reds with his best strikeouts per nine innings number since 2015.

That was enough to convince the Angels to give the first-time free agent, who will have just turned 30 when next season starts, what on its face looks like a generous deal. The warning signs in Harvey’s story meant L.A. was going to limit its exposure, thus the one-year term. But even for just a season, is Matt Harvey worth $11 million (if he makes the various incentive milestones, the Angels and their fans will be happy to pay him the extra $3 million)? The real answer of course, is that only time will tell. But whether he ascends to new heights or plunges to even greater depths, L.A.’s gamble means that in the game that counts everything, Matt Harvey can now count to eleven million.

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