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Began In '96

Matt Harvey’s got 100+ problems

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By Joe Schackman

The Mets’ second-year starter is one of the toughest hurlers in the league, until he hits his 100th pitch of the night. 

Matt Harvey has a problem.

The Mets’ ace has dominated so far in his young career, compiling a 12-8 record and 2.26 ERA over his first 33 starts. His 161 ERA+ and 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings put him in rare company as one of the better young pitchers in history and one of the best pitchers, period, in the game today. Harvey is a threat to throw a no-hitter every time he takes the mound.

But for all the well-deserved fanfare, the 24-year-old has yet to conquer one major obstacle: the 100-pitch threshold. For no matter how good Harvey is on any given night, crossing into triple digits is near guaranteed to turn him from unhittable to downright mediocre.

So far, the Mets righty has thrown a little more than 3,290 pitches in his MLB career. About 3,100 of those came before the 100th pitch of an outing. And for the most part, those pitches have turned out very well for him. Harvey’s allowed just one run for every 72 balls thrown prior to his 100th pitch.

Yet after that 100th pitch, his performance nosedives, and it takes just 17 pitches to allow one run.

Now, the sample size is small so far. Harvey’s thrown just 192 post-100 pitches in his career, and various factors go into a hitter coming around to score. But the difference is drastic nevertheless.

Post-100 pitches this season, Harvey has faced 44 batters. They’re hitting .400, with a .533 slugging percentage and only seven strikeouts. To put that in context, fellow Cy Young contender Clayton Kershaw has faced 44 batters in that same situation and allowed just a .205 batting average against. Yu Darvish? Prior to yesterday’s near no-hitter, he’d seen 68, and they were hitting .156.

It’s not that Harvey struggles when he gets tired. That tends to happen to any athlete. It’s that he morphs into an almost completely different pitcher.

Those late-game issues have received little notice so far, largely because Harvey has been so unexpectedly great over his first 100 pitches. On a team that’s overachieved and yet still sits eight games below .500, any outing that keeps the Mets in the game past the sixth inning is considered a good one.

But as New York takes its next steps forward, they will increasingly need Harvey to finish out his starts on a strong note. He’s the ace, and therefore the de facto stopper. He’ll be relied on to throw effectively deep into games on those occasions the Mets desperately need a big win or some extra rest for their bullpen.

The Mets realize that, and appear to already be trying to improve Harvey’s late-game performance. Pitching coach Dan Warthen before Harvey’s Aug. 7 start against the Rockies challenged him to “pitch at 80% and try to get into the ninth inning with 90 pitches,” the New York Daily News’ Andy Martino reported.

Harvey responded with 8⅔ shutout innings, allowing just three hits. With one out to go, he released his 100th pitch of the game. Charlie Blackmon volleyed it right back at him, sending it screaming off Harvey’s knee cap and into right field. It was one of the hardest-hit balls he’d allowed all game, and his latest post-100 test.

Harvey returned to the mound. Six pitches later, he’d retired Troy Tulowitzki and hit 98 mph in the process. It was his first career complete game.

Whether that’s the turning point, we won’t know for a while. But it’s certainly a sign that Harvey and his coaches are working hard to string out his abilities over a longer period. At 24 and with less than a full year under his belt, he’s got plenty of time to fix the flaw preventing an already-great pitcher from becoming a perennial Cy Young candidate.

As far as problems go, that’s not a bad one.

Joe Schackman is an editor and co-founder of Began in ‘96.