Monday, September 7, 2015

On Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Shutdowns

Hey, did you know that the Mets are considering shutting down Matt Harvey? You probably didn’t. It hasn’t really been covered by the media much, so let me give you the quick rundown.

Obviously, Matt Harvey is coming off of Tommy John surgery. He didn’t throw a single pitch in 2014 as he rehabbed from the surgery, so 2015 is the first year back for the Mets star pitcher since going under the knife. While Tommy John surgery has gotten much more successful over the years, there is still a great amount of uncertainty around the whole process. What causes the injury in the first place? How quickly or slowly should one return to the mound following the procedure? How much should one pitch immediately following the surgery? It’s that last question that the Mets are struggling with today.

Scott Boras, Harvey’s agent, says there was an agreement in place at the start of the season (before anyone suspected the Mets would be a contender this season) to limit Harvey’s usage. The Mets, now in playoff contention, know that Harvey is one of their top pitchers, Bartolo Colon defensive prowess aside. They have skipped a few of his starts to try and protect their young ace, but he is still approaching the 180 innings that seems to at least a soft cap. The team has said they don’t have a hard innings limit in place and they want him to be able to throw in the playoffs. Dr. James Andrews, the famed surgeon who operated on Harvey and a multitude of other pitchers before him, has supposedly said that he favored the 180 innings limit, but that it wasn’t a hard cut off.

The reasons to shutdown Harvey should be obvious. Harvey, his agent Boras, and his doctor Andrews are concerned that too many innings immediately following his surgery would lead to fatigue and further damage to his elbow. The Mets have already been skipping starts, and in his most recent start following a skip, he got knocked around by the lowly Phillies to the tune of 4 runs in 6.1 innings. Boras and Harvey are worried about Harvey’s longevity and his ability to pitch beyond 2015 and through a second, presumably massive, contract.

However, you have to go back nine starts to get to another game where Harvey pitched less than 6 innings and gave up more than 2 earned runs. His strikeouts are still high and his walks allowed are still low. A quick review of his starts doesn’t reveal any obvious signs of fatigue, as even his power fastball has stayed right around 96 MPH. While it has felt like the Mets are sure things to win the NL East at times, they are still in a fight with the Nationals at least through the head to head series starting today. If the Mets do make the playoffs, Harvey is also a better option for them starting games than the previously mentioned Bartolo Colon or Jon Niese. The Mets management would obviously love to have him on the mound during these big games rather than sitting on the bench.

Of course, no discussion of Matt Harvey’s potential shutdown is complete without a pot shot at the Nationals and the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg in 2012. The two situations are eerily similar. Way back in spring training of 2012, back when the Nationals weren’t expected to compete, Strasbug, Rizzo, and Boras (also Strasburg’s agent) were in agreement that Stephen would have an innings limit. There wasn’t a hard limit, but it was decided that the best thing for Strasburg’s long term health was to have a consistent schedule as a starting pitcher and to shut it down sometime in September. This all took place before the Nationals turned in a 98 win team that season, but the team and Strasburg stuck to the Spring Training plan.

For a quick trip down memory lane, remember that Strasburg did struggle over his last starts of that season. Unlike Harvey, Strasburg gave up 5 or more runs three times over his last 8 starts, all culminating in a garbage fire of a last start where he gave up 5 runs over 3 innings with 3 walks to only two strikeouts. Shutting Strasburg down didn’t harm the Nationals during the regular season as they went on to clinch the top seed in the NL. Critics will claim, though, that the shutdown ruined the Nationals’ chances at the World Series that year.

Keep in mind, during all of this, that even the best teams in the playoffs have maybe a 15% chance at taking the World Series title, if you are being generous. 7 games isn’t a tiny sample size, but in terms of baseball, anything can happen over one week of games. It’s how you end up with two wild card teams in the Giants and Royals facing off in the World Series last year. The Nationals series with the Cardinals in 2012 was no exception.

In game one, the Nationals won 3-2 behind a decent outing from Gio Gonzalez and some stellar work from the bullpen. Strasburg would never have seen the field if healthy in game 1. Game two saw Jordan Zimmermann get pounded in a blowout 12-4 loss. Again, this was Zimmermann’s game to win (lose). Strasburg would not have seen the field. Now, game three is the game that likely would have gone to Strasburg if he was active. Instead, it went to Edwin Jackson who subsequently got shelled. Aha! Strasburg could have won this game, you say! Not so fast. The Nationals faced off against Chris Carpenter and handful of hard throwing Cardinals relievers who shut out the Nationals offense. No gem from Stephen Strasburg as a pitcher would have gotten the Nationals’ offense going in the 8-0 loss. Game four was Ross Detwiler’s “One Shining Moment” securing a 2-1 win for the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg would have had no impact. Game 5, the deciding game, was lost 9-7 as Drew Storen famously melted down in the 9th, giving up 4 runs and the lead in a game started by Gio. Now, Edwin Jackson did pitch an inning in relief and gave up one run, so you could make the argument Strasburg had a chance to pitch that game. But that’s ignoring that Davey Johnson went with Jackson over Zimmermann, who had an extra day of rest than Jackson. Davey would not have gone to Strasburg in that game over Jackson and Zimmermann. It’s a fun and easy narrative to lay the blame of 2012 on Strasburg’s shutdown, but it doesn’t align with reality.

What people tend to forget in all of this is that Strasburg wasn’t the only top tier pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery who had a shutdown debate raging in 2012. The Braves, who ended up winning one of the two Wild Card spots that year, had their own potential ace in Kris Medlen. The Braves, unlike the Nationals, expected to compete in 2012 and so brought Medlen along slowly in his recovery from TJ. He pitched a few games in the minors to start the year and spent a good chunk of the first half of the season pitching out of the bullpen, conserving innings for the second half of the season and the playoffs. I guess you could say it was a success in 2012, as the Braves claimed the Wild Card spot to earn a one game playoff against the Cardinals and were able to throw their young ace in that game. However, Medlen collected the loss in that game as he gave up 2 runs over 6.1 innings. Medlen was healthy enough through 2013 to again start in the playoffs for the Braves, this time getting lit up for 5 runs over 4 innings against the Dodgers. Following those playoffs, Medlen walked off the mound in an early Spring Training game in March with more elbow damage and had to once again undergo Tommy John surgery. He has only recently returned to the mound this summer as a reliever and spot starter for the Royals, but he still faces an uncertain future and his 2 year, $8.5 million deal with the Royals reflects that. It’s certainly not the kind of massive deal he expected to get back when he was the Braves’ ace in 2012. The Braves took the opposite route in the shutdown conundrum, adjusting their starter’s schedule to keep him on the field at the end of the year, but it didn’t bring them any playoff success.

For one final item related to all this shutdown hoopla, I want you to do a thought experiment with me. Say you are working for a moderately successful company, but you have had some carpal tunnel syndrome that has kept you out of work recently. The company has a chance to close a big deal in the near future and they stand a slightly better chance of closing the deal if you work on it, but it’s still only a 15% chance of success. You don’t stand to gain much personally from the deal closing, just something to add to your resume. Moreover, your doctor has told you that if you keep working your carpal tunnel could return and would be even more serious. So bad that it would significantly impact your future earning potential. Would you be willing to risk your career for your employer in this kind of situation?

Obviously, this exercise isn’t about carpal tunnel syndrome but Matt Harvey/Kris Medlen/Stephen Straburg and Tommy John. People tend to forget that these shutdown decisions don’t affect only the team, but also the players. Yes, they make a lot of money to play baseball, but they also take the risk of burning out before reaching 30 years old and never being able to make money playing baseball again. It’s a huge risk for someone like Matt Harvey to pitch beyond what doctors are comfortable with him pitching, a risk worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

All of this just to say that there is no right answer here. The science of pitching injuries isn’t advanced enough to predict when and where and how elbow injuries occur. Matt Harvey pitching for the Mets down the stretch and into the playoffs pushes the needle in the Mets favor only a few percentage points at best. Stephen Strasburg has yet to blow out his elbow again, but no one can say for certain that its due to the Nationals caution with him in 2012. Kris Medlen is now making $4 million dollars a year instead of $20 million, but no one knows if that’s due to his pitching regimen established by the Braves in 2012. The Mets could shut Harvey down only to have him injure his elbow again next season. Or Harvey could pitch the whole post season and lead the team to the title and still be healthy. As a Nationals fan, I’m clearly a little biased. But really, I think the answer is in the middle. Is there a magic number where Harvey’s arm explodes? No. Is there a point where it becomes a major risk to Harvey’s future to keep pitching? No doubt. In the best interest of both Harvey and the team, the Mets should allow Harvey to keep pitching, but keep an eye on his mechanics, release point, velocity, control, etc. for any sign that he’s starting to fatigue and pull the plug at that point. As a baseball fan, I want to see a healthy Matt Harvey pitch next year.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe Harvey concluded that this is his and the Mets' best shot at a pennant in years and he/they may not get another chance. Go for broke, in other words. I bet he would opt for the shutdown if the Mets were out of the division race. It's a calculated risk, to be sure. But any of these NL playoff teams could go to the WS this year.