- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Matt Harvey’s Excellent Debut and the Next Step

Matt Harvey’s first MLB season is over. In 59.1 innings, the 23-year-old gave the Mets everything they could hope for and more from a top-tier pitching prospect. His seven-inning, one-run performance Wednesday against the Phillies dropped his ERA to 2.73, paired with a solid 3.30 FIP. His seven strikeouts marked the sixth time he reached that mark in 10 starts; only Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer struck out more than Harvey’s 10.62 batters per nine innings among starters with 50 innings pitched.

His final start showcased everything that defined his season — the big fastball — hitting 97 at times — the breaking pitches to keep hitters off balance, the strikeouts, and the occasional lapses in control.

The big fastball is the alpha and the omega for Harvey, at least at this point in his development. He throws it just over 66 percent of the time and it still may be his best out pitch. Wednesday against Philadelphia, it generated nine of his 12 swinging strikes, most coming up in the strike zone:

When David Laurila interviewed Harvey back in April, Harvey deflected Laurila’s attempt to discuss the merits of working up in the zone as Trevor Bauer has alluded to on multiple occasions. Harvey said those merits come “if you’re using your power stuff,” instead choosing to focus on his efforts to work down and induce ground balls when necessary.

A fine proposition, to be sure, but Harvey’s power stuff is what has him succeeding in the first place. Those nine swinging strikes against the Phillies came on 84 fastballs, a 10.7 percent rate, just a slight tick above his 10.3% season rate. And that’s because he’s working with true power stuff: at 94.7 MPH, his average fastball velocity trails just Garrett Richards, Jeff Samardzija, David Price and Steven Strasburg among starters with at least 50 innings on the season.

Some pitchers — especially the young ones — see their big velocity readings start to slip after the first couple of innings. Harvey had managed to sustain his velocity through at least two trips through the order on a regular basis:

(Width indicates number of pitches thrown)

The problem, though, comes in the sixth, where Harvey dips to 94.0 MPH — still elite starter velocity, but every tick off the fastball makes each of those elevated offerings more dangerous. Harvey simply has seen too many deep counts — he averages at least 15 and as many as 19 pitches per inning throughout the first four, and that leaves him either gassed or up around 100 pitches by the time the sixth or seventh inning rolls around. Harvey’s biggest issue on a statistical level this season is inefficiency — he needed 10 starts to get to those 59.1 innings.

It’s a good problem to have, to be sure. But if Harvey is going to step up and be the Mets’ ace soon, he’ll have to chip away at the pitch count. Harvey walked 3.9 batters per nine innings and slogged through a whopping 75 three-ball counts in his 10 outings, the barrier allowing him through to the seventh inning just three times.

Harvey’s control is only particularly poor with his curveball, his least used pitch, and one rarely deployed in deep counts — over half have gone for balls. His fastball, changeup and slider all went for strikes at least 60 percent of the time, approaching or eclipsing the league average. The problem is falling into these deep counts in the first place.

Sometimes, Harvey just makes plate discipline too easy on the hitters:

The larger zone in this chart represents when it becomes obvious out of the pitcher’s hand the pitch will be a ball — six inches out of the zone above or to the sides, and a foot below the zone. In Harvey’s case, 90 percent of pitches outside this area resulted in balls (or hit by pitches). Things happen, of course, but typically once these pitches leave the hand you can feel safe notching a ball on the scoreboard.

Of the 648 fastballs Harvey threw, 97 (or 15 percent) were easily discernible balls. It doesn’t tend to matter what count he’s in or how many pitches he’s thrown in the at-bat — once every seven or eight fastballs, Harvey is liable to uncork one well out of the zone.

Harvey doesn’t even necessarily have to fire more pitches inside the strike zone. A key and perhaps underrated part of pitching is the ability to pitch around the zone, in places that can produce strikes but don’t risk serving up easy contact. These pitches are the drivers behind those two and three ball counts, where hitters expect the fastball and foul it off even more often (30 percent as opposed to 25 percent), only exacerbating the pitch count issue.

For a 22-year-old, these are but minor quibbles. Harvey’s results in his first trip around the majors were phenomenal for any rookie, much less one of his youth. His power fastball gives him a weapon any major league hitter will have trouble dealing with. Whether he steps into the ace role the Mets hope from him depends on his ability to rein that fastball in and use it (along with his arsenal of breaking pitches) to pitch deep into ballgames as he develops in 2013 and beyond.

PITCHf/x data from BrooksBaseball.net