Yesterday, it was reported Matt Harvey may need Tommy John surgery because of a torn UCL in his right elbow. Some people may say they saw the injury coming and the Mets were crazy to let him throw over 175 innings this season, but the evidence doesn’t really support those ideas. After looking over the history of other 24-year-olds, it appears that the pitcher’s ability to throw hard and recent small velocity drop were the only identifiable injury indicators.
Myself and others have looked at many indications of a pitchers chances of getting hurt. High increase in innings for a young pitcher (Verducci Effect). Velocity and Zone% drop (PAIN Index). Inconsistency in release points and velocity late in a game. High breaking ball usage. Bad Mechanics. High fastball velocity.
With so many possible explanations, I figured I would find at least one major issue sticking out, but I didn’t. I will step through each of these possible theories and just show how it was all but impossible to know this injury was coming.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated created the theory which a “pitcher who is under 25 years old and who had an increase in his workload of 30 innings or more in the previous season is at greater risk for injury or for a steep decline in performance.” Matt Harvey fits into this category for 2013 since his innings did increase 30 IP from 2011 to 2012 (135.2 to 169.1 increase), just exceeding the 30 IP limit.
To put this simply, the Veducci Effect has been proved worthless for several years now and should not be used to evaluate pitcher injuries. I am sure it will be mentioned on TV several times in the up coming days, but please know that the theory has been roundly debunked, and is not any type of valid analysis.
Declines in Velocity and Zone% (PAIN)
Since the beginning of the season, I have been working on a metric to help find pitchers who may be injured. Basically it looks for pitchers with a declining fastball velocity and have the inability to throw strikes. I named it PAIN. Just before Harvey’s injury was reported yesterday, I put him at a PAIN value of -86 which is outstanding (+100 are pitchers at risk). He has improved on his 2013 first half fastball velocity (95.2 to 95.7 mph) and Zone% (51% to 53%), so this marker did not pick up any red flags.
One possible issue was a small drop in his average fastball velocity over his last half dozen games.
Most of the decrease was giving up gains he saw right before the All-Star Game. After the game, his velocity was down about 1 mph. Some concern, yes. Worried after the early season gains, no, not really.
Late Game Inconsistencies
Looking at Havery over the past 2 seasons, his recent late game consistency was impeccable (a value of 100 indicates a possible injury).
Basically, Harvey maintained his velocity late into the game while keeping a consistent release point.
Breaking Ball Usage
Matt Harvey is known for his beautiful slider. In case you have seen him throw in the last five minutes, here is another look:
The slider is Matt’s best pitch and he throws it regularly because it is so effective. Some people think throwing too many breaking balls may make a pitcher injury prone.
In a study I performed, I found pitchers with high slider usage are more injury prone. The problem is Harvey doesn’t throw his slider enough to make a difference. A pitcher needs to throw their slider over 30% of the time to have a higher injury risk. Harvey throws his less than 20% of the time, because the rest of his pitches are pretty good as well.
Throwing a baseball hard is hard on a body. Throwing the ball with bad mechanics is even harder on a body. I know little about pitching mechanics, except I have no idea how Chris Sale‘s arm doesn’t explode every time he throws a ball. Others though will give their expert opinions.
Jim Margalus of SouthSideSox.com put together a great list of people praising Matt Harvey‘s mechanics. Harvey’s mechanics have been described as “good”, “clean”, “flawless” with “no violent movement”. Former major leaguer (3.2 IP in 1970), Dick Mills even created a video touting Harvey’s mechanics
Some flaws with Harvey’s mechanics probably could be noted by someone, as it could with any pitcher. The general consensus before the injury was of a pitcher with a sound delivery.
High End Velocity Pitchers
I have always wondered if throwing continually at extreme velocities can injury a pitcher more often than slower tossers. With hard throwers such as Stephen Strasburg, Alexi Ogando and Michael Pineda dealing with major shoulder and elbow injuries, I finally dug into a few numbers. Since 2008 (when Pitchf/x data has been reliable), there have been 16 instances of a starter averaging over 95 mph.*
Assuming Harvey spends time on the DL in 2014 and ignoring Strasburg for now, 50% of these pitchers spent time on the DL in their next season. In the past, a starting pitcher who threw 120 innings in one season has a 39% chance of going on the DL the next year. An increase, but not without its flaws. I am not excited about just a sample size of 15, so I expanded the search to include 22 pitchers who averaged between 94 and 94.99 mph. Of these additional pitchers, 36% went on the DL the next year bringing the overall total to 42%. Not a much of change from the league average of 39%.
It seems that extreme hard throwers have some additional injury risk, if a person believes in a sample of 15 pitcher seasons. By expanding lowering the velocity threshold down to 94 mph, not much additional risk exists.
Putting it all together, there were no glaring red flags pointing to an injury issue with Matt Harvey, just a couple of slightly pink ones. He was experiencing a small drop in velocity and may throw the ball too hard on a regular basis. Other pitchers do the same things daily and don’t tear their UCL. Additionally, he showed no signs of bad mechanics, inability to throw strikes, high work load, too many breaking balls or late game inconsistencies. His injury is just another example of a pitcher trying to do his best and his body not letting him.
* Ubaldo Jimenez (2008, 2009, 2010), Stephen Strasburg(2012, 2013), Michael Pineda (2011), Matt Harvey (2013), Justin Verlander (2009, 2010, 2011), Jeff Samardzija (2012), Felipe Paulino (2011), David Price (2012), David Price (2010), Alexi Ogando (2011)
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