To express the extent of a player’s confidence is difficult, and using numbers to back up this assertion is even harder. When a player lacks confidence, it can be seen through a slew of on-field mannerisms that don’t always present themselves inside statistics. Instead, the numbers tell us the story of a pitcher, once of dominant form, who is struggling to get outs and display any sort of consistent performance. The statistics paint this picture about Matt Harvey. They tell us a tale of dominance, hindered and erased by injury and ineffectiveness. Although this story is told, it seems to be far from the truth. I believe in an alternate story. A story that displays a human being struggling with the confidence to throw his pitches and retire hitters. A lack of confidence stemming from a large set of off-field hindrances and a set of recent on-field struggles. A problem that will be moved past and put behind in the months to come, making it only a distant memory to both Matt and Met fans.
If we rewind back to September of 2015, we can see that Harvey is no stranger to hardships or headlines. After Tommy John surgery following his stellar 2013 campaign, he seemed back to form throughout 2015, culminating in an impeccable playoff start against the Cubs and a World Series game 1 nod. Throughout the season, questions about Harvey’s innings limit hovered around the Mets clubhouse, reaching its climax in early September. After a start against the Philadelphia Phillies where Harvey exited early due to dehydration, agent Scott Boras spoke about the doctor’s indication that Matt should not exceed 180 innings pitched that season. With Matt already at 166 1/3 innings, it seemed like the Mets organization was directly ignoring these suggestions.
This back and forth between the front office and Boras propelled Matt into the spotlight preceding his next start against Washington, who had become their rival in the midst of a pennant race. He pitched poorly, to the tune of 7 R (4 ER) in only 5 1/3 innings. This tough outing doesn’t hold a torch to his current struggles, but the difference in approach between this start and his recent starts form an interesting comparison.
Throughout this start in particular, and the entirety of the 2015 season, Matt Harvey was unafraid to throw his fastball to any hitter. He challenged hitters like Bryce Harper, in the midst of an MVP season, with fastball after fastball. In Harvey’s most recent start, he wouldn’t even challenge Manuel Margot with the same. Of his 74 pitches in that 2015 start, he threw 51 fastballs 95 and above, constantly pounding the zone. In his most recent start, Harvey nibbled around corners, he never challenged hitters, and he relied on his breaking ball (usually out of the zone) even when behind in the count. This tendency showed a lack of confidence to throw his fastball and challenge hitters, something that Harvey needs desperately to be successful. Overall, the dichotomy in approach between 2015 and 2017 for Matt is striking. Here are some of the numbers based on his position in the count:
CU, CH: 22.3%, 19.7%
SL: 15.5%, 23.4%
FA, FT: 62.2%, 56.9%
CU, CH: 19.0%, 25.3%
SL: 16.5%, 21.7%
FA, FT: 64.6%, 53.0%
AHEAD% 32.6%, 20.8%
BEHIND% 20.8%, 25.9%
In 2015, when ahead in the count, Matt threw 62.2% fastballs. When behind, he threw even more, to the tune of 64.6% of the time. Because of his ability to pound the zone with his fastball, he spent 32.6% of his time ahead in the count while only 20.7% behind. This allowed him to control the pace of the at-bat and the expectations of the hitter. When he wanted to break off a curveball or a slider it became much more effective in relationship to his established fastball.
So far in 2017, he’s been unable to get ahead in the count or develop any rhythm with the pitch. His inability to challenge hitters has left him nibbling around the plate, leaving him ahead in the count only 20.7% of the time. This problem grows when behind in the count, as Harvey continues to throw off-speed pitches 47% of the time. His inability to command these pitches leads to even worse counts, and compounds the problem. Throughout his most recent start again San Diego, Harvey continued to nibble around the corners of the zone, seemingly afraid to challenge hitters with his fastball or throw off-speed pitches consistently in the zone.
This tendency, pointed out by Ron Darling during the SNY Broadcast, can be evidenced by his complete change in pitch usage as shown above. Although diminishing fastball usage is occurring league round, Harvey has to use his fastball more consistently to be more effective this season. By establishing his fastball early, he can play off of it, creating more effective offspeed pitches as well as more powerful fastballs. To be a Cy Young caliber pitcher, you have to trust your stuff and believe in your ability to dominate. As of now, Matt doesn’t believe in either.