Man on Fire: New York Mets SP Matt Harvey
Fine, I'll just be a man and admit it: I was highly skeptical. When we named Matt Harvey as the 19th most likely pitcher to have a no-hitter in 2013, I thought our analytics needed to head to the doctor's office for a checkup.
Who's Matt Harvey, and why does this guy have such great projected stats? So I pored through the numbers, found a strikeout rate that I thought would ultimately be unsustainable, and wrote about it. There, that's the best explanation I can give.
But then, something funny happened: our analytics were right. That strikeout rate turned out to be pretty darn sustainable. And through six starts this season, we have Harvey as the No. 15 overall pitcher and No. 7 most valuable fantasy SP this season.
How did it happen? I decided to take a closer look inside the numbers at how Harvey has gotten to this point and what to expect the rest of the way.
In ten starts after being called up in 2012, Matt Harvey struck out 28.6 percent of the batters he faced, or a strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9) rate of 10.6. Sure, he gave up some walks at 10.6 percent of opposing batters as well, but his overall strikeout to walk ratio of 2.69 was not to be denied. Those strikeouts catapulted Harvey among the top contenders for the next breakout starter.
How absolutely cartoon-like are those numbers? Among qualified starters who had enough innings last year, only two - Max Scherzer (11.1) and Yu Darvish (10.4) - finished with at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings. And with Darvish's own 10.9 percent walk rate, one could argue that there weren't many strikeout artists better than Harvey was in limited time last season.
His numbers, though, seemed unsustainable. Only 6.9 percent of opponent's fly balls were hit for home runs, down from the league average of 8.1 percent. For a fireballer, normally that number would be higher by the whole "faster pitches travel farther" law of physics. 22 percent of the time batters put balls in play against Harvey, they would go for line drives. That was three percent above the league average - they could hit him decently. And 10 starts is a small sample size: could he maintain the numbers?
Turns out, he can. The main key to Harvey's success in 2012 was something that is easily carried over from season-to-season: missing bats. Because balls in play are typically unreliable, the best way to ensure success is to make sure guys can't make contact. And Harvey has been a master at making sure batters won't hit him. The MLB average for strikes resulting in contact (fouls or in-play) from the past two seasons is at 78 percent. In 2012, Harvey finished at 73 percent, and his strikes swinging average (21 percent) was noticeably above league average (16 percent).
Harvey wasn't getting lucky on balls in play: he was having success himself missing bats. Even if he sustained those rates, Harvey would be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Mets anyway. But then he did what most young pitchers are expected to do in that he improved. But in Harvey's case, those improvements took his already great numbers and made them extraordinary.
In his six starts this season, those numbers have resulted in five quality starts and only once (against the Dodgers on April 24) where Harvey allowed more than one run in a game. His current 2.0 WAR leads all major league pitchers, while his 4.7 hits per nine sits in third and his 1.56 ERA in fifth. That's not a bad first month to the MLB season.
Projecting It Out
Our projections don't see him continuing with his absurdly high strikeout rate, but we don't see him regressing much, either: we have Matt Harvey finishing the season with a 27.2 percent K rate. The main key to Harvey's numbers, though, may be whether he is able to keep his walks down. We have him projected to finish the season with a 9.5 percent rate, down from 2012 but up from his current league-average 2013.
That mixture places Harvey squarely as a top-of-the-rotation starter for the rest of the season, although not truly a superstar like his current numbers would make him seem. The rest of the way, we have him as the 21st most valuable fantasy pitcher and with a nERD score of 3.56 (runs saved per 27 outs).
Total Season Projections
Considering he had four wins in April alone, it's not inconceivable that Harvey will climb above those 13 projected wins. Given his expected regression to the mean, though, four wins in six starts isn't a highly sustainable rate. There is also the late-season dropoff to consider as well - this is Harvey's first full season as a starter, so who knows how he'll pitch when his innings number gets high?
But still, those numbers look solid for a starter who most people didn't know existed before last summer. 211 strikeouts would have been good enough to finish No. 9 on the 2012 MLB top ten list, and his projected ERA and WHIP would have been right outside the top ten.
I'd say the Mets have an ace for seasons to come; Harvey is only 24, you know. And with his current numbers looking highly sustainable moving forward, you should get to know the name Matt Harvey if you haven't already.