<
>

What's Matt Harvey going through? Nothing too unusual

Experts on Tommy John surgery noted how Matt Harvey threw nearly half of "pitcher's count" pitches down the middle of the plate in his recent outing against the Giants. Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

Admit it. You got a little spoiled by Matt Harvey's 5-1 record, 1.98 ERA, 56 strikeouts and eight walks over his first eight starts of the season.

Harvey showed superhuman tendencies in 2012 and 2013 when he captured the hearts and attentions of New York Mets fans with dominant pitching performances that brought back memories to the days of Dwight Gooden.

But coming back from Tommy John surgery is not as easy as Harvey made it look in the first two months of the season. Just ask the nearly 1,000 pro baseball players who had the procedure done before him.

And in Harvey's past four starts, he has found that out and the fans have as well. In that stretch, he has an ERA of 7.20 and has allowed eight home runs in 25 innings. He had a shaky outing in his most recent start, against the San Francisco Giants, when he allowed seven runs for the second time this season.

At a glance, Harvey looks healthy. His average fastball velocity this season (95.8 mph) is a spot-on match for his average when he was dominating in 2013.

But there's a lot more to keep in mind.

The mental aspect

Geoff Miller is a mental skills coach who specializes in dealing with professional baseball players, and the author of "Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning The Mental Game in Baseball and in Life," which relates stories of how major leaguers deal with their day-to-day work-related issues.

Miller has dealt with a number of pitchers who came back from Tommy John surgery and offered this perspective:

"It's common for a pitcher who has completed his rehab and has gotten back into real games to have ups and downs with his stuff or his feel for pitches," Miller wrote in an email. "I've spent a lot of time working with pitchers to stay focused on competing with whatever they have that night rather than trying to get back to the place they had been in their careers before the injuries.

"The problem becomes that pitchers start to compare themselves to what they were like before and they end up doing too much evaluating of how that 'fastball felt coming out of my hand' or if an off-speed pitch had as much bite as it did pre-surgery.

"And in trying to get their feel back, they end up making mechanical changes that leave their stuff flat or they distract themselves so much worrying that they don't feel it that night, that they end up competing with themselves instead of with the opposing hitters."

The physical aspect

Jeff Zimmerman is a baseball researcher, who along with Jon Roegele maintains the list of Tommy John surgeries we linked to atop this story. Zimmerman and Brian Cartwright, a statistical consultant for major league teams, published a series of studies for The Hardball Times website. Their most important finding was that pitchers in their first season following Tommy John surgery experienced notable increases in home-run rate walk rate and ERA, along with a decline in strikeout rate.

Not every pitcher experiences every one of these issues. But Harvey's season stats don't appear abnormal, relatively speaking. (If you want to learn more about this, check out Jeff's series or a recent project by ESPN.com's Stephania Bell on Tommy John returns.)

The statistical aspect

My ESPN Stats & Information colleague, Lee Singer, sent out a series of notes about Harvey's issues in his most recent start last Wednesday, when he allowed seven runs to the Giants. Harvey blamed his struggles on poor command.

Singer cited four examples that were uncharacteristic for Harvey -- a Joe Panik homer and a Buster Posey double on 0-2 pitches, a Brandon Crawford double, and a Justin Maxwell home run. In all four instances, Harvey didn't come close to hitting his catcher's intended target.

Singer noted: "In pitcher's counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2), Harvey threw 48 percent of his pitches in the middle of the plate vertically (think at the belt), the highest percentage of his career. He allowed six hits in those counts, tying his career high, including all three home runs."

Harvey threw 42 pitches in pitcher's counts Wednesday. He had twice as many hits allowed as he did swings-and-misses (three).

The good news for Harvey: This looks like the only time that this particular issue has manifested itself since he returned. In the three starts prior to that one, opponents were 4-for-40 against him in pitcher's counts.

Of course, that doesn't mean it won't come up again.

Looking ahead

So what should we expect from Matt Harvey looking forward?

One Mets blogger, Brian Mangan, used the existing Tommy John data to make a preseason projection on Harvey of 160 innings and a 2.98 ERA.

"Although there is a good chance that Harvey can outperform the above projection, there is also a decent chance that he might not return at all or will see significant setbacks in his recovery," Mangan wrote.

In other words, there's plenty of reason to look ahead with both optimism and pessimism. It depends on which way you wish to look at it.

And perhaps how Harvey chooses to look at his most recent start as well.