DETROIT -- The escalating drama surrounding the New York Mets and pitcher Matt Harvey about his innings limit and postseason availability is turning into one of the most riveting soap operas in major league baseball.
The controversy, which began with Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, insisting that 180 innings was a hard ceiling implemented for his client by surgeon Dr. James Andrews, has provoked discussion and questions about the appropriate way to handle pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery. Not to mention the appropriate level of communication between player, team and agent.
Harvey is currently at 166 1/3 innings, which essentially leaves him with 14 innings for the remainder of the regular season (he is currently slated to make his next start on Tuesday), with both sides seemingly uncertain about what that means for beyond, with the Mets poised to make their first postseason appearance since 2006.
In speaking to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal about his concerns for his client, Boras provided four comparables to Harvey -- pitchers who never pitched 200 innings in their career prior to Tommy John surgery and then approached that benchmark in their second full season following the operation: Josh Johnson, Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen and Shaun Marcum. Only Marcum did not require a second Tommy John surgery.
Marcum said he hasn’t followed the Harvey situation too closely, though it has become a topic of conversation among his Triple-A Columbus Clippers teammates, but he remembers well what his recovery process was like and the roller-coaster it entailed.
He initially attempted a comeback for the Toronto Blue Jays just 10½ months after surgery, but his last Triple-A rehab start was derailed by a back spasm and, with the impending birth of his second child, the team encouraged him to take extra time and worry instead about returning the next season. He came back as the Opening Day starter in 2010, 18 months following the surgery (same approximate recovery time as Harvey) and felt little doubt about letting it rip.
“I just felt more comfortable, the peace of mind. There was nothing in my head that I couldn’t let the ball go. I wasn’t scared,” Marcum told ESPN.com in a telephone interview Sunday.
The result? Probably his best year in the majors.
During that 2010 season, the Blue Jays were mindful about his workload, though Marcum insists it was pitch count, not innings he abided by. Marcum said the team gave him an extra day of rest whenever the schedule allowed, and even put him on the disabled list before the All-Star break as both a precautionary move and to keep him fresh.
The whole idea of an innings limit is a relatively new concept, and not one that was widely recognized when veteran left-hander Randy Wolf underwent his first of two Tommy John surgeries in 2005. The 39-year-old Wolf understands the need for answers on the subject, especially with the current salaries for pitchers, but explains that it may be futile to attempt to predict.
“If you’ve looked at the pitchers that have used these innings restrictions, it hasn’t prevented them from getting hurt,” Wolf told ESPN.com. “I think there’s a call for answers when it comes to injuries and I think those answers are kind of stabbing at the dark a lot of times.”
Wolf brings up a good point here, as no recovery can really be judged the same. Even the nature of Tommy John surgeries can vary -- some players use a graft from a wrist, others from a hamstring -- not to mention the resilience of the player. The genetic component, Wolf said, shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I’ve played with guys that don’t do anything and they never got hurt. They don’t do anything. They don’t do arm stuff, they don’t work out and they don’t get hurt. And I’ve played with guys that work their tail off, do the right things and they get hurt,” Wolf explained. “So, I mean, I think it’s a thing that people try to predict the somewhat unpredictable.”
And like the ever-evolving parameters of the recovery, the whole nature of the conversation has changed as well. Wolf underwent his first Tommy John surgery in 2005, and then got his second late in his career, 7½ years later. By that time, the dialogue was already drastically different.
Players have a much more nuanced understanding of the topic now, especially with the well-documented shutdown of Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (also a Boras client) in 2012. But fans and media types might not be as forgiving.
“I can only put myself in [Harvey’s] shoes in that situation, but the hardest part would be, to answer for that all the time, especially when the team is probably going to get in the playoffs and they’re not going to use one of their best pitchers in the playoffs,” Wolf said. “That’s a tough thing. I think as long as [Jacob] de Grom, [Noah] Syndergaard, [Jon] Niese and all those guys pitch well, those questions are less and less. But the moment any of those guys have a hiccup and you’re not pitching, that’s going to be the question to answer.”
Marcum offered an interesting solution, one he vocalized during the Strasburg shutdown: Have the player pitch now, then allot him more rest this offseason, put him on the disabled list to start the season, and have him work back into the rotation once he feels sufficiently rested.
Marcum admitted that his return season was different, since his team was not in playoff contention.
But, what would he do if faced with a similar situation to Harvey?
“Me, personally, I would sacrifice the long-term to try to get to the World Series,” Marcum said. “I’ve been to the postseason once, in 2011 [with the Milwaukee Brewers], and ever since I’ve been trying to get back.”