Matt Harvey is the perfect player for New York. First, he’s good; that’s important. New Yorkers don’t put up with failure very well. Then there’s the personality, the chip on his shoulder going back to his draft status coming out of high school, the raw power of his electric stuff and the attitude that New Yorkers love, just enough on this side of cocky. So New York Mets fans loved him. And then they didn’t. One fan called him the worst Met ever.
Luckily, New Yorkers also are quick to forgive, and early September, when the whole innings-limit debate for Harvey reached a heated crescendo, now seems very long ago. "He was put in a real tough situation," manager Terry Collins said Monday. "I don’t know if it was handled perhaps the right way, but I know this guy well enough to know he wants the baseball."
Indeed, Harvey is Collins’ choice to start the World Series opener, viewed as a bit of a surprise given the sweep of the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series allows Collins to go with any of his trio of power-armed right-handers, and Jacob deGrom has pitched so well in three postseason starts. But maybe the decision to start Harvey is a subtle message: This still is your pitching staff to lead.
You’ve seen or heard the numbers by now: The Royals are good fastball hitters. Against fastballs of 94-plus mph in 2015, they led the majors in wOBA, hitting .307 compared to the MLB average of .249. They had a strikeout rate of just 11.4 percent against those fastballs, nearly 6 percent lower than the No. 2 team and well below the MLB average of 21.9 percent.
The Mets know this. Harvey knows this. "I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned, especially this year, is pitching and mixing different pitches and different locations, whereas before I’ve gotten away with just blowing it out, throwing 97, 98," Harvey said Monday. "Maybe between the long year and having surgery I think I might have lost a little bit of the -- I don’t know how they say it -- but effective velocity."
He hasn’t lost much, however. His average fastball velocity this season has been 95.8 mph -- 95.9 and 94.4 in his two playoff starts -- and the velocity and command of his fastball sets up the effectiveness of his slider, changeup and curveball. So pay particular attention to fastball location, especially against the Royals' left-handed hitters. Harvey loves to throw his fastball to lefties on the outer edge of the plate:
Now, this is where things get interesting. Harvey had a sizable platoon split, with a .676 OPS allowed against lefties (on all pitches) compared to .544 against righties, and 15 of the 18 home runs he has allowed have been vs. lefties. Check out the Royals' lefty hitters against right-handed fastballs on the outer third of the strike zone:
Ben Zobrist: .206/.372/.324
Eric Hosmer: .379/.463/.707
Kendrys Morales: .400/.494/.662
Mike Moustakas: .300/.385/.500
Alex Gordon: .340/.407/.698
These are all small sample sizes (around 65 plate appearances per hitter), but it looks like four of these five hitters like the ball where Harvey likes to throw his fastball.
Which leads to the cat-and-mouse game. When asked about facing the Mets' flamethrowers, Zobrist said, "I think this team loves that. I don’t think it will change our approach. We expect them to throw a lot of off-speed pitches."
Volquez throws a fastball, curveball and changeup, but the most notable aspect of his postseason has been his increased fastball velocity. His fastball averaged 93.8 mph on the season, but his three highest single-game averages have come in his three postseason starts: 94.7, 95.3 and then 96.2 in his second start against the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series.
"A lot of energy has helped me a little bit more," Volquez said. "I think pitching in the playoffs is more exciting. And everything I pitch, everything I’ve got, that’s what I’ve got. I was throwing 97, 98 the other day. I don’t do that very often."
During the regular season, he normally threw high in the zone with sinking action. In the postseason, however, his fastball has been a little all over the place:
In the limited sample of three games, this has kind of created an effectively wild approach: Batters are hitting .182/.308/.212 against him, with five walks and five strikeouts. Compare that to a regular-season line of .293/.387/.465, with 58 walks and 57 strikeouts. If he comes out throwing hard again, it will be interesting to see how he mixes up his pitches. In the regular season, he threw his fastball half the time and his two off-speed pitches about a quarter of the time, a ratio he has maintained so far in the playoffs.
The obvious key here: Volquez has hit the wall in the middle innings of each of his three playoff outings. Against the Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS, he had a shutout going until giving up two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, resulting in his departure. He pitched six scoreless innings against the Blue Jays in Game 1, but walked the first two batters in the sixth, somehow escaping a 37-pitch inning without any runs. In Game 5 against the Jays, he was down 1-0 in the sixth when he went walk, hit batter, walk, walk and exit.
Ned Yost usually has been a bit too slow in removing his starters, preferring to react rather than act. Volquez has walked four batters in all three playoff starts. He’s throwing hard but he’s not throwing with elite command. Yost is playing with fire if he expects more than five innings from his Game 1 starter.