July 29, 2013
Matt Harvey's First Year, Historically Speaking
On Friday night, Matt Harvey held the Nationals to one unearned run over eight innings, walking one and striking out seven to lower his ERA to 2.11. That outing closed the book on his first calendar year in the majors; the previous July 26th, Harvey had debuted against the Diamondbacks, holding them scoreless for 5 1/3 and fanning 11. There’s no particular reason to draw a line after a pitcher’s first calendar year—it’s not a completely arbitrary endpoint, but it’s close—but compartmentalizing helps us humans make sense of things. So with Matt Harvey mania in full swing, the one-year mark seems like as good a time as any to see how Harvey stacks up historically, and what that might mean.
This is a list of the best first calendar years for pitchers since 1950, sorted by PWARP. That’s just the pitching component of WARP, so Harvey doesn’t get credit for the extra half win or so he earned by going 6-for-18 at the plate last season. (He’s 5-for-48 this year.) Debut year age is seasonal age, or age as of July 1 of each player's rookie season. Fair RA is a measure of pitching quality scaled to run average, not ERA, and considers sequencing, base-out state, batted-ball distribution, and team defense. Fair RA+ is Fair RA relative to the league; 100 is league average, so the higher the number, the better. Each pitcher’s career PWARP is included on the right.
Harvey just barely cracks the top 10; before last night, he might have been behind Barry Zito (4.06). If you’re surprised that Harvey doesn’t rank higher, remember that most of the pitchers on this list debuted in dramatically different eras for pitcher usage, so all but two pitched more innings in their first season than Harvey. Consider also that Harvey plays in a pitcher’s park, and that he’s faced weak opponents—this season alone, he’s faced the Marlins three times, the Nationals three times, the White Sox once, etc. Of the 95 starters with at least 100 innings pitched this season, Harvey’s opponent OPS—the average OPS of all of the hitters who’ve faced him, a proxy for opponent quality—ranks dead last, at .725.
(This is probably the point where, to peacefully disperse the growing mob of pitchfork-wielding Mets fans, I’m supposed to say “That doesn’t make Harvey’s first year any less special,” or “That’s not to take anything away from Harvey.” But…well, it does discount his achievements, slightly. He’s been incredible, especially relative to what we thought he would be. Just slightly less incredible than he seems if you don’t take his park or opponents into account.)
All in all, it’s sort of a sobering list, one that features plenty of great pitchers but no Hall of Famers, and a few guys who flamed out fairly quickly. The first Hall of Famer, Roger Clemens, shows up at no. 14 (3.93 in 184 innings); Bert Blyleven comes in at no. 18 (3.73, in 266.7 innings), and Don Sutton checks in at no. 21 (3.69, 225.7). Sprinkled between and around them are the sort of fast-burning phenoms who appeared to be on Cooperstown trajectories before things fell apart: Rick Ankiel, Dontrelle Willis, Fernando Valenzuela. On average, the non-Harvey top 10 amassed 24.9 career PWARP, or 19.7 following their first calendar year.
Score debuted at a time when the league struck out 4.4 batters per nine, and his strikeout rate as a rookie wouldn’t look out of place among those of today’s league leaders. In 1957, his third year in the majors, Score was struck by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald (and may also have injured his arm), and was never as effective thereafter. Gooden was a bigger sensation for the Mets than Harvey has been, but he got into drugs and his body broke down. Montefusco and Nolan had arm injuries. Prior had (and still has) every injury. The mesmerizing effect of Nomo’s unorthodox windup wore off. Valenzuela was worked hard and wore down, and Ankiel and Willis lost their feel for the strike zone. The stories of what happened to these precocious pitchers in year two and beyond are all different, but a lot of them end with “…and he was never the same after that.”
So the last sixty-plus years have seen quite a few early careers as impressive as Harvey’s, at least in a statistical sense. We know Harvey has the repertoire to sustain his success, so the question is how long he’ll hold on to his stuff. Advances in training techniques, nutrition, and medical care, plus a more enlightened attitude toward pitcher usage, make it less likely that he’ll suffer the same fate as some of the less fortunate fast starters, but it’s far from certain that he has a long list of accolades ahead of him. We often point out that pitching prospects are unpredictable, but to a lesser degree, the same can be said of phenoms who’ve already experienced some serious big-league success. Here’s hoping that Harvey is one of the lucky ones.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.