Projecting Matt Harvey’s Return
Matt Harvey entered last season showing no signs of rust after missing the 2014 campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery. The owner of a career 26.6% strikeout rate, 5.6% walk rate, and 2.53 ERA backed up by Fielding Independent Pitching metrics deserved consideration as a fantasy ace, and was drafted accordingly. Then 2016 happened.
Harvey struggled to miss bats, posting an abysmal 7.38 K/9 while allowing the 7th highest line drive rate among starters with at least 90 innings pitched.
The damage had resulted in a 4.86 ERA before Harvey was shut down after 17 starts. As it turned out, Harvey was the most recent pitcher to fall victim to the evermore prevalent Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Uncertainty surrounding Harvey’s 2017 rebound has understandably removed him from the ace conversation, at least according to average draft position.
He’s currently selected as the 33rd starting pitcher off the board according to our consensus ADP, but average draft position only tells a part of the story. Perhaps NFBC’s high/low data is more telling of how divided camps are on Harvey’s 2017 prospects as he’s been drafted as early as the 82nd player off the board, and as low as the 175th. Harvey’s talent is undeniable; his health, well that’s questionable.
While TOS is relatively new to the baseball scene, we do have precedent — albeit in a small sample. Still, something may be better than nothing. We can either take a wild guess at Harvey’s projection or at least attempt to apply some science and reason. I prefer the latter.
I began by rounding up major league starters that have been diagnosed with TOS and ultimately identified eleven arms. Well, thirteen including Clayton Richard and Matt Harrison, but I omitted them from the study because they returned primarily as relievers which skew the data. For the curious, the 11 starters include Josh Beckett, Jeremy Bonderman, Chris Carpenter, Aaron Cook, Mike Foltynewicz, Jaime Garcia, Noah Lowry, Shaun Marcum, Kenny Rogers, Kip Wells and Chris Young.
The method was rather simple. I first studied all eleven pitchers’ skills (K%, BB%, Velocity, GB% and xFIP) in their last healthy season before succumbing to TOS. Subsequently, I compared those same skills in the first year back from TOS surgery. Identifying the “last healthy season” was admittedly a bit arbitrary.
Case in point, Josh Beckett didn’t have his surgery until 2013, but a look at his 2012 numbers implies he was dealing with an issue. For the sake of this study, I compared his post-TOS skills to his 2011 season where all indications suggest he was healthy.
This chart represents the 11 starting pitchers studied and the median difference between their skills pre and post-surgery, as well as their post-TOS innings total.
|K%||BB%||GB%||Velo||xFIP||Return IP Total|
Beginning with the good news, as a group the pitchers’ skills pretty much bounced back to pre-surgery levels. Ever so minor downgrades in K% and BB% were offset by a 3% increase in groundball rate that equated to a nearly identical pre-surgery xFIP.
The bad news lies in the innings pitched total. Neither Chris Carpenter nor Noah Lowry threw another pitch after their battle with TOS. Jeremy Bonderman did technically return in 2009 but made only one major league start and a couple of relief appearances amounting to 10 innings.
For all intents and purposes, he was unable to pitch the season following TOS surgery. I didn’t include his other skills in the study since they came in such a small sample (spoiler: they were bad).
For the record, I did compare the 30+-year-olds to the under-30s but noticed a negligible difference between the two. Age doesn’t appear to have a sizeable impact on recovery from TOS. Alarmingly, 27% of the data set was unable to pitch the following year which sheds some light on the severity of TOS.
So what can we expect from Matt Harvey? Well, if he fits into this model, we can expect similar skills to those he possessed in 2015 where he fanned nearly a batter per inning with an elite walk rate and 3.24 xFIP. In that sense, I’m bullish compared to his consensus projection of a 3.71 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 132 strikeouts in 144 innings.
However, precedent implies the projection may not be building in enough risk with 144 innings pitched. We have to entertain the possibility that Harvey doesn’t throw a pitch this year, or, like others who’ve attempted this comeback, delivers a limited amount of innings.
I’m willing to bet on a skills rebound, but unwilling to pay for 144 innings. Applying the minor skills adjustments to Harvey’s 2015 performance prorated to a conservative innings total, I’d pay for something like:
I’d happily take 120 innings of elite production, but is it worth the 126th overall pick that it currently costs drafters? For me, no.
The skills are something I’d take a shot on around the 45th starter off the board, somewhere near the back end of Harvey’s NFBC draft range. But at pick 126 I will let someone else gamble on his rebound.
Matt Harvey isn’t the only starter attempting to overcome offseason TOS surgery. Former Padre, Tyson Ross, is looking to re-establish himself in Texas while Phil Hughes is doing the same in Minnesota.
Beginning with Ross, if we apply the same logic and adjust for the move from Petco to Arlington, I’d buy:
As the case with Harvey, Ross offers tasty upside – but does a potential health rebound justify his current cost? Ross is currently the 93rd pitcher off the board and 358th overall. His 120 innings at these rates place Ross borderline top 100, and I’m not doing backflips over the other arms in that range.
If my staff composition was one that could absorb a zero if Ross busts, I may take a shot on his upside. A top 50 SP season is attainable if he stays healthy, yet he can be replaced with a waiver wire arm if necessary. You don’t have that luxury rolling the dice on Harvey 20 rounds earlier.
Phil Hughes doesn’t possess nearly the upside that Harvey or Ross offer in the event of a rebound. But, for the sake of equity, here’s what we might expect from Hughes under the same model we applied to Harvey and Ross:
As you can see, Hughes could be a sneaky end game pick up if, you know, you played in a 20 team AL-only.