Understanding how thoracic outlet syndrome forced Matt Harvey into an early decline

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 14: Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets walks to the dugout after the third inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citi Field on April 14, 2018 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

With Matt Harvey still dangling on the free-agent market, it’s time to revisit how the former hero of Queens lost his dominance. 

Thomas Hall

Heading into the 2016 campaign, the New York Mets featured one of the best pitching rotations in the majors. They were ultimately hoping their staff would be able to lead them back to the World Series.

Unfortunately for the Mets, they failed to surge past the Giants during the 2016 National League Wild Card game. To make matters worse, their team was forced to play the majority of the 2016 campaign without their ace pitcher.

After battling with shoulder pain and numbness in his fingers through the first half of the year, Matt Harvey was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome shortly after he was placed on the disabled list in July. As a result, the “Dark Knight” was forced to undergo season-ending surgery to remove a rib from his chest.

The Mets were hopeful that Harvey could regain his dominant form in 2017. Nonetheless, the All-Star hurler struggled mightily to replicate his stellar performance from the 2015 season.

After producing a 2.71 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 3.24 xFIP, 24.9% strikeout rate, and 4.0 fWAR rating in 2015, Harvey went downhill. He created a troubling 6.70 ERA, 6.37 FIP, 5.39 xFIP, 1.69 WHIP, .291 OPP AVG, 15.6% strikeout rate, 10.9% walk rate, 20.6% HR/FB rate, and -0.9 fWAR rating during the 2017 campaign.

Historically, pitchers who undergo TOS surgery are rarely able to perform the same way after the procedure. This was no different with Harvey, as his three most effective pitches were affected.

At this point, it’s become very clear that he’ll likely never return to his previous form.

Ever since the right-hander debuted in 2012, he’s relied heavily on his mid-90s fastball. From 2012-13, the 6-foot-4 hurler utilized his four-seamer 57.6% of the time. He generated a 40% ground ball rate with that pitch type. Despite having Tommy John surgery in 2014, the hard-throwing righty’s heater maintained it’s average velocity of 96 miles per hour. The pitch type additionally created a 38% ground ball rate during the 2015 campaign.

In addition, his fastball averaged a career-best 11.3 inches of drop and allowed a measly .252 AVG, .222 xAVG, .391 SLG, .371 xSLG, .300 wOBA, and .279 xwOBA in 2015. Furthermore, the 31-year-old also produced a career-high 25.4% whiff rate and 26.7% strikeout rate with his four-seamer.

But after Harvey started to lose feeling in his fingers, the velocity on his four-seamer dropped to 95 miles per hour. It started to locate lower in the strike zone as well. In 2016, his fastball averaged 13 inches of drop and was crushed for a .326 AVG, .291 xAVG, .455 SLG, .459 xSLG, .352 wOBA, and .352 xwOBA.

In the three seasons after his TOS surgery, the Dark Knight’s heater has dipped all the way down to just 93 miles per hour. It averaged 17.7 inches of drop last season. While his four-seamer remained his primary pitch, it was destroyed for a .299 AVG, .358 xAVG, .542 SLG, .620 xSLG, .406 wOBA, along with a .450 xwOBA during the 2019 campaign.

Along with losing velocity on his fastball, Harvey’s procedure in 2016 has created plenty of control issues with his two primary strikeout weapons. Prior to his surgery, the veteran hurler was very successful at creating swings and misses with both his low-90s slider and low-80s curveball.

During his first three seasons in the majors, the former third-round selection’s slider averaged 26.3 inches of drop. The pitch additionally created a 34.3% strikeout rate and 36.4% whiff rate. His curveball, on the other hand, averaged 41 inches of drop and produced a 32.2% strikeout rate along with a 30% whiff rate during that same timeframe.

As a result of struggling with his release point, Harvey’s seen a gradual increase with his slider’s vertical movements over the last three seasons, leading to an average of 31.2 inches of drop in 2019. Similar to his primary offspeed pitch, the right-hander’s curveball has increased its average vertical movements by 8.8 inches since 2015.

With his breaking ball finding a lower location in the strike zone, its out zone rate has increased by 16.2% over the last three seasons. Since his curveball’s strikeout rate has decreased by 7.6% and its hard-hit rate has increased by 16.9% since 2015, he’s been forced to lower the usage of his curveball by 2.9%.

The usage of his slider has increased by 13% over the past three seasons. Nevertheless, it’s induced a higher hard-hit rate (14.1% rise since 2015), barrel rate (5% increase), average exit velocity (6.9 miles per hour increase), along with a lower strikeout rate (9.2% decrease) and whiff rate (9% decrease).

Based on these results, no one should blame the Mets for trading Harvey to the Reds before the 2018 deadline. Although, it’s both New York’s and the Dark Knight’s fault for the unfortunate situation.

After the former Met completed 189.1 innings during his first season back from TJ, his workload in the playoffs could’ve been limited. There’s no way the Mets should’ve allowed him to pitch 26.2 innings throughout the 2015 postseason.

Despite the recommendation from his agent Scott Boras, Harvey insisted that he’d be fine to pitch over 200 innings for the first time in his career. But, it’s clear that his arm wasn’t quite ready for that type of workload after missing the entire 2014 campaign.

Moving forward, it’ll likely be difficult for Harvey to find a new home this year. After receiving very little interest, the frequently injured righty couldn’t even convince the Blue Jays to sign him this past offseason.

He produced a 7.09 ERA, 6.35 FIP, 5.45 xFIP, 14.7% strikeout rate, and -0.3 fWAR rating with the Angels last season. So if he doesn’t end up anywhere, it wouldn’t really be a surprise.

But if Harvey can somehow regain the command of his fastball, slider, and curveball, then he might be able to rejuvenate his career once this COVID-19 pandemic passes.

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