CHICAGO — The last few nights of Matt Harvey‘s time in New York were dark and full of errors. In Cincinnati, things have brightened for the former Dark Knight. So the question now: What’s next?
Harvey made his 11th start for the Reds on Saturday in Cincinnati’s 8-7 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The final score isn’t indicative of Harvey’s performance: He was fine. Not great, not terrible. Fine. He threw 5⅔ innings, held Chicago to two earned runs and struck out four. It was a mixed bag.
“It’s a good sign that I can go out and not feel great and kind of be out of whack and still limit damage,” Harvey said. “But today was definitely a struggle and I’m happy to get through it.”
It’s no small point. By the end of Harveys’ tenure with the New York Mets, those small struggles tended to turn into raging dumpster fires. When you look at where Harvey was by the time the Mets designated him for assignment back in May, routine outings such as the one Saturday have to be looked at as positive data points.
For one thing, it was the fourth straight outing in which Harvey pitched into at least the sixth inning and he hasn’t given up more than three runs in any of his past five outings. Over his 11 starts for the Reds, Harvey is 4-3 with a 3.79 ERA. He has struck out 6.7 batters per nine innings and has whiffed over three batters for every one he has walked. From a results standpoint, Saturday’s performance was an ebb in his momentum. But only an ebb.
“He was laboring a little bit,” Reds manager Jim Riggleman said. “But he made the necessary pitches to minimize the damage. Kept that one inning to two runs. He put us right where we wanted to be.”
Under the hood, things look even more promising for Harvey’s revival than his overall Cincinnati stat line. First, there’s those past five outings: He’s 3-1 and would be 4-1 if not for the Reds’ bullpen meltdown Saturday. His ERA is 2.48. The strikeout rate is still more of that of a finesse pitcher (6.2), but his strikeouts-to-walks ratio is up to four and he hasn’t given up a home run in a month. The trend is good.
“I do think that his slider has been better as the season has gone along, from the time that he joined us,” Riggleman said. “And as good as he’s throwing the ball, he’s more pitching now and really using the slider to get the strikeout. He wasn’t striking people out that first month.”
The results are solid, to be sure. No, they aren’t Harvey circa 2013, when he struck out more than a batter per inning and had the lowest home run rate in the National League. That guy had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and a procedure for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2016. This guy, though, is at least revving up his stuff to the point where we can believe he used to be the other guy, the one with the catchy superhero nickname.
“I am healthy,” Harvey said. “Definitely. Feeling healthy. I’m two years out from surgery now, so it’s been a lot of work to get to where I am now, but everything feels good.”
Much of Harvey’s velocity is back and, seemingly, it’s not going anywhere. His fastball has been sitting at 93-94 mph for each of these past five starts, and in each of them he has topped out at over 96. The bite on his slider is better — his six highest scores for average break length have come over his past six starts. As a result, Harvey’s chase rates are up, he’s getting more swinging strikes overall, he has stayed in the zone more consistently and stayed far more efficient with his pitch counts.
“I’ve been doing that for five or six starts,” Harvey said when asked about his improved stuff. “That’s what happens when you feel good and everything is coming out fine.”
The overall outlook is promising, if not dominant. Harvey is performing like a good third or fourth starter on a contending team. He has become more consistent but that lack of dominance means many of his outings will be like the one Saturday. The Cubs got plenty of traffic against him, but he was able to make good pitches at the right time. Scoff at the notion of “clutch pitching” if you will, but Harvey leveraged his improved stuff to escape jams. With two on, two out in the first, he blew a 96 mph fastball up in the zone by Chicago’s Ian Happ. One inning later, again with two on, two out, he struck out Ben Zobrist with a well-placed slider.
“That’s baseball,” Harvey said. “You’re not going to go out and be locked-in perfect every single time. It’s a long season and there are ups and downs. Some games you’re going to feel great and you’re locked in, some games are going to be a battle. That’s part of baseball.”
So we ask again: What now? If this is the on-field version of Matt Harvey we’re going to get going forward, is it good enough for a contending team to risk the off-field version that inspired so many unflattering headlines in New York? Just as pertinent: Has Harvey been too good for the Reds to trade him?
The first question is largely an imponderable. Whatever Harvey’s Big Apple sins, both actual and perceived, those have been more than well covered. His time in Cincinnati has been placid, in the best way possible. Even in the cramped quarters of the visiting clubhouse, he seemed at ease in front of the small gaggle of Cincinnati media folks, unlike the antsy subject who was often forced to stand before the plentiful camera lights, notepads and audio recorders of the New York media horde.
It doesn’t hurt that the Reds have played very well since Harvey got there. Of course, that’s not all because of him, but he has contributed. On the day the trade that sent Harvey to Cincinnati for catcher Devin Mesoraco was completed, Cincinnati was 9-27. Even after losing Saturday, the Reds have gone 30-23 since. Harvey has been duly impressed.
“I’ve said it a few times,” Harvey said. “These guys can swing the bat over here. If I can go out and limit damage or go out and put up zeroes, and last somewhat deep into a game, most times we’re going to be on top.”
Even so, Cincinnati remains firmly a spoiler character in the National League, playing the pain-in-the-butt role against teams like the Cubs, whom they had beaten five straight times before Saturday. And Harvey remains pointed toward unfettered free agency after the season. Anything the Reds get for him will be found money. It’s what rebuilding teams strive to do — fix a player, turn him into an asset and collect. It’s a cold-hearted way of putting it, but that’s the way it works.
There aren’t a lot of upper-echelon options on the trade market, though Harvey is but one of several good ones. He has postseason experience and certainly is used to playing in the spotlight. It seems likely that if Cincinnati has the will to move him, it will have teams bidding against one another for the right to get him.
But that leaves us with our last question: For a club that has been rebuilding for way too long now, can Reds chief executive Dick Williams perhaps shock everyone and hold onto Harvey? Is it worth holding onto a new-found asset in an attempt to generate momentum? Will a feel-good second half convince Cincinnati to make a run at keeping Harvey, who could head up a rotation that has been starving for consistency over the past few years? With each quality start, the variables change.
“I don’t want to jinx him,” Riggleman said. “I keep talking about how great he’s doing. I just feel like he had some really major surgeries and the second one, the thoracic, that was kind of uncharted waters. Not many people have gone through that. I think he’s day by day and start by start, he’s just getting more healthy, more healthy, more healthy. You’re seeing the results of that.”
Keeping Harvey and watching him walk for nothing would be a rough outcome for the Reds. Because they acquired him during the season, Cincinnati wouldn’t receive any draft pick compensation if he were to leave. If Harvey is going to play elsewhere next season as a free-agent signee, then if the Reds are going to capitalize on him, he can’t be with them a month from now.
As always, it will all come down to who values what and how much. How much do contenders value Harvey’s turnaround? How much do the Reds value that same improvement, but also what he might mean if he stays put? How much does Harvey value the first calm stretch he has enjoyed in a big league uniform in quite some time?
All of these questions will play out over the next few weeks. One thing that we can say right now is something that seemed far from likely back on May 8: Matt Harvey is relevant again and, for once, it’s because of what he’s doing on the field, not off it. It might not be Rocky Balboa, but it’s a pretty solid comeback story, nonetheless.
“You see how good he looks when he throws the ball,” Riggleman said. “He commented last time he threw, he said that was the best he’d felt since 2013. That’s five years. He’s feeling really good. When you’ve got a lot of talent, and you’re feeling good, you’ve got a chance to have success.”