Oakland Athletics: Matt Harvey’s inevitable return and what it means for A’s top prospect

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets reacts to striking out the side in the fourth inning against the Kansas City Royals during Game Five of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field on November 1, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Matt Harvey #33 of the New York Mets reacts to striking out the side in the fourth inning against the Kansas City Royals during Game Five of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field on November 1, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /
2 of 3
Matt Harvey
MILWAUKEE, WI – SEPTEMBER 19: Manager Jim Riggleman of the Cincinnati Reds relieves Matt Harvey #32 in the sixth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on September 19, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Oakland Athletics (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

The Aftermath of the Fallen Dark Knight

Heartbroken Mets fans held on to the hope that this wouldn’t be their last shot at glory, but they had gambled and lost on pushing Matt Harvey past his unperceived limits. He would return the following season with a less-than-impressive 4.86 ERA.

After seeming visibly shaken on the mound and various reports indicating that he was feeling numbness in his fingertips while pitching, Harvey met with a specialist, was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and opted for surgery that would remove part of his rib to alleviate the numbness.

In simple terms, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS) is caused by compression of the nerves and blood vessels between the neck and arm. It is generally connected to the orientation of muscle built up in the arm.

While its connection to UCL reconstruction is loose, in Harvey’s case, it seems at the very least suspect.

Harvey would join only a shortlist of players who have ever undergone the rib-removal surgery as a result of his TOS — a list that includes a mixed bag of reinvented players and failed comeback stories.

He returned the following season and put together a 6.70 ERA. Not once would he come close to the 200-plus innings he threw in 2015 in his first year back from Tommy John Surgery.

The Mets gave up on Matt Harvey by 2018. When they asked him to accept a minor-league assignment to Triple-A, he rejected it, still buying into his former moniker.

Related Story. Oakland Athletics: The Dark Knight Cometh to Oak Town. light

He would be traded to the Cincinnati Reds, where he would show glimpses of his former self but never fully embrace a return to excellence.

After a catastrophic twelve starts with the Los Angeles Angels, Harvey finds himself with the Oakland Athletics on a minor league deal he surely wouldn’t have accepted a year ago.

So what changed? And why would the Oakland A’s — who are trying to force their way into a playoff berth via the wild card — be willing to take a flyer on him now?

The obvious answer is also the correct one: Oakland has nothing to lose when it comes to signing Harvey to a low-risk, minor league contract.

They likely would have considered signing him to a major league deal to begin the season had he not been thrown $11 million by the Angels this past offseason.

Yet, the Oakland A’s starting pitching depth is more crowded than it might appear to the naked eye. The A’s have made deadline moves to acquire Homer Bailey and Tanner Roark.

Sean Manaea is working his way back from injury and is close to his highly-anticipated return. Both Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk have been fighting at the Triple-A level in hopes of being called up to bolster a late-season sprint for contention — with the latter already receiving the call.

Matt Harvey is another name thrown into the hat for the A’s to consider.

On Saturday, he had his first start with the Las Vegas Aviators, spinning four innings of shutout ball with five strikeouts. He allowed only two hits and didn’t allow a run on only 58 pitches.

Of course, this is only a single start in minor-league ball against minor-league ballplayers. But Harvey was arguably facing the most pressure to perform since he dawned a Mets uniform in years past. He admitted the following to CBS affiliate ‘8 News Now.’

"“I was pretty nervous. I haven’t been nervous in a while for a game, but I think I texted my dad or somebody and was like, man I’m actually pretty nervous for this.”"

It’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to showing how Matt Harvey has changed since demanding to stay in for the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series. He has become aware of his limitations as a pitcher, and he’s being forced to fight while his back is against a wall — something he never had to do as “The Dark Knight.”

Even years after he began his descent, analysts still argue what exactly caused the spiking numbers.

Some believe it was the ignored innings restriction that had Harvey toss nearly 3,200 pitches in his first season back from Tommy John Surgery. Others believe that it had no effect and that Harvey was bound to succumb to his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

His numbers have gotten worse year to year, especially against left-handed hitters. He has overhauled his pitching arsenal — adding and subtracting a sinker to limit steadily increasing home runs allowed. His 98-mph heater is now getting by at 93 mph. A lot has changed.

When it comes to what has helped and hurt Harvey most, it’s been his variation of speed between his best pitches. His slider, which has become objectively better by measure of its spin-rate, has been most effective when it’s thrown in the high-80’s, snapping off similarly to what we saw back in 2015.

His curveball has been a comparable story, improving in spin-rate again, but only really being effective when it’s snapped off between 81-83 mph. Whenever Harvey loses a little bit of juice on either of his breaking balls, they flatten out and get crushed.

More from Oakland Athletics

This, by no means, categorizes Harvey as a junk-ball pitcher. He’s still throwing in the low-90’s and has been effective, at times, in this range.

But he’s seen more of his pitches leave the park because he’s been working up in the zone far too often — an issue compounded by his slider missing slightly further out of the zone than his prime years.

When Harvey’s slider can get close enough to the zone to tempt the umpire on calling the edges, hitters are immediately put in a precarious spot. And paired with a fastball that still has the potential to spot the corners, Harvey has the makeup of a pitcher who can still perform.

If you were to take a look at Harvey’s pitch distribution in the zone from one year to the next, you’d see a steady spacing-out of his pitches, moving further and further away from the heart of the plate out of fear of being pounded.

If he wants to be successful, he’ll have to come right at batters, keeping the ball low in the zone and trusting the defense behind him.

Thankfully for him, the A’s have one of the best defensive infields in all of baseball.

This, paired with the cooling temperatures during night games at the Coliseum, should surely benefit Matt Harvey’s confidence should he eventually be called up to pitch at some point of this playoff run. Fans should be cautiously optimistic about his performance in Las Vegas.

But there is a catch.