Various injuries have kept Orioles pitching prospect Hunter Harvey off the mound for most of the past three seasons. And even when the talented 22-year-old right-hander did feel healthy, there was always a concern in the back of his mind about the durability of his right throwing elbow.
Now, those worries finally seem to be behind Harvey. Just over a year removed from elbow ligament reconstruction — more commonly known as Tommy John surgery — Harvey is ready to take his next step in a long, winding recovery this week when he escapes the Orioles’ facility in Sarasota, Fla., to pitch his first game under the lights since the procedure, on Wednesday for Short-A Aberdeen.
It is the next step in a schedule of eight planned starts this season, with the main focus being to ensure his health. He already made three starts in rookie-level Gulf Coast Leagues games in Sarasota, going no more than two innings. His innings count over the rehabilitation assignment will be around 20 innings.
The hope is that allows him to go into his first healthy offseason since his first as a professional ready to turn the page to continuing his development as one of the brightest pitching prospects in the Orioles organization.
“It seems like a long time,” Harvey said last week after his second GCL start in Sarasota. “My first game down here, I got a pretty good little pump there. I was telling the guys, I felt like a bull in a china shop. I was so excited and so fired up. [The second time,] I was able to calm myself down, but I think once I get back under the lights and get to throw with some fans there with a team competing for the playoffs, I think it will be a little bit different. So you never know, but I think it will be a pretty good adrenaline pump.”
Harvey, the Orioles’ 2013 first-round draft pick, is scheduled to pitch two innings or 30-40 pitches for the IronBirds on Wednesday, whichever comes first, then make one more start in Aberdeen before rounding out his season with three outings at Low-A Delmarva. In his last start there, he’s scheduled to get up to three or four innings or 50-65 pitches. There was some discussion about continuing to build Harvey’s innings in the Arizona Fall League, but instead he will have a normal offseason, especially since he’s been throwing since December.
Because of his injuries, Harvey has never had an offseason as a professional that allowed him a few months to shut down in the fall before resuming throwing in December to gradually strengthen himself going into spring training.
“I think it will be nice,” Harvey said. “I don’t think I’ve had a normal offseason since I’ve been with the Orioles, so I think it will be nice to relax for a bit and then get back after it and then start with a normal throwing program, hopefully have a normal spring and a normal year. I’m hoping that’s what happens. … They’ve been talking about how this year is more about feeling healthy at the end of the year and hopefully that’s how it will be. It’s not a bad idea to just take it easy this year and stay a little low on the innings.”
At the major league level, Orioles manager Buck Showalter echoed the idea of giving Harvey a regular offseason.
“Why do we need to give him more innings?” Showalter said. “He’s not going to start with us in the big leagues. … It’s been a long road for him.”
A difficult hand
Harvey’s ultimate goal is getting back to normalcy, something he hasn’t experienced since the Orioles shut him down a month early in his first full pro season in 2014. That summer, he sustained a right flexor mass strain, the first sign of elbow problems that eventually led to his Tommy John surgery a year ago. In the spring of 2015, he attended his first big league camp and drew raves from the major league staff. He knew he wasn’t going to make the big league roster, but plans were already being drawn out for how Harvey could help the club by the end of that season. However, Harvey suffered a fractured right fibula after getting hit by a comebacker in a game shortly after being reassigned to minor league camp.
Once he returned from that freak injury, the elbow problems resumed. He didn’t pitch at all in 2015, his throwing programs shut down twice, and he was scheduled to have Tommy John surgery in October that year, but a trip to renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews led to calling that off. When Harvey returned to big league camp, some control problems were noticeable, but it was a groin injury in spring training that forced sports hernia surgery that cost him nearly the first three months of the 2016 season.
His return lasted just five outings until he felt pain in his elbow again, and 10 days after leaving his last start with Aberdeen, he underwent Tommy John surgery, performed by Dr. Donald D’Alessandro. Harvey took five months off, following the blueprint for Orioles pitchers who have received the procedure. He took 2½ months to complete a throwing program off flat ground, another two to 2½ months on a mound, then on to live batting practice and simulated games before getting into GCL games, all while placing great focus on strengthening his shoulder and hips.
“It’s unfortunate that Hunter has some of these other injuries that probably put off the inevitable with his elbow,” Orioles minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker said. “But he’s right where he needs to be now. He never got down, or at least he never showed it. He’s a competitor. He wants to be out there. He wants to pitch. He loves to pitch and compete. As we know, most of the good ones are like that. That’s an X-factor.
“But he’s definitely matured and he’s happy and confident, and I think that’s the most important thing, that he’s finally confident. He’s still in the process. … I think some of it is that it makes you grow up a little bit when you get beat down like that and then there’s the natural maturation process.”
Harvey is still just 22, and he filled into his once-wiry frame, reaching an even 200 pounds. He was previously listed at 175 pounds, but Harvey said he actually dropped weight after reporting to Sarasota at 208. Yet, the most noticeable change is that he doesn’t appear to be the shy teenager who first walked into big league camp three springs ago. He seems to have matured from the experience, and has a renewed confidence coming from the fact that he’s finally healthy.
“I feel like every time something happened, we always came back to the elbow,” Harvey said. “I had some stuff in Delmarva that first year with a bone, the leg stuff was a freak accident, a line drive; you really can’t prevent that. And the hernia thing, I didn’t see that coming. But I felt that whenever I felt good, it always came back to the forearm getting tight or something was always going on there. So having that fixed, and knowing we don’t have to worry about that anymore — or hopefully we don’t — that’s huge for me, confidence-wise and having that in the back of my head and knowing that your arm’s finally healthy, so I think it’ll be big.”
Harvey can’t help but wonder about his timetable had he had the surgery in 2015 — and in hindsight, he said he wishes he had it back then. But his elbow problems were always difficult to diagnose because he never had a torn ligament, so numerous MRIs were never conclusive.
His history was more indicative of a problem, especially after the fact, because Harvey said his elbow soreness dated to high school, but he never thought much of it. Ultimately, the ligament was damaged even without a tear, and would’ve eventually needed repair.
“Even when I was throwing last year before [the surgery], when I was still feeling good, it would still hurt,” Harvey said. “I could tolerate it. It wasn’t a sharp, sharp pain like it gets to. I knew it wasn’t the best it could be, or that it was fully healthy, but maybe it was something that would eventually just go away. But it didn’t. It kind of got worse. You never want to have surgery, but I think if we had done it a year before, who knows what would have happened? But there’s a lot of what ifs, though. What happens if I don’t get hit in the ankle? You’ve just got to put everything behind you now and see what happens.”
Tackling it head on
Harvey’s father, former All-Star closer Bryan Harvey, said he has seen a different version of his son as the recovery has progressed.
“I know he’s as happy as I’ve heard him in a really long time,” Bryan Harvey said. “He’s told me a lot since this surgery, ‘This is the best I’ve ever felt. I’m throwing with no pain.’ … I think he was one of the people who was just born with a bad ligament. Because it did not tear either time, and when Dr. D got in there he said it was just mush. Now that everything’s put back together, he says, ‘I have no pain, that this is the best I’ve ever felt,’ so we’re all excited to see what comes out of this.”
Working with Harvey, Walker saw similarities between the way Harvey embraced his rehab with vigor and dedication, as Dylan Bundy did coming off of his 2013 Tommy John surgery. And if Harvey can duplicate Bundy’s ascension into the big league rotation, it would be a boon for an Orioles team in need of front-end starting pitching.
While some at the big league level see a possibility for Harvey to help the Orioles by the end of next season, the main focus for 2018 will be to see him get through a full season healthy for the first time.
“I think he’s very happy, confident and excited about where he’s at right now in the whole process of coming back from this,” Walker said. “I think he understands that a little over 12 months after the surgery, he’s pitching. It’s limited, but he’s pitching. … He has a totally different look in his eyes. I don’t know. Usually the good ones know how to go about it. He was great. He’s in the same category as Bundy. They stayed focused and came in every day and stayed with that the protocol stated for him to do. He was easy.”
In his first three games back pitching in the GCL this year, Harvey threw a total of five scoreless innings, allowing six hits while striking out six and walking none. His fastball sat in the 93-96 mph range, and though he’s still honing the feel for his pitches and his command, Harvey is glad to be heading north — finally getting out of Florida.
“It’s been awesome so far,” Harvey said. “I’ve been waiting a long time to finally feel good and finally feel healthy and pitch again the last couple have been good so far. The velo’s been where it needs to be and my command hasn’t been too bad. It just feels good to get back on a mound and compete again. That’s probably the main thing.”