All the energy the Orioles’ young starters are creating in their September auditions leads to an uncomfortable situation for their oldest one.
Matt Harvey, who has more experience in a major league rotation than the rest of the Orioles’ rotation combined, starts Wednesday against the Kansas City Royals in a unique spot. He’s given the Orioles more than they could ask of him, and might soon be nearing a time when they stop asking him to take the ball down the stretch.
“We’ve gone start-to-start with Harvey here for the last four or five starts,” manager Brandon Hyde said Tuesday. “I think this is his 28th start of the year. So, anything he’s given us the second half has been a bonus. He’s taken the ball every fifth day. Past couple of years, not pitching much to doing what he’s done this year has been amazing. And so he’ll start tomorrow, and then we’ll reevaluate after that.”
Harvey, the former New York Mets star who was among the game’s best pitchers in his prime there but has spent the last few seasons in the baseball wilderness battling injuries and ineffectiveness, signed a minor league contract with the Orioles on the eve of spring training thanks to their belief in using data and technology to improve pitchers. He has been a $1 million stalwart in their rotation from the first weekend of the season.
He pitched just 11 ⅔ innings with the Kansas City Royals in 2020, and 59 ⅔ innings for the Los Angeles Angels the year before. Harvey blasted past both of those numbers quickly this season, entering Wednesday at 123 ⅓ innings. He’s started 27 times — one of 30 pitchers who has that many starts in the league this year — and pitched well at times.
He had a 3.60 ERA in his first seven starts, setting up a tantalizing return to Citi Field to face the Mets on May 12, but allowed seven runs that day to kick off a stretch of 11 starts in which Harvey had an 11.20 ERA and allowed over two batters per inning to reach.
A respite at the All-Star break, however, helped refresh Harvey. He has a 3.99 ERA in his last nine starts. He’s done that while battling, at times, a knee injury and general wear-down that has meant he’s limited how much he throws between starts to stay fresh for when it comes.
“He’s incredible, honestly,” Orioles ace John Means said. “He’s taught me a lot in how to push through some things. He’s dealing with what’s going on with him right now, and just pushing through it and starting and making a start every five days. It’s incredible to see what he’s doing, going to the bullpen and doing everything right and never coming to the field complaining.
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“The man was on top of the world for three years, four years, and completely fell off. And he’ll tell you that. And to have the demeanor that he has still is absolutely incredible — the mental capacity that he has. To have struggled early on in the season and to pitch really, really well this second half, it’s been crazy.”
While he has a league-high 14 losses and a 6.28 ERA that is the highest of any pitcher with at least 120 innings, his fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which calculates ERA based on what a pitcher can control including walks, strikeouts, and home runs, is 4.66, suggesting he’s had some poor batted-ball luck. No pitcher who has pitched as many innings as Harvey has been as unlucky in that respect.
However it’s sliced, the Orioles got what they signed up for with Harvey. Their crop of rookie starters who Harvey was signed to take some pressure off of has struggled to various extents with injuries and ineffectiveness, even if the recent strong outings for Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, and Mike Baumann in September have been encouraging.
But with all of them, plus Means, rookie Keegan Akin, and impressive newcomer Chris Ellis in line to possibly start games the rest of the way and Dean Kremer available at Triple-A Norfolk if needed, the Orioles may fully turn to the future at his expense.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, Harvey likely has pitched well enough in flashes and reinvented himself enough that he should get a shot at another major league role in 2022, perhaps with the Orioles again.
His influence has been significant on the team’s young pitchers.
“It’s always good to have a guy who has the experience that he has, having the World Series start under his belt,” Akin said. “Obviously, with such a young team you don’t really get a lot of that around. It’s nice having that around. You get a feel for what it’s like to be on a competing team, in a World Series. Somebody that has that experience and has been around a long time like he has, it’s just cool to talk to him and hear some of the stories he has and bounce things off of him when guys are struggling and things like that. it’s definitely unique having him around. I’m glad I got to spend this year with him.”