New on Sports Illustrated: Matt Harvey's Return to Mound Shows the Dark Knight Is Not Ready to Rise

August 20, 2020 at 10:40AM

Harvey gave up three runs, two home runs and two walks while striking out four over three innings in the Royals' 5-0 loss to the Reds.

Thirteen months after his last big-league game, the Dark Knight returned to Major League Baseball.

Matt Harvey made his 2020 debut Wednesday, this time with the Kansas City Royals. The last time we saw Harvey pitch in the majors, the results were quite bad. In 12 starts with the Angels last season, Harvey posted a 7.09 ERA before being released on July 21. He signed with Oakland on a minor-league deal a month later, but never received a call-up. After electing free agency this past winter, he signed another minor-league deal with Kansas City in late July.

Harvey’s issues last season were plentiful, but perhaps chief among them were his continued velocity drop. Since returning from Tommy John surgery in 2015, his average four-seam fastball velocity has declined each season, down to 93.2 mph in 2019. Opposing batters feasted on his diminished heater, hitting .299 against the fastball last year with a .542 slugging percentage.

(via Baseball Savant)

On Wednesday, the results were more of the same. Harvey gave up three runs in three innings, allowing two home runs with two walks and four strikeouts as the Royals lost the second game of their doubleheader to the Reds, 5-0.

Let’s begin with some positives: Harvey threw 30 fastballs on the day, with an average velocity 93.5 mph—not a huge uptick from where he was in 2019, but progress is progress. His hardest pitch of the afternoon came in the first inning and clocked in at 95.5 mph. He also generated seven swings-and-misses, good for a 13% swinging-strike rate. Surely, he won't keep missing bats at that clip, but it is encouraging nonetheless.

His slowest fastball was his last one, a 91.1 mph pitch that Shogo Akiyama took for a ball with two outs in the third inning. Akiyama lined out on the next pitch to end Harvey’s day.

That drop in velocity could be a cause for concern, though it’s admittedly too soon to draw any conclusions. Though Harvey had been stretched out to five innings in a simulated game and was reportedly

not on any pitch limits, it’s quite plausible he wasn’t prepared physically to go much further than the 54 pitches he threw against big-league hitters.

On the down side, Harvey gave up hard contact against Reds hitters, and a lot of it. The average exit velocity of the nine balls put in play was 96.2 mph, and all four hits Harvey allowed came off the bat at 101 mph or harder. For comparison’s sake, his average exit velocity in 2019 was 90.7 mph, his hardest since Statcast began tracking data in 2015. Harvey was unable to generate a single ground ball either, a concern for a pitcher who’s allowed 40 home runs in 214 2/3 innings over the past two seasons.

The setting for Harvey’s return, Kauffman Stadium, was of course another notable aspect of his outing. The ballpark was famously the venue of perhaps Harvey’s most iconic outing. While with the Mets, he tossed eight brilliant shutout innings in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series before surrendering two runs in the ninth. The Royals wound up beating the Mets in extra innings to clinch the series. Ahead of Wednesday’s start, Harvey called the prospect of returning to The K “exciting,” though a bit of a different atmosphere with no fans.

For the past five years, Harvey has been on a quest to rediscover the form that, once upon a time, made him one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. That journey saw another bump in the road on Wednesday, but as long as he continues his search, the baseball world will momentarily stop what it’s doing and take notice.

Quick Hits:

• The Padres beat the Rangers on Manny Machado's walk-off grand slam Wednesday night, 6-3, in 10 innings. Wonder if Rangers manager Chris Woodward is more or less upset about this one than he was with Fernando Tatís Jr.'s much-ballyhooed, 3-0 count salami from Monday?

• Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman used an anti-LGBTQ slur on-air during Wednesday’s Reds-Royals broadcast. During the fifth inning of the evening game, Brennaman offered an apology before leaving the telecast. The Reds have suspended him indefinitely.

• The Yankees lost to the Rays, 4-2, snapping a streak of 18 straight Gerrit Cole starts in which his team has won. Cole was charged with a no-decision, so he still has not lost a start since May 22, 2019, a streak of 28 regular-season outings. Tampa has won four of its five games this year against New York.

• The White Sox beat the Tigers, 5-3, in a game featuring a pair of much-hyped pitching debuts. The Tigers started 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize, while the White Sox started 2016 first-round selection Dane Dunning. Both turned in similarly solid performances—each pitcher allowed three runs in 4 1/3 innings with seven strikeouts and one run allowed. Dunning struck out the side in his third inning, thanks to some sharp breaking balls.

Casey Mize showed off his ace-caliber stuff as well, including this splitter that fooled last season’s batting champion, Tim Anderson.

• Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer showed off his “Free Joe Kelly” cleats ahead of Wednesday’s scheduled start, but he did not wear them after MLB threatened an ejection, suspension and “unprecedented fines” if the cleats were worn, according to Bauer. Here’s betting that we haven’t heard the last from Bauer on this issue.

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