New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who will be without his best pitcher, Matt Harvey, for what is expected to be a long time thanks to an elbow injury, knows a thing or two about the enormous limits baseball teams face in preventing pitcher injuries.
“When I ran the minor leagues for the Dodgers, we actually brought the Dr. [Frank] Jobe, Dr. [Robert] Kerlan group in, fellows, Dr. Jobe himself,” a subdued Collins said from a podium at Citi Field Monday afternoon. “And tried to plan out a regimen to take care of our pitchers, young pitchers in the Dodger organization. You know, pitch counts, innings limits, weight programs, strengthening programs.
“And at the end of the four-day conference we had, Dr. Jobe stood up, and he said, ‘Understand something. No matter how hard you try, if they’re gonna break, they’re gonna break.’ And there’s not pitch count, or innings limit you can designate to ever save ‘em. When it’s time, it’s time.”
Monday, Matt Harvey’s time came. He’d been complaining of forearm discomfort for much of the season — perhaps this should have been more of a red flag — and the Mets had been treating him for it. But Saturday afternoon against the Tigers, he said the feeling worsened, and the Mets took him to Dr. David Altchek on Monday. Dr. Altchek suggested an MRI that revealed the awful news: a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
In rare instances, that injury can be rehabilitated, and managed. But generally, the remedy is the well-known Tommy John surgery, and roughly a year recovery window before returning to the mound.
The effect on the Mets is likely to be extraordinary. Their path to contention next season called for several of their young pitchers to join up with Harvey and a hopefully healthy Jon Niese to form a good young rotation. To make up for the number of massive holes in the everyday lineup, they’d either need to spend money it doesn’t appear ownership has, or trade some of those young pitchers, further reducing the odds of a 2014 success story.
Exactly why the latter idea would have been such a prohibitive mistake was clear enough when, in the span of a week, oft-injured Jenrry Mejia was shut down for the season due to bone chips in his elbow, and Jeremy Hefner underwent Tommy John surgery of his own, thinning the team’s pitching ranks.
Now the Mets don’t simply need to deal with less depth, they need to plan for 2014, barring a miracle recovery, without their best pitcher by far, and one of the best in the game.
But unlike so many other decisions throughout the years, this one can’t be chalked up to something the Mets could have done differently. Sure, maybe Harvey could have been pulled an inning sooner here, or skipped there, but this organization was acutely aware of just how disastrous this day would be, and tried everything in its power to avoid it. Harvey was usually on pitch counts, faced an innings limit, was watched ultra-carefully. If the Mets sent him out, they did so within the framework of what they thought was safe, not by throwing caution to the wind.
“There is always a risk associated with major league pitching,” said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who delivered the news to reporters on Monday. “These innings limits, they’re not a guarantee of anything. And they’re certainly not based on any science, that will tell you, if you don’t do this, that you’re safe. There’s no safe harbor here. But we’re doing what seems to be prudent, in light of history.”
And that is the sobering reality, as it applies to pitchers. No one knows yet how to keep pitchers healthy, not a general manager for a major league team whose most valuable asset is a pitcher, not a doctor who’s given his professional life over to studying the issue. It’s why teams need to stockpile many more pitchers than the phrase “five-man rotation” would seem to indicate they need, and why projecting any pitcher more than a few minutes into the future so often ends up looking like a foolish exercise.
What the injury will mean for Harvey is actually the least variable dynamic here, though anytime someone has surgery, recovery and what comes after is unstable to a certain extent. The number of success stories — Stephen Strasburg simply one among many — who manage the 12-month recovery period and return to previous levels of excellence increases each year.
But what of the Mets, who were reliant on Harvey, from an on-field and marketing standpoint, to an astonishing extent? To understand how large a component of the “Mets’ exciting young pitching” Matt Harvey was, consider that his 2013 season was worth 5.6 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com. Next up was Dillon Gee, at just 1.9. And no one else topped even one win above replacement, though Zack Wheeler, at 0.8, stands a good chance of eclipsing that modest number before he’s shut down by a largely arbitrary innings limit, too.
And why not? The only thing teams seem to know right now is that pitchers are far less likely to get hurt when they’re not pitching. In the meantime, let’s assume the Mets won’t seriously consider letting Harvey try to rehabilitate and pitch with a partially torn UCL, at least without some kind of non-existent guarantee from Dr. James Andrews that they’re making the right call. Harvey did speak bravely of potentially pitching through the pain, and Alderson said the decision would be Harvey’s to make.
“I’m never gonna go out there and think in the back of my mind, certain throw and I can completely tear it, because at any time, that can happen,” Harvey said “Throwing a baseball’s kind of an unnatural movement as it is.”
Still, let’s assume this is just brave talk, and Harvey, who is no dummy, will make the best long-term choice for his career, which is also best for a Mets team that has him under team control through 2018.
My suspicion is that the next big Moneyball-style idea won’t be some new stat, but an organization that figures out how to limit pitching injuries to some extent. Perhaps some already have, though if you can figure out which one has from this list, please tell me.
In the meantime, Harvey has gone, in the time it took to read an MRI, from the part of 2014 Mets fans were most anticipating to an absence that will be felt all season long. #HarveyDay is gone, at least for now, and nobody saw it coming, because nobody can. When it’s time, it’s time.