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Matt Harvey, superhero? At this point, the Mets would settle for less

Finally, we can bring this all back to baseball. Goodness knows, when it comes to Matt Harvey and the New York Mets, that has been easier said than done. However, for the first time in nine days, Harvey will take the mound for New York as the Mets kick off a road trip against the Milwaukee Brewerson Friday.

It won't be an easy test for Harvey, in many ways. That the Mets continue to hover around the .500 mark for the season is a minor miracle given the ongoing drama and, especially, a growing list of injuries that added one more name on Thursday when it was announced that closer Jeurys Familia has a blood clot in his pitching shoulder and was headed to St. Louis to visit Dr. Robert Thompson. More on Familia in a bit.

For all their headaches on the field and off, real and imagined, the Mets remain a part of the early-season wild-card horde in the National League. The Washington Nationals appear poised for a season-long victory lap around the NL East, but the wild-card races are shaping up to be as crowded and clustered as ever. For the Mets to stay in that chase, they need a healthy, happy and productive Harvey to bolster the rotation.

Last season, New York navigated its way to the NL wild-card game when fill-ins such as Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo admirably propped up an injury-ravaged rotation. Repeating that scenario is proving even more difficult for Mets manager Terry Collins this time around.

When Harvey was serving a three-game team suspension, New York's rotationwas missing him, Lugo, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. That's why poor Adam Wilk was summoned as an emergency starter on Sunday and designated for assignment on Monday. It's also whyRafael Montero and his career 5.81 ERA is in the rotation, and why the Mets claimed struggling lefty Tommy Milone on waivers from Milwaukee last weekend.

The Mets not only need to clear the air with Harvey but also badly need him to fill some of the production void opened up by Syndergaard's injury. New York might find others to eat innings, but with Jacob DeGrom already doing all he can, Harvey remains the best hope for a second top-of-the-rotation guy in the absence of Syndergaard. And, sad to say, that hope may be a long shot.

There was a lot of uncertainty regarding Harvey's recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that has probably been around for a long time but which has emerged in the public eye only in recent seasons. When Harvey's velocity went missing early in spring training, there was concern that he had lost too much off his fastball, a devastating development for a pitcher so dependent on elite hard stuff.

Late into the spring, it wasn't even certain that Harvey would break camp with the team. But the velocity started to come back in flashes, and Harvey ended up starting the Mets' third game of the season. That was encouraging. Indeed, Harvey's surgeon, the aforementioned Thompson, has emerged as the Frank Jobe/James Andrews of TOS, and his studies have suggested that those who have undergone Harvey's procedure have fared pretty well, though the sample size is admittedly small.

So it was with hope that we looked forward to Harvey's 2017 season. But even before the suspension, from a results standpoint, Harvey was trending in the wrong direction. He was rocked in his past two starts, both against the Braves, raising his ERA from 2.84 to 5.14.

He has struck out just five batters in 16 innings over his past three starts. For the season, Harvey's 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings is 3.7 fewer than his career average. His walk rate (3.3) is his highest since his rookie season. On top of that, Harvey has already given up seven homers in 35 innings. For contrast, consider that in 2013, the year before Harvey sat out because of Tommy John surgery, he gave up seven homers in 178 innings.

Harvey's fielding-independent ERA (5.74) suggests that he's actually lucky to sport that 5.14 ERA. That makes the Friday start against the Brewers all the more challenging. Milwaukee ranks fourth in the majors in runs and is tied with Washington for the lead in homers. Nearly half the Brewers' runs this season (49.7 percent) have come via the long ball.

In terms of pitch selection, Harvey has thrown fewer fastballs -- 56.6 percent of his pitches thus far, 2.2 percent less often than his career average. He's throwing his slider about 6 percent more often (23 percent of pitches). Meanwhile, Harvey has largely ditched his curveball, throwing it only 6.3 percent of the time, or about half as often as he used to throw it, and we've seen more of his changeup, which was the last pitch Harvey added to his repertoire during his minor league days.

Harvey's performance with the more frequent soft stuff has been very good. According to TruMedia, he has allowed a .245 weighted on-base average on those pitches (sliders, curves and changes) this season, near his career mark of .248. Opponents have posted just a .558 on-base plus slugging percentage when putting these pitches in play against him this season.

Unfortunately, the hard stuff has been another story. Harvey's fastball has been hammered to the tune of a .406 WOBA and a .921 OPS in the early going. The reasons for this aren't entirely clear despite all of the hand-wringing there has been over the quality of Harvey's stuff. His average fastball velocity (94.2 mph) is indeed down 1.1 mph from his career mark but remains high enough for him to gain separation for his secondary offerings. His max velocity (97.8) isn't what it was but still indicates he can reach back for gas when needed. His spin rate on fastballs thus far is well above his career norms, and he's even getting more horizontal movement.

As for control and command, Harvey's strike-throwing rates with his fastball are right on target with his career; 57.5 percent is actually a couple of ticks above his norm. But his chase rate (16.5 percent) is half of what it was, and when he does get hitters to swing, they are making contact 6.6 percent more frequently than his career mark. What is up with that?

The primary culprit may simply be Harvey's inability to throw consistent first-pitch strikes. His strike rate (including swings) on first pitches is just 62.8 percent, down from more than 65 percent in his career. He has thrown just 52.7 percent of his first pitches in the zone. That ranks roughly in the middle of the pack among qualifying pitchers, but it's down 4.3 percent from his career mark. And that matters a lot for him: Since Harvey's elbow surgery, he has allowed just a .273 WOBA after 0-1 counts, but that jumps to .365 when he gets behind 1-0. So is it a matter of Harvey simply throwing more first-pitch strikes? Probably not. Such things are often more of a symptom than a cure.

Most likely, it's a confluence of factors, and whatever they are, they've resulted in batters chasing fewer of his offerings and missing fewer of the ones they swing at. Still, his underlying metrics suggest there is enough there for Harvey to win with. And boy, do the Mets need Harvey to do just that.

The Mets were projected to post the third-best starters' fielding-independent pitching ERA in the big leagues at the start of the season, behind the Dodgers and Nationals. That's despite conservative innings-pitched estimates stemming from New York's recent injury history. The Mets' bullpen looked solid as well, though that included Familia at the back end of it.

However, projections for the hitters (21st in runs) and fielders (29th in defensive runs saved) looked shaky. In other words, the bottom-line forecast of 86 wins for New York -- good enough to be within sniffing distance of a pre-breakout Washington club -- was highly dependent on a rotation that has massively underachieved over the season's first six weeks.

New York has gotten a quality start in just 42 percent of its games, down from 54 percent last season and 62 percent in 2015. The Mets rank 26th in starters' ERA (4.89) and 25th in starters' WAR (0.4, exactly replacement level), per Baseball-Reference.com. Three of the five hurlers to start at least five games have an ERA at least a half-run above the National League average and another, Syndergaard, is on the shelf. Matz and Lugo each have yet to throw an inning.

All along, it was going to have to be the Mets' starting rotation that led the charge. That's what makes Harvey's struggles on and off the field to start the season so unfortunate. Beginning Friday, we'll see if Harvey, and the Mets, are ready to put that start behind them.

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