Dark Knight's decline, no-no fatigue and MLB's next big thing

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Friday, May 11, 2018

The Reds made quite a gamble this week when they traded for former Mets problem child Matt Harvey. You might compare it to a lottery ticket, which is to say the odds of this working out seem long.

You certainly can understand the motivation of Cincinnati general manager Dick Williams. His team is in the fourth year of a rebuilding plan that is simply not working out at the big league level. The Reds are on pace to lose 118 games. If they play to the level of their run differential, they'll still lose 102.

The Achilles' heel of the rebuild has been the Reds' inability to transition their pitching prospects into productive members of the big league rotation. Cincinnati's last competitive squad was in 2014, though that club collapsed after the All-Star break. The rotation that year finished fifth in starting pitcher WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It has been in the bottom eight in each season since then, finishing last in 2017. So far this season, the starters rank 29th. The need for starting pitching was so bad that they are slotting Harvey into start against the Dodgers on Friday, three days after acquiring him.

So you can see how a desperate need turned into a desperate move, and we all remember what Harvey was like at his best. The problem is that version of Harvey is unlikely to return.

Williams told reporters that the Reds spotted some mechanical tweaks they can try with Harvey. But can those tweaks possibly add the missing velocity the Dark Knight's arsenal sorely needs? It seems unlikely. In fact, it seems like if those missing miles per hour were there, New York's Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland would have found them. The Reds will try to fix what the Mets couldn't, and they'll do it with an interim big league staff holding down the fort after manager Bryan Price and pitching coach Mack Jenkins were fired last month.

We can harp a little too much on velocity, but in Harvey's case, that's really the story. Before his string of injuries, Harvey overwhelmed hitters with off-the-charts stuff. When that stuff went away, so did Harvey's productivity.

According to Statcast, since the beginning of the 2016 season, Harvey's average pitch velocity has been 91.2 mph, which ranks in the 80th percentile -- or the top fifth the majors. Over two-thirds of his offerings have exceeded the big league average of roughly 90 mph, which put him in the top quarter of the majors. Many, many pitchers have succeeded with that kind of stuff.

Harvey has not.

You can see this in the Statcast metric xWOBA (expected weighted on-base percentage), a terrific measure of the raw quality of a pitch. Harvey's xWOBA since Opening Day 2016 is .350. That's in the bottom third of the majors. On pitches above the big league average of about 90 mph, Harvey's xWOBA is .373 (37th percentile). Mookie Betts' WOBA during that time has been .371. Harvey's power stuff has been turning everybody into Mookie Betts.

There are just two starters (minimum 3,000 pitches) during the time frame I analyzed who have ranked in the bottom half by xWOBA on pitches over 90 mph, yet still in the top quarter overall: Carlos Carrasco and Lance McCullers Jr. Carrasco makes his money with his slider, and of course, McCullers is a master of the curveball. Both rate in the top fifth in the majors in xWOBA on pitches below 90 mph. Harvey is in the 42nd percentile.

To further illustrate the difference, I created a metric that ranks a pitcher's reliance on power stuff. Among starters, Carrasco and McCullers both rate in the bottom tenth of the majors by percentile. That is to say, they are not power-reliant at all. Harvey is in the 70th percentile. He is very reliant on power, even now.

You can understand how he got that way. Harvey's top-end velocity once rated as high as the 97th percentile; this year it's down to the 48th percentile. His chase rate once was in the 94th percentile; this season it's in the second percentile -- only 2 percent of all pitchers are getting a lower rate of chases. The lack of chases is an indictment of both Harvey's faltering power game and his inability to adapt to more finesse options to play off the velocity he still has. It's not a good combination.

After Harvey was designated for assignment by New York, I was chatting with a couple of scouts about him. The reaction was pretty clear cut: Harvey used to get by overpowering hitters. While his stuff is still good enough to get guys out, that will only come to pass if he learns how to really pitch.

Is he willing to do that? For the Harvey experiment to work in Cincinnati, one of two things has to happen. Either his declining velocity and spin rates have to reverse, or he has to display a better feel for pitching than we've ever seen him have before. He'll have to do this on the fly for a team that needs rotation innings right now and plays in one of the worst ballparks in the majors for a pitcher.

None of this even addresses the off-the-field and attitude issues that have marked Harvey's recent career. At some point, if Harvey's career is going to be resuscitated, he's going to have to reinvent himself, on the field and off. That might involve working out of the bullpen. That might involve going back to the minors. His apparent refusal to accept those terms likely hastened his exit from New York, but there is no quick fix for him. Even if he realizes that, do the Reds?

Maybe this turns out to be one of those situations where a desperate team and a desperate player find that they are right for each other. Maybe the Reds really have spotted fixable issues in Harvey that others missed, which feels like a long shot given Cincinnati's recent record of pitching performance. Maybe out of the media glare of New York, Harvey is able to focus on fixing his game. I don't want to discount these things as possibilities.

Still, if you're looking for tangible signs of hope for Harvey, I'm hard-pressed to see where they might be.

What the numbers say:

Are no-hitters becoming less impressive?

In 1930, Bill Terry, a future Hall of Fame first baseman who played for the New York Giants, won the National League batting title with a .401 average. He's the last National Leaguer to bat .400. That's pretty good, right?

Sure it is. There is no context you can add to that fact that will tell you a .401 batting average is not good. Still, consider the NL batting leaderboard from that season:

1. Bill Terry .401

2. Babe Herman .393

3. Chuck Klein .386

4. Lefty O'Doul .383

5. Freddie Lindstrom .379

6. Paul Waner .368

7. Pie Traynor .366

8. Hack Wilson .356

9. Kiki Cuyler .355

10. Mel Ott .349

Does that change things for you? Terry was the best hitter in the league that season, there is no denying that. But his average, now a historical benchmark, wasn't at all out of bounds for the environment in that season's National League. The league batting average was .303. The Cubs' Hack Wilson set the RBI record that year with 191.

When baseball is played at the extremes, the definition of achievement is skewed. We are in such a time right now: the Strikeout Era, in which fewer balls are getting into play than ever. Additionally, more of the balls that hitters do make contact with are hit into the air, which -- if they don't go over the fence -- are turned into outs at a higher rate than grounders or line drives. Thus, the average on balls in play is at its lowest point since 2003.

To restate: There are fewer balls in play. The balls that do go into play are being turned into a higher frequency of outs. That at least partially explains the stat on no-hit bids that Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Info has been circulating: 20 bids of at least six innings so far this season. There were 24 such bids all of last season. The 2018 campaign is just 22 percent complete.

We've had a no-hit bid of at least six innings for every 54.2 games started this season. Last season, that number was 202.5. Since the start of the 2009 season, the rate is every 146.3 games. To grasp just how weird this is, consider this: A full slate of games on a given night is 15 games. There are two starters in each game, so that's 30 starts. So basically, we're averaging a no-hit bid every other night.

This trend is probably a fluke. There were seven no-hitters in both 2012 and 2015. The past two years, there was only one each season. Last season, with strikeout rates already sky-high and launch angle all the rage, we saw our lowest frequency of no-hit bids of the past decade. These facts suggest this spate of bids is largely random and won't last.

But what if they do? What if the general indifference to striking out and the plummeting league batting average leads to this rate of no-hit bids becoming the norm?

For me, that dulls the excitement. I'm not so much concerned with the no-hitters thrown this season by Sean Manaea and James Paxton. Those were great. With any sort of complete game such a rarity these days, it's hard to see those special nights becoming tiresome.

More worrisome is the Dodgers' four-pitcher no-hitter in Monterrey, Mexico.

There have only been 12 combined no-hitters in history. Before 1967, there was only one. That came in 1917, when Babe Ruth got himself thrown out of a start after one batter for arguing with and actually fighting with the umpire. He had walked the leadoff man and didn't like it. Ernie Shore came on, the runner on base was caught stealing, and Shore retired the final 26 batters in order.

Beyond that kind of a scenario, the combined no-hitter thing is pretty anti-climatic. It's a good team accomplishment, to be sure, but not the kind of thing you'll tell you grandkids about.

More pitchers are taking bids into the middle innings. All pitchers have tight controls on their pitch counts. And more devastating power arms are coming out bullpens than ever. It seems like a formula for an uptick in combined no-hitters. Maybe this is a subjective thing, but it's not something I'd like to see. Let's hope that the Dodgers scenario doesn't become too commonplace.

Since you asked:

A pitcher takes a Cy Young winner deep

Brent Suter does everything fast. Pitches fast. Runs off the field fast. Showers fast. The Brewers lefty is one of the most interesting guys in baseball.

This week, Suter provided one of the most memorable moments of the season to date. During the third inning of Milwaukee's game against Cleveland on Tuesday, Suter clubbed a no-doubt, 433-foot blast to center field off Indians ace Corey Kluber. The homer was his first as a professional -- first since high school, in fact -- and provided the winning margin of a 3-2 Brewers victory.

It gets even crazier. Suter wasn't supposed to pitch in that game. Milwaukee started Wade Miley against the Indians, but Miley had to leave three hitters into his outing because of a strained right oblique. Without warning, Suter was summoned from the Brewers bullpen.

The next day, one of his teammates demonstrated Suter's reaction. I won't name the teammate because I didn't get permission to do so, but I'd describe the parody as an Ed Grimley dance. You can tell Suter's teammates love him, and you can tell they love to make fun of him.

Suter turned out to be the winning pitcher in the game by throwing 4 innings of effective relief, saving the strong Brewers bullpen that has since re-added closer Corey Knebel to the mix. He also made a diving catch of a Kluber bunt on a sacrifice attempt and turned it into a double play by throwing from his rear end and catching Brandon Guyer off of second base. He leapt to his feet and sprinted to the dugout, seemingly before his throw had even reached the second-base bag.

Not surprisingly, Suter sped around the bases after his shocking home run. Statcast timed him at 19.2 seconds -- the fasted "trot" time for any Milwaukee player this season.

Many or even most players seek to downplay big moments. "I just tried to put a good swing on it" is a phrase I would be happy to never hear again. Suter, on the other hand, was just as excited about his homer as you'd like him to be.

"I went up there, put the bat on the ball, and after that it was just kind of cloud nine," Suter said afterward, doing a little dance as he said it. "It was like 'Angels in the Outfield.' It was fun. Man, it was a good time."

Suter seemed every bit as excited about his play on the Kluber bunt.

"First pitch, I saw the ball kind of lining off the ground and was just able to [put] the glove under it," Suter said. "I heard [catcher] Manny [Pina] say 'two,' so I turned back, the guy was almost to third, so I just threw it from my sitting-down position, and then ran off the field really quick. I don't know if you saw that. It was a crazy night."

I caught up with Suter again the next morning.

I was having fun with the fact that your trot time was so fast, but that's kind of a trademark of yours, right? Doing everything quickly and efficiently?

Brent Suter: Part of my thing pitching is I always want to get the guys back hitting as quickly as possible. Maintain the tempo of the game, keep the energy on our side. It ends up leaking into other areas of my game, I guess. In terms of running bases, I try to hustle and bring energy that way. We work hard in the offseason, so we're conditioned to do the running and hitting stuff. Really, since college it's just a thing I do.

You also have sort of a larger interest in efficiency and minimizing waste, right?

BS: I'm a big environmental guy. I majored [at Harvard] in environmental sciences and public policy. I'm big into reusable bottles, reusable dishware. It bleeds into my diet, where I try to target locally grown and organic stuff. I try to be as efficient as possible, turning off showers and not letting the water run when I shave. Little things here and there can add up.

Coming right up:

Let's make interleague play interesting again

We no longer really have that stretch of schedule in which interleague play is featured. Indeed, since the Astros moved to the American League, scheduling difficulties have made every day interleague day.

This weekend's only interleague matchup features the Chicago rivalry, with the Cubs and White Sox squaring off at Wrigley Field. It's always a fun matchup and will become especially enjoyable when the White Sox's rebuild begins to take off.

Generally speaking, I have little use for interleague play. They are still baseball games and I watch, but I get no extra bang out of the unusual pairing. For a long time, I just accepted it because it was objectively true that the games drew better. However, as studies, such as this excellent one done at The Ringer, have shown, these days interleague games are just another set of games.

With an odd number of teams in each league, we have to have interleague play. But when baseball expands, likely to two 16-team leagues, this will no longer be the case. And I hope when the new format is worked up, strong consideration is given toward killing most interleague games.

Rivalry matchups like Cubs vs. White Sox can and should be featured events on a team's schedule. Granted, depending on where expansion goes, you'd have to figure out what to do about 10 teams that don't have a clear-cut geographic rival. Perhaps the interleague matchups of those teams would be rotated, or maybe you just assign them a counterpart and hope a rivalry emerges.

Limiting the interleague schedule to a couple of home-and-home series, played on good-weather weekends, could bring back the kind of buzz we'll likely see in Chicago over the next couple of days. The rest of the games on the schedule would be played by teams actually competing for the same thing: Playoff spots in their respective leagues.

I'll be beating this drum softly until expansion comes. Then I'll start pounding it.

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