It took Matt Harvey 10 starts, 59 1/3 innings -- and a timely trade of National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey -- to become the Mets’ ace. Even though Johan Santana was slated for Opening Day and just because Jon Niese now will have that assignment, the numbers say Harvey is the Mets’ true No. 1.
Harvey is one of only eight pitchers in MLB history to throw at least 55 innings, start 80 percent or more of their games and average more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings as rookies. The others: Kerry Wood, Stephen Strasburg, Dwight Gooden, Mark Prior, Hideo Nomo, Brandon Beachy and Yu Darvish.
In their careers, that group has totaled 10 All-Star selections, one Cy Young Award and nine other top-10 finishes, four top-20 finishes in MVP voting, three Rookie of the Year awards and two other top-10 finishes.
That Harvey’s rookie 141 ERA+ was second, behind Nomo, speaks volumes about his potential. ERA+ is an advanced stat adjusting a pitcher’s ERA to account for ballpark and league ERA.
Five of those pitchers -- Strasburg, Gooden, Prior, Nomo and Beachy -- have measurable sophomore seasons (Darvish was a 2012 rookie, and Wood was injured). Although they experienced slight regression, the overall performances were still ace-like. For instance, that group’s K/9 level fell from 11.25 as rookies to 10.39 in Year 2 -- still far above average. There were improved numbers, too: The quintet had a 2.93 ERA in Year 1 but lowered that to 2.39 in Year 2.
Although Harvey’s average of 3.94 walks per nine innings is troubling, it’s not unusual for a hard thrower -- he was clocked from 98-100 mph during a recent spring start -- to have control issues. And hard throwers are what the Mets need.
Harvey has a power/contact rating of 1.61, a stat that measures the level at which a pitcher allows the ball to be put in play. Levels above 1.13 indicate low-contact, power pitchers. Harvey’s ability to keep balls from being put into play is key with the Mets’ porous defense, which ranked 25th in MLB last season with a -23.5 UZR, a metric measuring a player’s ability to get to balls hit in his zone.
But there are warning signs.
Harvey’s superb stats will likely dip some in Year 2, both because the league has better knowledge of his weaknesses and because of mathematical regression. Harvey’s batting average on balls in play was .262 in 2012, far lower than the usual league average of about .300. His 81.3-percent rate of stranding runners on base is also unsustainable. Numbers above 80 percent generally fall the following season.
Then there are the fates of the pitchers to whom Harvey compares.
Wood, Beachy and Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery during his first or second season. Nomo wound up needing shoulder surgery. Prior suffered from numerous shoulder ailments and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006.
The Mets have a true ace going forward. But it’s too early to tell how that promising hand plays out.