If a pitcher can be deemed “major league” after two starts, Matt Harvey would seem to be it. His lifetime mark has dropped to 1-1, which isn’t an accurate reflection of how well he pitched against the Giants Tuesday night and — whatever we think of the usefulness of pitchers’ won-lost records — probably doesn’t foretell how the rest of his career will unfurl.
Nothing really does yet. It’s two starts. Even the swell record he set for most strikeouts by a Met pitcher in his first two outings (one of those records you didn’t know existed to be broken) doesn’t mean much. He passed three guys: Tom Seaver, Dick Selma and Bill Denehy. One guy is Tom Seaver and all that implies; the second guy had the epitome of a journeyman career (42-54 with six clubs in ten seasons); and the third guy’s name endures primarily as the answer to “who did the Mets send to the Washington Senators as compensation for hiring away Gil Hodges?” and, secondarily, for keeping Tom Seaver company on his rookie card. Nobody looking at Harvey is thinking, “He could be another Dick Selma or Bill Denehy!” but we just don’t know.
Pitching, more than any skill in the sport, is a lifetime journey and never-ending adventure. The great Tim Lincecum presents his own evidence that you can never quite know what the next start or the next string of starts is going to bring. At the same stage of his career when the Nieses and Gees and Pelfreys were still getting the hang of pitching at the highest level of baseball — a hang none has yet to fully and completely grasp on a consistent basis — Lincecum was winning a couple of Cy Young awards. Yet at a moment when he couldn’t be any more established as one of the premier pitchers in the game, he couldn’t seem any more vulnerable or hittable.
Except against the Mets, natch, but that’s a whole other story.
The fact that Matt Harvey is making some of us think of Tom Seaver is plenty for right now. It’s not the 18 strikeouts in two starts or Keith Hernandez’s exultation over his “drop-and-drive” delivery or even that he successfully gritted up when betrayed by his fielders while learning to mix pitches that aren’t necessarily his best. What made me believe in Matt Harvey as a major league pitcher in every sense of the word Tuesday night was watching him conduct his postgame media scrum. He was no-nonsense, all-business…you might say drop-and-drive.
I’ve watched hundreds of pitchers field thousands of questions after they’ve pitched. The exercise rarely produces stunning dialogue, but I find the nuances fascinating. Some guys look as if they had to be reminded in Spring Training that this is part of the job and, given their druthers, win or lose, they’d rather be left alone. Some can dissect the key at-bats to within an inch of their lives. Some use these sessions as forums to blend personal philosophy with baseball analysis. Others very subtly, maybe not so subtly, shift the blame for whatever went wrong to their teammates.
Harvey doesn’t know enough to do that last one. He could have. It wouldn’t have endeared him to anybody in his clubhouse, but he wouldn’t have been wrong. His fielders Metted him over but good in the second inning, yet I don’t think it occurred to the kid that it mattered, not if you listened to him after the game.
“In my eyes, if we scored one run, I should have done my part and gotten zeroes, but I didn’t do that tonight,” he said with utmost seriousness. “I didn’t do my job.”
That, of course, is ridiculous. He did his job fine. He got undermined by Met gloves and outpitched, a little, by Lincecum. You can’t throw shutouts every time it’s your turn to go. He’ll learn that if he hasn’t already.
But oh, what a jolt of adrenaline he provided just by putting it all on his shoulders. The words weren’t delivered in self-flagellation, either. It wasn’t “oh god, it’s all my fault!” insecurity. It was the opposite. It was, literally, a declaration that he’s here to win. Nothing about feeling good or being happy to have made his pitches or any of that stuff that drives Bobby Ojeda and, to a lesser extent, me crazy.
“I don’t like to lose,” Harvey said of the outcome, “so obviously I’m not happy about it.”
In that summation I heard Tom Seaver. Specifically, I heard what Seaver said when he was presented with the news that he had won the 1967 National League Rookie of the Year award after his first full year in the majors, a year when his team lost more than 100 games for the fifth season in its six-season existence:
“I want to pitch on a Mets pennant winner and I want to pitch in the first game in the World Series. I want to change things…I don’t want the Mets to be laughed at anymore.”
Harvey didn’t go quite that far. He doesn’t have the standing to say such things, not in MLB service time, not from personal experience. He’s been a Met for a week. He hasn’t observed first-hand how a season starts surprisingly promisingly and then fade into oblivion. He may have some inkling about how this franchise has struggled competitively (because standings are standings) and financially (because Scott Boras is his agent) but none of that was his problem. He’s just a kid with two starts and 18 strikeouts to his ledger.
Making the Mets whole again, however, is something I can picture Harvey making his responsibility, or as much of it as one pitcher can every fifth day. I don’t get the feeling he’s going to be about incremental progress. I wouldn’t rush to slide him into the Seaver category in terms of future performance, because we know there are far more Selmas and Denehys than there are Seavers, but I now carry a hunch that when we read about Harvey, we’re going to be reading less about bad routes to line drives and double play balls thrown away and more about players who insist they play better on those days when Matt Harvey is pitching. That’s what can happen when you have a pitcher who not only doesn’t like to lose but clearly expects to win.
Which is something this franchise hasn’t expected to do in a long time and has yet to demonstrate more than incremental progress toward doing in the long term.
It’s a sad reflection of where the Mets have been that there was genuine disappointment among a swath of its fans that the guy who hit two huge home runs for them on Monday night wasn’t traded by Tuesday afternoon. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. When you root for a team and a player wins you a game, the default instinct is to want to see more of him, not pack his bags.
But when free agent-to-be Scott Hairston showed up at Phone Company Park in San Francisco and dressed in his Mets uniform a day after excelling for the Mets, it was something of a letdown. The prevalent strain of thinking at the trade deadline — which is an hour of mostly evanescent hyperventilation, yet nevertheless a potentially impactful one — was if there’s a way for the Mets to improve themselves meaningfully, do it.
The question becomes, when you’re 50-53 going on 50-54, what do you mean by meaningful? If the cards are stacked a certain way, say so that your record doesn’t sit all that far from a playoff spot, it means getting at least goddamn reliable reliever in your bullpen. If the house of cards has already crumbled, say to the tune of 14 losses in 16 very recent games, it probably means cutting your losses and seeking help less for the current year than for one of the next ones.
Thus, not trading Scott Hairston’s presumably attractive righthanded power bat to a contender for [fill in the blank] was more letdown than relief. I can’t say definitively that it was the wrong move not to make because Sandy Alderson doesn’t let me listen in on his conversations with other GMs, but when the dust settled and Scott Hairston — nice guy, generally solid offensive contributor in a part-time role on a team that exceeded expectations for a while — was still in place, it was fair to ask, “What’s the point?”
The point is always to win the game that’s in front of you, and as long as Scott Hairston is around and is as hot as he’s been lately, he stands a good chance of helping the Mets win games in which lefthanded pitchers are forced to face him. The Mets’ outfield has been a thin stew of part-timers, underdone youngsters, injury victims and Jason Bay. Hairston’s not much of a fielder and he doesn’t necessarily pose a threat to righthanded pitchers, but he’s about as good a bet as the Mets have got out there right now (yet another sad reflection of how things have unraveled).
And if Scott Hairston wasn’t around? Terry Collins would find somebody and play him somewhere. If Hairston was gone and the apparently marginal prospect Alderson maybe could have gotten for him went to Binghamton and developed or didn’t develop, what would be the damage?
Alderson’s explanation during a post-deadline conference call was the 2012 season isn’t over, which is technically true.
“I think there’s a lot of value in, for example, making a run, even if it’s unrealistic. I think there’s a lot of value, for example, in finishing well over .500. I think there’s a lot of value in finishing over .500. I think those things create a perception. What happened or didn’t happen on the deadline may be largely forgotten if a team is able to create a positive impression the second half of the season.”
If making a run is “unrealistic,” then you’re not really making a run. If four months of Scott Hairston on the Mets has helped the Mets be 50-54 instead of 48-56 (his WAR to date is 1.8), perhaps it is fair to conclude Scott Hairston’s value to the Mets, as opposed to a team that is much closer to the postseason, isn’t that great in relative terms. You might even say evaluating him as part of a Mets run as July turns to August is unrealistic.
Perception is an interesting element of Alderson’s answer, though. For argument’s sake, let’s imagine Hairston was traded for whatever Alderson could get to a contender that makes the playoffs. Let’s imagine further that Hairston’s new team is in the Wild Card game and Scott comes up in the eighth inning, with a tie score, and homers off some tough lefty and that team wins. For one day, Scott Hairston will be a big story — and in New York, the spin will be “the Mets traded a postseason hero and got somebody in return who nobody’s ever heard of and won’t likely hear of again,” or something comparably uncomplimentary.
Tough perception. But, like the overkill anxiety attached to the trade deadline, it may be “largely forgotten,” except by those who insist on remembering. Reading between the lines, I get the sense Alderson just doesn’t want the bonus grief that may come with the imaginary middling prospect he received in the imaginary trade for Hairston.
The middle part of his statement intrigues me most, the business about finishing over .500. To my surprise, as a Mets fan who can rattle off without pause every won-lost record the Mets have ever posted (including the two split-season records from 1981), I find myself unmoved by the chance that the Mets might break their three-year string of finishing with a losing record if they can muster 32 wins in their final 58 contests.
The pre-Alderson Mets of 2010 leapt from 70-92 to 79-83 under Omar Minaya and Jerry Manuel. Nobody perceived much progress in the improvement or the proximity to .500. If anybody had, Minaya and Manuel would have been around in 2011. Alderson and Collins ran a club that won fewer games, dropping from 79-83 to 77-85, yet they created a perception of legitimate progress. The seasons followed somewhat similar arcs — tepid start, injection of excitement, eventual dismay — yet 2011 was seen as the platform for genuine growth.
Genuine growth isn’t five more wins in 2012 than 2011, not when the arc doesn’t much change, not when the bottom-line result doesn’t much change, not when the distance the Mets maintain from the heart of the action in the National League pennant race doesn’t much change. Barring a supernatural short-term turnaround by this team (9½ out of the Wild Card at the moment) and concurrent collapses by the five teams ahead of them (all of them with winning records, in case you’re harboring 1973 fantasies), the perception is pretty much set for this season: the Mets looked good for a while but then fell apart; they need help if they’re ever gonna look good longer and not fall apart so readily. And the perception for next season won’t be altered by a subtle improvement over the final two months of this season.
The perception of the Mets that Alderson ultimately wants created is, presumably, that of a consistent winner, one for whom a record above .500 is implicit. Should the Mets be 80-81 heading into Game 162, .500 will be my goal for them. Should they be 81-80, finishing above .500 will be that goal. Otherwise, I’m not interested in statistical consolation prizes. When I do the historical rundown in my head, and I go from 70-92 to 79-83 to 77-85 to whatever 2012 brings, I want totals that shatter .500, with additional games tacked on long after the scheduled 162.
That’s progress. That’s winning. They’re not there yet. They don’t seem close to it. I don’t know when they will be. It’s a sad reflection of where the Mets have been and a sad reflection of where the Mets are.
That’s my perception anyway. I don’t like to lose, so obviously I’m not happy about it.