Team Guys

Matt Harvey, perhaps the highest profile of the Mets’ star young pitchers, missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery after a brilliant 2013 campaign. Now 26, Harvey has been excellent in his comeback 2015 campaign.  But partly because of his injury history, and partly because of evolving ideas about the medically appropriate approach to pitcher usage, especially among younger pitchers, the Mets are monitoring Harvey’s season-long innings workload closely. There’s been a very public spat in the past couple of weeks between the New York Mets’ front office and Harvey’s agent, the polarizing Scott Boras. The source of the dispute is the 180 innings limit that Harvey is approaching. That’s part of the problem, actually. The Mets say they had an agreement with Boras to monitor Harvey’s workload as the season wore on. Boras, on the other hand, insists that, for the sake of the pitcher, the limit should be a more or less hard one. Furthermore, Boras has insisted, it’s the doctors, not Boras, who’ve mandated a hard 180-inning cap on Harvey’s season.

As it happens, the Mets are in a surprising pennant race – they currently have a five game division lead with about 25 games to play. And Harvey is sitting on 166 innings. With a 180-inning cap, Harvey’s season would have room for about two more starts. From the Mets’ point of view, that’s absurd – Harvey is critical their postseason hopes and they have no intention of shutting him down prior to the playoffs, or sharply limiting his innings once they get there. Indeed, team president Sandy Alderson has said there’s no way that Boras, or Harvey or whomever is going to dictate to the organization whether a healthy Harvey would be available for the postseason.

Hanging over this fight was the extraordinary decision by the Washington Nationals in 2012 to shut down their young ace, Stephen Strasburg, prior to the start of that year’s playoffs. Strasburg had missed a year due to Tommy John surgery in 2011. In 2012, still only 23, the big right-hander pitched like an ace and helped lead the Nationals to a division title and postseason berth. But Strasburg never saw the postseason because the Nationals had imposed a strict innings limit on him. This was unprecedented in baseball history – a healthy, star player being shelved prior to the playoffs out of concerns over his future well-being. With Strasburg watching from the bench, the Nats lost in the opening round that year – a season in which many considered them favorites to win it all.

The Mets, it is clear, have no intention of repeating Harvey’s experience.

It’s fair to point out that, despite Boras’ insistence to the contrary, it’s not clear there’s a hard number after which a player is manifestly more likely to jeopardize his health and future. As baseball health expert Will Carroll says, “there’s no science to an innings limit.”

All of this has fed a media firestorm directed at Harvey and Boras. Harvey’s being hammered as “soft,” “selfish” a “me-first” player who, egged on by the slimey svengali Boras, is more concerned about future paydays than about helping the team win. Harvey tried to contain the damage from earlier ambiguous comments about the innings limit, writing a post this weekend for the Players’ Tribune titled “I will pitch in the playoffs.”

The pope of New York sports, Mike Francesa, today pronounced that Harvey’s attempted mea culpa was too little, too late. That he’s already shown his true colors and can only hurt himself further by opening his mouth.

In other words, Harvey should just – you guessed it – shut up and play.

Two comments about all this:

  1. sports media’s view of Scott Boras over the years has never ceased to amaze me. His major crime, for many years now appears to be this: that he’s a greedy bastard, ruthlessly focused on the bottom line. You might think that in a world filled with such individuals, starting with owners of major league franchises and the commissioners who represent their financial interests that Boras’ own bottom line focused wouldn’t be singled out for opprobrium. But Boras is a guilty of a crime greater than being money hungry. He’s money hungry on behalf of players, not of teams. And that’s an especially unforgivable transgression. Look, you may think Boras is wrong to be so gung-ho about the health benefits of an innings limit. And you may think he’s only in “it” for the money. But it happens that, long term, his interests and the interests of the players’ he represents are very well-aligned for one very simple reason – the more money they make, the more money he makes. Period. If you don’t care about the players’ long term well-being, that’s your prerogative. But there’s not much of a principled argument to be made against Boras unless you’ve got a bigger problem with market forces and capitalism itself.
  2. Earlier this year, Cubs’ GM Theo Epstein held his star prospect, third baseman Kris Bryant, in the minor leagues for about three weeks from the start of the regular season. Bryant played with the Cubs during the preseason and absolutely destroyed the baseball during that time. There was no question that he was ready to play for the big league club on opening day, nor was there any question that he gave his team the best chance to win of any option in the Cubs organization from day one. The reason Theo held Bryant back for three more weeks was simple – doing so would delay Bryant’s ability to become a free agent by an extra season. In other words, in the interests of keeping the player under club control for six more years instead of five, Epstein did not field his best team on opening day. Epstein made noises about wanting Bryant to have a little more “seasoning” in the minors. But that was transparent bullshit. And though the Cubs are well-positioned to make the playoffs, Theo didn’t know this would be the case in April. His decision could have cost the team the precious win or two that might have been the difference between making the postseason and not. Bryant, as it happens, is having an excellent season and is considered a favorite to win the National League’s rookie of the year award. All of this was quite predictable, given everything that was known about him as a prospect.

I trust the relevance here is clear. When a club makes a decision based on its bottom line, including when doing so obviously weakens the team’s chances in the short run, the response is some mild hand-wringing, all of which is quickly forgotten. When a player and his agent make noises along the same lines, it’s an unpardonable offense, one that reveals the true and loathsome character of the individuals in question.


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