By Matt Straub
There are two rules that take precedent over all others in baseball. First, except in instances of injury or obvious decline late in a career, always trust the back of a baseball card. Once a player is old enough to have a track record, if he’s going way above or below his career averages, he’ll probably come back toward his average numbers. A career year for an established player is likely a fluke or a contract year, while a huge slump is likely just that. Sometimes the theory will be proven wrong, but you have to let a player show you he’s done or has managed to get significantly better for a couple of years before you ignore the back of the card.
The other hard rule is to remember the future is never guaranteed. We’ve talked on this site repeatedly about how the Washington Nationals, who a few years ago sat Stephen Strasburg because they were going to play for so many championships down the road they weren’t worried about missing out on one. History is littered with good teams we all expected to break through who never did. Injuries and bad luck cost the Boston Celtics a title or two in two different generations. The modern-day San Francisco 49ers are still looking for their Super Bowl. The Pittsburgh Penguins played in two finals and had the two best young players in the sport, and haven’t sniffed the finals again in six years. College basketball teams from the Fab Five to the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats were handed titles during the year only to fall short in March.
With so many teams having failed over the years, the future in sports is now. Injuries, a bad bounce or a bad call can change the course of a franchise’s history. Therefore, if you have a chance to compete for a championship, you have to go for it. Remember when CC Sabathia took the ball as often as possible in a contract year to get the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs? Or all the work he did for the Yankees in 2009? It probably took some years off his arm, as his more recent work with the Yankees would indicate, but it gave him a place in history.
Which brings us to the New York Mets.
First, an important caveat: If Matt Harvey’s elbow hurts or turns purple, he should tell a doctor immediately. No one is asking him to pitch through extreme pain or intentionally reinjure his surgically repaired elbow. If Harvey’s arm feels good, however, he has a duty to himself, his team and the Mets fans to try and win a title now.
Much will be made of innings limits and pitch counts this week while the Mets, Harvey, and agent Scott Boras decide whether or not Harvey will pitch in October. I for one believe pitchers are hurt by pitch counts since they never develop their arms properly. This doesn't mean you don't take care of your arm at all. The other extreme is also true, as kids are requiring surgery earlier and earlier because they are being overworked before their arms are developed by high school and college coaches and, more egregiously, travel ball teams and "showcases."
If a young pitcher is developed at an appropriate pace and allowed to build strength in his arm, he should have no trouble throwing a lot of innings. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke throw 200 innings every year, and have been doing it longer than Harvey without Harvey's physical build. Tom Seaver, without the benefit of today's medicine and training methods, threw 250 innings at age 22 and kept doing it, with occasional misses, until he was 40.
While it's all anyone is talking about, however, the innings debate has nothing to do with Matt Harvey's situation. Harvey's camp is talking about the future like Harvey is going to throw 15 more seasons and pitch five playoff games in each of those years. In reality, Harvey will be 27 on opening day next year and is getting closer to age 30, now considered a barrier by a lot of teams, sooner than he realizes. Consider his bulk, which can help lead to the kind of muscle pulls pitchers beg out from these days, and Harvey might actually be at his physical peak right now. We don't know how long his future is.
And that is the real point. We don't know how long anyone's future is. Eduardo Rodriguez or Luis Severino, a couple of other young guns in the northeast, could get hit by the team bus tomorrow. What we do know is the Mets are in prime position to make the playoffs and compete for a title this year. Given the Mets' history in pennant races lately, this October shouldn't even be considered a certainty, but the Mets can play their way into next month.
With the future so cloudy and the present so clear and potentially so special, Harvey and the Mets have no choice but to go for it. Harvey has carried himself for three years now as though he wants to be the center of New York's attention. He wants to be the man, the star of the team on and off the field.
The difference between Harvey and the man he wants to replace as New York's baseball icon, Derek Jeter, is that Jeter went out and did the job on the game's biggest stage. Harvey has talked about wanting to be the hero, but now talks as though he might shrink away from it in the hopes of being ready for more big moments which may never come.
The Mets were great from 1984-90 and won once. They had two good runs in the last 15 years and didn't get a single ring. This team thinks it has a bright future, but you never know what will happen in baseball. Right now, the Mets are good.
If Harvey wants to be the cross between Jeter and Batman he allows himself to be sold as, the next eight weeks are when he has to do it. We know what the real Dark Knight would do. He'd swoop in and save Gotham and let the future play itself out the way Sabathia did. He'll forever be remembered for those years, not for the washed up pitcher he is now.
The moment has arrived for Harvey. How does he want to be remembered? He can be a baseball caped crusader or he can put up stats down the road while being forever remembered as the guy who didn't want the ball.
Your future is now, Matt. Make of it what you want.