Is Harvey due for adjustment period?

Updated: April 23, 2013, 10:43 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

We are witnessing history.

60 Feet 6 Inches

New York Mets sophomore Matt Harvey, just 14 starts into his big league career, has quickly developed into one of the game's most effective fantasy starting pitchers. Since his debut July 26, he has a 2.14 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 10.39 strikeouts per nine innings; those rank him fifth, seventh and third among qualified pitchers since that date. He is the only pitcher to have ranked among the top 10 in all three categories during that time span.

He is also a pitcher who has been criminally underrated in this space -- albeit with a reason. I'll hesitate to say "good" reason; it appears now that maybe it's not.

To address that low-ranking rationale, let's return to the topic of history. Harvey's stats not only place him among the game's best during his brief big league tenure; they rate him among all-time greats for a pitcher at this stage of his career. With a little help from Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index tool, we can place his performance against historical early-career standouts.

Among pitchers who made at least 25 starts in their first 30 big league appearances, Hank Thormahlen's 2.15 ERA is the lowest since 1916 (the first year for which Baseball-Reference.com has game-by-game data). Meanwhile, Jim Hardin has the lowest WHIP (0.99) and Kerry Wood the highest K's-per-nine ratio (12.29). Among pitchers who made only starts for their first 30 appearances, Stephen Strasburg has the lead in ERA (2.50).

In case you haven't noticed, Harvey -- granted through only 14 starts -- has a lower ERA than Thormahlen or Strasburg did and a lower WHIP than Hardin. His K's-per-nine ratio, meanwhile, would place him eighth since 1916. (That's assuming, naturally, that he maintains those numbers through his 30th start.)

[+] EnlargeMatt Harvey
Elsa/Getty ImagesMatt Harvey outdueled Stephen Strasburg is his last start Friday.

Harvey continues to defy the odds, and it's his defiance that unravels the thinking behind my low ranking of him in the preseason, No. 64 among starting pitchers. At the time, my claim was that, as a young pitcher with 10 starts' experience, he was a reasonably good bet to endure some sort of development-related struggles -- the proverbial "adjustment period" every young pitcher faces. This was a topic recently addressed -- from a broad perspective, not specifically Harvey's case -- in the April 2 60 Feet 6 Inches.

Here's a fair question: What if we have already seen Harvey's adjustment period and I merely didn't recognize it as that?

Flash back to Harvey's second through fourth career starts, which came on July 31, Aug. 5 and Aug. 10 of last season. During that three-start span, Harvey's ERA was 4.76, his WHIP 1.35, his K's-per-walk ratio 1.67. He also afforded his greatest number of hard-hit balls in play in one of those three games, surrendering eight during his Aug. 5 game at San Diego's Petco Park in the worst start of his young career going by Bill James Game Score (35).

It's slicing samples to itty-bitty sizes, yes, but in the absence of a more compelling such stage of his career, Harvey otherwise has busted the notion of adjustment periods. To do that, he would join an exclusive group of young pitchers. Again going to Baseball-Reference.com, since 2000, 22 pitchers managed better than a 3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP or 9.00 K's per nine innings in their first 30 big league appearances (minimum 25 starts), meaning these 22 bucked any semblance of an adjustment period in their first 30 games. As you can see from the chart -- which lists stats in the pitchers' first 30 and next 30 starts -- only three pitchers actually improved in career appearances Nos. 31-60, meaning that the other 19 endured such a period at a later career point.

Madison Bumgarner makes an excellent comparison point to Harvey as a pitcher who has effectively bucked the adjustment period through five big league years. Frankly, so do Tommy Hanson, Strasburg and Jair Jurrjens. And even Strasburg, as the chart illustrates, has taken a step backward since career turn No. 30.

The reason Bumgarner parallels so well, however, is that, like Harvey, he faced some questions about his immediate potential at the time of his debut. To illustrate, Bumgarner was Keith Law's No. 6 prospect overall, No. 3 among pitchers, entering 2009, but he slipped to 28th (and 13th) entering 2010, due perhaps to what was a modest K's-per-nine ratio of 5.80 in his 20 appearances in Double-A ball in 2009. Bumgarner joined the San Francisco Giants' rotation for good on June 26, 2010, and by his 15th career start, he had recaptured much of his lost strikeout ability.

Even Bumgarner endured a rocky stretch, though; his was merely about as short as Harvey's last summer. During a six-start stretch in August 2010, the left-hander had three quality starts, a 5.29 ERA, a 1.76 WHIP and a 1.8 K-to-walk ratio.

Hanson's came in May-June 2010, when during a nine-start stretch he had four quality starts, a 6.51 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP and a 2.44 K-to-walk ratio. Strasburg's has either recently arrived, or perhaps it was a six-start stretch around July 2010, when he had three quality starts, a 4.05 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. And Jurrjens' funk was presumably his 12-start stretch from July 19-Sept. 17, 2008, when he had a 4.86 ERA, a 1.51 WHIP and a 2.04 K-to-walk ratio.

Expanding the range to the past 30 seasons, Mike Mussina and Dwight Gooden are two other strong comparables to Harvey, illustrated below:

Mussina's worst early stretch came in his second through sixth career starts. He had two quality starts, a 5.17 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in them. Gooden's apparently came at an identical time. In career starts Nos. 2-6, he had two quality starts, a 5.47 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. Harvey believers can rest comfortably with these two. As a fellow New York Mets right-hander, Gooden is a popular comparison point.

All this data confirms that every pitcher suffers some sort of rocky stretch, an adjustment period, however small, and as you're projecting Harvey's rest-of-2013 value, you merely must decide: Have we already seen his?

Compare Harvey's first and most recent seven career starts and there's plenty evidence that we have. Specifically, what shows that he's growing as a pitcher is the improvement of his changeup in his last seven starts. Take a look:

Taking all of this into account, Harvey has enjoyed a 44-spot jump among starters in my rankings since the preseason, the largest of any member of the top 100 starting pitchers. By week, he has gone from 64th to 48th to 35th to 23th to now 21st. At the same time, that Harvey remains only 21st is a cap tip to the possibility that he does have some sort of adjustment period in his immediate future.

It also accounts for inevitable regression he's due. After all, Harvey sports a 2.19 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score), 3.19 xFIP, .148 BABIP, 90.9 left-on-base percentage and 3.5 home run/fly ball percentage through four starts, numbers that show his rotisserie numbers are unsustainable.

Here's how I would project his remaining year: 26 starts, 3.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.25 K's per nine innings.

Relief Efforts

With news that Jason Motte is all but certain to succumb to Tommy John surgery -- he's one week from his re-evaluation date for a final decision -- the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen is in a potentially season-long state of flux. Initial stand-in Mitchell Boggs has been one of the most ineffective relievers in baseball to date, opening the door for veteran Edward Mujica to claim the ninth-inning throne.

Though hardly a pitcher whose raw stuff has the look of a closer's, Mujica's performance during his Cardinals career has earned him his chance. In 36 appearances since being acquired from the Miami Marlins in July, he has a 1.07 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, a 7.25 K-to-walk ratio, two saves and 22 holds.

Mujica is well worth adding in all of the remaining 47.1 percent of ESPN leagues in which he remains available as a free agent. Sometimes all it takes for a closer to capture a long-term job is a couple of hot performances at the onset of his career in the gig; Mujica is a perfect 2-for-2 in save chances (April 18 and 22).

That said, what are his prospects of holding that job all year? That Mujica hasn't had a bad year since 2008 -- his September 2009, in which he made four spot starts, was the only other really rocky stretch -- supports his candidacy, but there's little doubt that he lacks the best stuff in the Cardinals' bullpen. That makes multiple alternatives -- Boggs and Trevor Rosenthal, specifically -- worth stashing as insurance, at least if you're in a league with the bench space to afford the luxury.

Here's a quick comparison of the three Cardinals relievers' key numbers so far:

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