Saturday, June 22, 2013

Matt Harvey Pitches With The Grace of a Swan

You've heard it coming at you from every angle and every media outlet.  Matt Harvey is a bloody good pitcher.  Since coming into the league less than 11 months ago, Harvey been the darling of the Mets' pitching staff.  In 25 starts, Harvey has posted a 2.37 ERA and 0.99 WHIP.  He has also struck out 185 batters in 163⅓ innings, while holding the opposition to a measly .196 batting average.  Unfortunately, that success on the mound has not translated to victories, as Harvey has only earned nine wins in those 25 starts.

Harvey's inability to earn a "W" is reminiscent of another ace who pitched for the Mets during a time when the team was struggling to win ballgames.  In fact, other than the strikeouts, Matt Harvey's career numbers so far are quite similar to the numbers posted by one Craig Steven Swan in 1978.

One of the best pitchers in Mets history with some of the worst luck.

Craig Swan was a second round draft pick out of Arizona State University in 1972 and made his major league debut with the Mets during their "Ya Gotta Believe" stretch run in 1973.  Swan pitched briefly for the Mets from 1973 to 1975 before getting his first extended look as a starter in 1976.  Unfortunately for Swan, by the time he was ready to make his mark in the rotation, the team was making a beeline for the bottom of the NL East standings.

Swan got off to a poor start in 1977, going 1-4 with a 6.16 ERA through late May.  But beginning with his start on May 31, Swan pitched beautifully on a team that was about to trade its best pitcher (Tom Seaver).  In 14 appearances (13 starts) from May 31 to August 15, Swan was 7-3 with a 3.07 ERA.  The Mets were 9-5 in those 14 appearances.  Meanwhile, they were 24-34 in all other games during Swan's graceful stretch.

That was enough to make Swan the ace of the staff in 1978, especially with Jerry Koosman coming off a lackluster 8-20 campaign in 1977.  And what a year it was for Swan in '78.  He led the league with a 2.43 ERA and was runner-up in WHIP (1.071) and fewest hits per nine innings (7.119).  Opposing batters hit .219 against Swan in 1978, and were only able to reach base against him at a .275 clip.

Surely, Swan must have contended for the Cy Young Award, right?  Not exactly.  In fact, he didn't even receive a single vote.  So why was he overlooked by the voting panel?  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he only won nine of his 28 starts.

After allowing a season-high six earned runs to the Phillies on May 7, causing his ERA to "balloon" to 3.02, Swan was brilliant for the rest of the season.  The right-hander went 8-4 with a 2.28 ERA over his last 23 games (22 starts), but the team lost seven of his 11 no-decisions during that time.

Although Swan allowed two runs or fewer in 19 of his 28 starts in 1978, the Mets lost ten of those 19 games.  Furthermore, Swan did not allow any earned runs in five of his starts, but of course, the Mets somehow found a way to lose three of those contests.  Unlike Matt Harvey, Craig Swan was not a strikeout pitcher, but he did reach double digits in strikeouts in two games in 1978.  Naturally, the Mets lost both of those games.

Matt Harvey's reaction says it all.  Here comes another no-decision.

Matt Harvey should know a thing or two about frustrating no-decisions.  Through 25 career starts, Harvey has not received a decision ten times.  That includes his current stretch in which he's received a no-decision in eight of his last 11 starts, despite posting a 2.64 ERA and holding the opposition to a .260 on-base percentage over that period.  And like Swan before him, the Mets have lost six of those 11 starts.  For his career, Harvey has allowed two runs or fewer in 19 of his 25 starts.  Not unexpectedly, the Mets have lost nine of those starts.

Let's just stop right now and give you the comparison I've been leading up to.  Here are Craig Swan's 1978 numbers followed by Matt Harvey's career numbers through his first 25 starts.

  • Craig Swan: 28 starts, 9-6 record, 2.43 ERA, 1.071 WHIP, Mets won 12 of his starts
  • Matt Harvey: 25 starts, 9-6 record, 2.37 ERA, 0.992 WHIP, Mets won 12 of his starts

Craig Swan was a very good pitcher on some bad Mets teams.  When he played his last game for the Mets, his 59 wins were fourth-most in franchise history behind Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.  (Swan is now tied for 12th with Rick Reed.)

Matt Harvey has a long way to go to reach the pitching heights scaled by Seaver, Koosman and Matlack.  But right now, his career numbers (other than strikeouts) are looking more like Craig Swan's 1978 season than anything else.  Like Swan before him, Harvey has been the victim of a poor offense, where putting up a bunch of zeroes on the scoreboard still doesn't guarantee a victory.

Craig Swan pitched a lot better than his numbers show.  So has Matt Harvey.  But for now, Harvey still has a long way to go to earn those comparisons to Seaver, especially in the win column.  Until the offense starts producing for him, Harvey will just have to settle for being known as a hard-luck pitcher - a hard-luck pitcher who pitches with the grace of a Swan.

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