Let’s begin with a few numbers:
Matt Harvey, according to Fangraphs, has been worth $107.2 million to the New York Mets. That’s just regular season work on the field. Let’s throw in another couple million for his very solid pitching in the playoffs and World Series last year (before going out for that ninth inning) — this, just one year after he came off Tommy John surgery and had a doctor and an agent suggest that he shut things down. Throw in whatever off-the-field value he might have to the Mets as the Dark Knight — for a while there he was the Mets’ singular drawing card — and we can round it up to a cool $110 million.
When this year ends, the Mets will have paid Harvey about $6 million.
That’s a tidy little 95-percent markdown for the old Metsaroos.
This is how baseball contracts work, of course. Good young players don’t get paid their value. Old players are vastly overpaid. It’s a long game. Kris Bryant leads the National League in home runs — he’s getting paid $652,000. Corey Seager is hitting over .300, he’s tied for third in the NL in hits and runs and has played every game at shortstop. He’s getting paid $510,000. Good salaries. A fraction of a fraction of what they are worth.
Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez is getting $21 million and he’s got a .256 on-base percentage in the few at-bats he manages to get. Ryan Howard is hitting .151 and getting $25 million. Josh Hamilton is getting $28 million and can’t get on the field.
Everybody knows this is how the game works but either (1) does not know how to fix it or, (2) does not believe it needs to be fixed. The idea is that the players will eventually make the money — that is to say it will all even out — assuming that the player can stay healthy and productive.
But the question is: Will it even out for Matt Harvey?
Last year, you might remember, Matt Harvey said that his surgeon, the estimable James Andrews, put a 180-inning limit on him because he was coming off Tommy John surgery. This inspired a Godzilla-in-Tokyo kind of panic because the Mets were contending for the postseason at the time and the idea that Harvey, like fellow Scott Boras client Stephen Strasburg, might shut things down and not pitch in the postseason was enough to create mayhem in Gotham.
The mayhem was so overwhelming that Boras — who, to his credit as an agent, has never been one to back down to public outcries — completely backed down after the season ended, calling the whole thing a “misunderstanding.”
“We were all baseball players,” Boras said. “We know you pitch in the playoffs.”
OK, that’s all well and good but then 2016 began and, from the start, Harvey flailed. His top-speed velocity was inconsistent. His location was even more inconsistent. Close observers worried that he was changing his arm slot, maybe to compensate for something. He kept telling everyone that he felt fine, better than fine, but things kept getting worse, and you could see it all backing up on him. He evaded the media after one terrible performance, sparking a New York tabloid firestorm. Then, in his last couple of starts, he only made it into the fourth inning. Thursday, it was revealed that he has symptoms consistent with thoracic outlet syndrome, which is essentially nerve damage in the shoulder. He could (and probably will) have season-ending surgery. There is also the option of blocking the pain and pitching through it, though this would only put off the inevitable surgery.
There are a million intricate factors that form a pitcher’s success and health, and it would be nothing but speculation to say that the pressure-packed extra innings that Harvey pitched in September and October (his 216 total innings are the most ever for a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery) contributed to either his season-long struggles or this injury. There might be no connection at all.
But here is the point: Harvey was expected to give it up for the team last year. The idea that Harvey would shut things down before the playoffs was so abhorrent to people that he and his agent basically had to apologize for the MISCONCEPTION that he would not pitch. And here we are now, with Harvey’s very career on the brink, with the big-money contract that is supposed to come with early years of success now very much in doubt. And who will stand up for him? Where can he go for the $100-plus million of value that he gave the Mets?
As the years go on, I find myself rooting more and more for players to cash in. They are the stars of our sports. They are the physical geniuses who can throw 100-mph fastballs or hit them, who can beat a balletic 350-pound left tackle to the quarterback; who stay on their skates through a hurricane of checks and somehow beat the goalie to the high side; who make two quick moves that level a defender frozen and then sink a 24-foot jump shot even as the crowd boos. They are why we go to the games. And yet, they are the ones we as fans have long demanded give up things. We ask them to give up money so the team can stay under a faux salary cap that keeps owners from spending more money. We ask them to take less money so they can stay with the hometown team — a hometown discount, we so innocently call it, as if we are not simply saving the local owner money.
Who else do we ask this of? Would we ask it of our friends — hey, take a little less money so that the company can run a bit more smoothly?
We ask pro athletes to play through extreme pain and we are not especially open to their complaints. We get angry at them when they ask for more money. We get REALLY angry at them if they unionize to get a larger sum of the pie. We feel no sympathy for them whatsoever when they get so much less than they are worth on the open market. After all, Harvey is getting paid $4 million this year, and that’s a lot of money. Heck, he got $600,000-plus last year and THAT is a lot of money, too. Who among us wouldn’t want to make that kind of dough? And it doesn’t matter to us that the $20 or $30 million in value that he actually produced doesn’t just disappear. It is going to Mets’ ownership.
Matt Harvey might have been destined to have this injury. But a year ago he was told by a doctor — a doctor who knows his business pretty well — to pitch no more than 180 innings. He pitched on for the team, for the fans, for his own pride. It was noble, at least by sports standards. Many people cheered him. The cheering stopped pretty quickly, though, when he started pitching lousy this year. And there will be nothing but silence as he tries to put his arm back together again. If he can return as a great pitcher, it will be a wonderful story.
And if he can’t? Well, everyone will move on — everyone but Matt Harvey.