Harvey danger

The thing people miss about this bizarre free-for-all over Matt Harvey’s innings between Harvey, the Mets, Scott Boras and Sandy Alderson is that it isn’t really about the pitcher’s health. Oh, sure, on the surface the whole mess is about how to keep pitchers healthy in 2015, but the trouble is: When it comes to health, everybody’s guessing. Nobody knows.

Harvey’s agent, Boras, citing doctors, says that because Harvey is coming off Tommy John surgery, he absolutely should not pitch more than 178 innings he pitched in 2013 or he will be putting his arm in very real danger.

Might be true. But they don’t know if that’s true.

The Mets’ GM, Alderson, believes that the Mets can find a way to manipulate the number of innings Harvey pitches the rest of the season and allow him to be healthy for years to come.

Might be true. But he doesn’t know if that’s true either.

Sure, everybody has an opinion of what will or won’t endanger Matt Harvey’s future, and everybody has an opinion about what Matt Harvey’s responsibility is to a Mets team that has shocked everyone and is in position to make the postseason. But this is exactly the issue: All of these are opinions, some based on data, some based on common sense, some based on what people value most (loyalty or immediate success or long-term success). But they’re still opinions. All of it is based in that dreamy world of the unknown.

Here’s what we DO know: The Harvey thing is about money. And, more than money, it’s about a baseball salary structure that really defies common sense and, at some point, might just crumble and fall.

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Here, in very, very general terms, is how baseball works these days: A player comes up and, for his first three or so years, gets paid whatever the team wants to pay him (within reason). In the fourth year, the player can begin to use an outside arbitrator to help determine his true worth to the team, and this is also true in the fifth and sixth years. There are other factors that can move the checkpoints for when a player gains eligibility for arbitration and free agency up a year. Regardless, at this point, the player becomes a free agent, and he is free to go to the highest bidder. This is when he can make his true market value and, often enough, much more than his true market value.

Here, in very, very general terms, is how baseball pitchers’ careers go: They generally peak at about age 27, stay pretty close to their peak for three or four years, start to decline, slowly at first, and then they begin a steady and sometimes precipitous fall. This means that a pitcher’s prime years will generally be between ages 26 and 30. This is also true for everyday players.

So here’s what happens:

— Young baseball players are some of the most underpaid people in American professional sports.

— Old baseball players are some of the most overpaid people in American professional sports.

You can see this in action: The Website Fangraphs gives an estimate, based on a players Wins Above Replacement value, how much a player is worth in actual dollars (figures through Monday).

Young player: Bryce Harper
fWAR: 9.7
Worth: $77.2
Paid: $2.5 million

Old player: Ryan Howard
fWAR: -0.5
Worth: ($3.7 million)*
Paid: $25 million

*Fangraphs actually has Howard worth a negative value because he’s below replacement level.

Young player: Kevin Kiermaier
fWAR: 4.9
Worth: $39.3
Paid: $513,800

Old player: Albert Pujols
fWAR: 1.2
Worth: $9.9 million
Paid: $24 million (with $165 million still to come)

Young player: Gerrit Cole
fWAR: 5.2
Worth: $41.5 million
Paid: $531,000

Old player: CC Sabathia
fWAR: 1.2
Worth: $9.8 million
Paid: $23 million, with another year left on the contract and vesting option for 2017

The system is so familiar, we don’t even think about it anymore. The concept is that it all evens out. And it does all even out in some cases, like, say, Justin Verlander. In Verlander’s first four full years, he was paid about $6 million, though he was worth more than $100 million to the Tigers.

But Verlander, now age 32, still has $120 million left on his deal and, unless his career arc makes an unlikely shift, he’s not likely to be worth anywhere near that. It’s like deferred payments. Pitch great now, get paid later.

This is the system baseball sort of fell into after the 25-year labor war. Albert Pujols is another great example. In his first 11 years in St. Louis, he was paid about $100 million, a huge sum of money. But just in baseball performance, he was probably worth closer to $400 million. Add in what he did for the Cardinals’ success, and what he did off the field, he was an astonishing bargain.

CALCATERRA: Quit freaking out about Matt Harvey

Now, he will make $250 or so million from the Los Angeles Angels over 10 years. He almost certainly won’t be worth even half that. So it all evens out — except it doesn’t. The Cardinals got a steal. The Angels got the bill. This is what repeatedly happens. And we all accept it.

But the Harvey conundrum brings up a powerful question: How long can the system thrive when players and teams are working at odds with each other? Matt Harvey is no kid — he’s 26 years old. He doesn’t become a free agent until 2019. He is getting paid $614,125 when Fangraphs estimates he’s been worth more than $30 million to the Mets, even if he stopped right now.

Both the Mets and Harvey, technically, want the same things:

A. Both want Harvey to pitch in the Mets run to the postseason , then to pitch in October and lead the team to the World Series.

B. Both want Harvey to stay healthy and have a long and fruitful career.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Mets and Harvey each want Options A and B. But … they don’t want them with the same fervor. For the Mets, naturally, Option A is more important. For Harvey, just as obviously, Option B is more important.

So there’s your conflict. Then you throw in the natural fact that that nobody really knows exactly how to keep pitchers healthy — nobody even knows for sure if reducing innings or spreading out starts is a key to pitcher health — and you have general mayhem.

Sure, Mets fans want Harvey to pitch now. How could they not? Nobody knows when or if the Mets will be in this position again. The Nationals did not pitch Stephen Strasburg in the 2012 playoffs on the premise that his long-term health mattered more and that there would be plenty more chances. Three years later, it looks like there might not be many more chances at all, and Strasburg has not been a picture of healthy this year. To them the whole things seems silly.

Sure, Harvey and Boras want to make absolutely sure they are doing everything in their power to keep him healthy … and get him to that payday that is three or four years off. Nobody knows if a few extra innings could increase the injury chances. And look at Mark Prior. In 2003, he was the probably the best pitcher in the National League. He carried the Cubs to the postseason. He got paid $1.45 million — he was worth roughly $60 million in today’s dollars. But, hey, the idea was that he would get his money later. He got hurt. And he never got the big payday.

It’s a difficult one, no question. But here’s the thing that gets me: I don’t get why Harvey is expected by anyone to accept all the risk himself. If the Mets want him to pitch, why don’t they take on some of that risk themselves? Why don’t they pay him close to his true value? Why don’t they offer him guaranteed money in case he does get hurt? Why do they expect him to go against doctor’s recommendations and potentially gamble his future? For love of team? Will the team love him if he blows out his arm in the process?

Of course, that’s the system. Maybe it changes at some point because I don’t think Matt Harvey is going to be the last pitcher demanding all sorts of precautions in the early years when the players’ salaries are controlled. Maybe it changes at some point because I just don’t see how teams will continue to spend insane money on 30-something players who have no chance of being the players they once were. Maybe it changes because the system isn’t too logical.

Or … maybe it doesn’t change. Someone next year will give a huge contract to a 30-something player who is freefalling, and someone this year will pay around the league minimum for one of the league’s best players. And it will happen again the year after that. And it will happen the year after that. And the year after that, maybe Matt Harvey will get paid what he earned this year — if only he can stay healthy.

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