Matt Harvey and Men on Base

Matt Harvey has now made six starts this season. His strikeouts per nine are down from 8.9 last season to 6.6 this season. His walks per nine are up from 1.8 to 2.9. His ERA is up from 2.71 to 4.76, and his xFIP is up from 3.24 to 4.36. It is just six starts, but given that his most recent was on Tuesday and featured just four strikeouts and two walks against the hapless Braves, his early-season struggles seem much more alarming than they did on Monday. At the very least, he is the preseason top 10 starter who has fantasy owners the closest to panic.

At times this season, Harvey has been visibly frustrated on the mound, which I take as a sign that he is having mechanical issues. His fastball velocity is also down from 95.9 mph in 2015 to 94.1 mph so far this season. But what has intrigued me the most is his apparent unease in pitching from the stretch, something his pitching coach Dan Warthen has mentioned as an area that Harvey has had difficulty in his career. I had never noticed his issues with men on base prior to this season, but I’m sure that Harvey’s declining performance has me looking for problems that I could easily have ignored before.

To know for sure, and to try to tease out whether a change in Harvey’s effectiveness with men on base might be leading to his poor performance, I decided to research his and other starters’ wOBA allowed with men on base and the bases empty. I focused on starters who had thrown at least 25 innings so far this season, of which there are 113. Among the 96 of those pitchers who have thrown at least 162 career innings, Harvey has seen the seventh-biggest increase in wOBA allowed with men on base compared to with bases empty in his career.

Starters Who Have Declined the Most with Runners On
Bases Empty Runners On
Player Batters Faced wOBA Batters Faced wOBA wOBA Difference
Marcus Stroman 512 .238 294 .328 .090
Taijuan Walker 646 .269 401 .350 .081
Jose Fernandez 798 .229 472 .288 .059
Michael Pineda 1139 .279 639 .332 .053
Dallas Keuchel 1750 .286 1189 .337 .051
Corey Kluber 1786 .280 1099 .328 .048
Matt Harvey 1164 .250 677 .293 .043
Marco Estrada 1934 .290 1149 .331 .041
Jake Odorizzi 1052 .290 662 .331 .041
Rick Porcello 3204 .315 2224 .351 .036

The fact that Harvey is on the list backs up the story, but the leaderboard actually did more to dissuade me of the notion that this is a big deal than reinforce it. After all, Marcus Stroman, Dallas Keuchel, and Corey Kluber have all seen their wOBA allowed increase even more than Harvey has with runners on base. The 10 pitchers who most share Harvey’s problem would create the best rotation in practically any fantasy league.

Still, the question remains whether Harvey might have gotten even worse with men on base in 2016, perhaps driving his slump. And I discovered that is the case. So far this season, Harvey has allowed a .383 wOBA with runners on base and a .316 wOBA with bases empty. That difference of .067 is 24 points higher than his career difference of .043.

It’s also the case that Harvey’s change in wOBA difference is not unusual, no doubt owing to the fact that starters have faced so few batters, especially with runners on base, in the first month of the season. Harvey is just 30th on the list of biggest increases in wOBA difference, and the leaders have seen more than a 200-point increase.

Starters Who Have Been Worse than in their Careers with Men on Base in 2016
Career wOBA Against 2016 wOBA Against
Player Bases Empty Runners On Difference Bases Empty Runners On Difference Difference
Matt Moore .310 .322 .012 .228 .484 .256 .244
Clayton Kershaw .252 .262 .010 .163 .374 .211 .201
Scott Kazmir .338 .299 -.039 .299 .433 .134 .173
Wade Miley .310 .341 .031 .278 .443 .165 .134
Ricky Nolasco .320 .340 .020 .247 .395 .148 .128
Corey Kluber .280 .328 .048 .221 .397 .176 .128
Johnny Cueto .296 .310 .014 .248 .369 .121 .107
Jhoulys Chacin .310 .322 .012 .289 .398 .109 .097
David Price .283 .291 .008 .279 .383 .104 .096
Drew Smyly .300 .285 -.015 .201 .279 .078 .093

I find it really amusing that Clayton Kershaw is second on this list. Who else could have a sub-2.00 ERA despite poor cluster luck? More significantly, David Price can likely hang a lot of his elevated 6.14 ERA on this since his 12.0 strikeouts per nine are better than ever in an already stellar career. This stat likely correlated with strand rate, and Price’s 57.3 percent strand rate is way down from his 74.6 percent standard.

Starters Who Have Been Better than in their Careers with Men on Base in 2016
Career wOBA Against 2016 wOBA Against
Player Bases Empty Runners On Difference Bases Empty Runners On Difference Difference
J.A. Happ .331 .322 -.009 .412 .210 -.202 -.193
Jake Arrieta .275 .302 .027 .237 .107 -.130 -.157
Garrett Richards .291 .300 .009 .378 .231 -.147 -.156
Drew Pomeranz .296 .328 .032 .309 .190 -.119 -.151
Gio Gonzalez .295 .307 .012 .281 .143 -.138 -.150
Jason Hammel .318 .348 .030 .321 .202 -.119 -.149
Collin McHugh .307 .333 .026 .477 .356 -.121 -.147
Taijuan Walker .269 .350 .081 .287 .222 -.065 -.146
Ubaldo Jimenez .308 .324 .016 .437 .332 -.105 -.121
Jon Niese .334 .322 -.012 .473 .340 -.133 -.121

The other end of the spectrum features Jake Arrieta and a bunch of pitchers who are exceeding expectations so far this season. In particular, Gio Gonzalez is an obvious sell candidate. His strikeout rate has actually tumbled to 7.5 per nine, and his gaudy 1.15 ERA is clearly buoyed by unsustainable good fortune with his BABIP (.233), his home run per flyball rate (2.8 percent), and his strand rate (85.0 percent). Drew Pomeranz also has me concerned because his 4.0 walks per nine suggest he will continue to find himself in situations with runners on base. His breakout season may not continue when his wOBA allowed regresses up from its current miniscule .190.

To a certain extent, Harvey can hang some of his current troubles on pitching from the stretch, but he has proven in his career that such a weakness hardly precludes you from being one of the best pitchers in baseball. Hopefully, he can make another adjustment—perhaps to his mechanics—that will help him bounce back in every respect, not just with runners on base. Until then, fantasy owners will just have to be nervous.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

Velo down, SwStr% down, Zone-Contact% way up.

I’m not even worried about windup vs stretch, unless there’s a difference in Velo or Zone-Contact% between them. That would be something if there were. I can’t find situational splits on pitchFX data, though.