The New York Mets' Matt Harvey might be off to the greatest start for a starting pitcher in more than 50 years. That sounds like a lot of New York hype, but it shows up in the numbers and comparisons. Through 15 starts, the numbers suggest, Matt Harvey has been about as good as anybody starting a career since World War II.
But, really, the wonder of a pitching prodigy like Harvey goes beyond numbers or comparisons. It's a feeling. There's something about a pitching prodigy that gets the blood pumping a little faster. There's something about a pitching prodigy that feels unlimited.
Why? Maybe it's because the pitcher is unique in sports. He has the ball. He starts every play. He has his own mound. The pitcher is the only athlete in sports that is credited with a win or a loss. You could argue -- I have argued many times -- that it's silly to credit a pitcher with a win or loss. We do it anyway and have for more than a hundred years. We don't do that for a quarterback or a point guard or a goaltender or a goalkeeper. *
*Every now and again, you will hear someone talk about a quarterback's or goaltender's "won-loss record," but that's a little bit different. The language is different. You might say, "The Patriots are 136-39 in games that Tom Brady starts." You would not say, "Tom Brady completed 30 of 42 passes and earned his fifth victory of the season." It's a subtle but important distinction. Pitchers are the only ones who turn plural to singular, the one ones naturally fit the sentence: "James Shields picked up the win, while David Price took his third loss of the year."
And so every time a Hideo Nomo or Dwight Gooden or Matt Harvey shows up on the scene, the possibilities are endless. In many ways, I've marked my baseball life by the pitching phenoms who kept showing up.
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I have no memory of Steve Rogers when he came up as a 23-year-old pitcher for Montreal. My memories of Rogers come from when he was older, that big mustache, the hair fighting to get out from under his red and blue eMb cap (Les Expos de Montreal Baseball), the glove arm sticking out to the left, the way he kicked the dirt on his follow through so that it seemed he might just fall forward and roll toward home plate.
But when Rogers first arrived on the scene as a 23-year-old former college superstar at the University of Tulsa, he was all but unhittable. He pitched a one-hit shutout at Philadelphia in his second start and followed it with a shutout in New York against the Mets. Through 15 games, he was 9-4 with a 1.32 ERA. Batters were hitting .192 against him.
He was in Montreal, of course, playing for a terrible Expos team. So it seems like his amazing start did not get the fanfare of some of the other phenoms of my lifetime. There was no "RogersMania."
Rogers would go on to be a fine pitcher, winning 158 games and leading the league in ERA in 1982. He was a five-time All-Star. But to me his pitching years -- and his Expos teams -- were always tinged with a kind of sadness and unfulfilled potential. The Expos should have won championships. Rogers should have won Cy Young Awards. They were good, but it always seemed like they should have been a little better.
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While, I do not remember Steve Rogers' debut, I have very strong memories of The Bird. Every baseball fan my age or older has those memories of Mark Fidrych. I was 9 when The Bird came up to the Detroit Tigers, and that was the perfect age to be for his act. The Bird talked to the baseball (or talked to himself, it was never entirely clear). He smoothed out the mound with his hands. And, of course, he looked like Big Bird, which was why he got the nickname in the first place.
He was like a superhero in a Detroit Tigers' uniform. I'm semi-serious about that. You have to understand that to a boy of the 1970s, the line between comic books and real life people was hopelessly blurred. Was Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, real or fake? Fake? Well, then, how about Evel Knievel jumping over busses on his motorcycle? Oh, he was real. The Superman ads said, "You will believe a man can fly," and Fonzie started jukeboxes by simply hitting them, and Elvis Presley wore capes, and Nolan Ryan threw pitches 102 mph, and Roger Staubach (who they called Captain America) kept bringing the Cowboys back from certain defeat, and Muhammad Ali let George Foreman tire himself out by leaning against the ropes and taking every punch he could throw. What was real anyway?
Then, Mark Fidrych appeared in this blurry world, 21 years old, and he talked to the ball, and he wouldn't pitch with the same ball that had given up a hit, and he did this little walk around the mound after each out, and it was wonderful. He didn't have the Nolan Ryan fastball or Sandy Koufax's curve. Instead, he had voodoo, crazy confidence, a heavy sinker and a rubber arm.
Here is the best baseball statistic you will here today: In Fidrych's first 13 starts in the major leagues, he threw 120 1/3 innings. I'll do the math for you -- that averages out to MORE than nine innings per start. He completed 12 of those 13 games, and that included three different games where he pitched 11 innings.
He won Rookie of the Year, and he should have won the Cy Young Award in 1976 (he didn't because he didn't win 20 games), and then he was never the same. He had injuries. Well, what the Tigers did to him, allowing him to complete 24 games in his rookie season and throw a million pitches under duress would be viewed as criminal negligence today. But, like I say, back then the line between superhero and regular guy wasn't as easy to see. Nobody thought the Fidrych magic would ever end.
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Fernando Valenzuela was the first pitcher to have "mania" put after his name. That was 1981. He was from Mexico, youngest of 12, and nobody knew quite what to make of him. He was pudgy, had a round face, his pitch was the screwball and he on his windup he would twist and then, bizarrely, look at the sky just as he was about to let the ball go.*
*This was also around the time when NFL kickers started to kick the football barefooted. I don't know that these two facts connect -- they probably don't -- but it just seemed like athletes back then would do seemingly illogical things for no apparent reason. And those things sort of worked.
Valenzuela actually came up for the Dodgers in 1980 and threw 17 2/3 scoreless innings in relief. Then, because of an injury to Jerry Reuss, he started opening day in 1981 and he promptly shut out Houston. He struck out 10 and allowed one run in San Francisco, then threw consecutive shutouts in San Diego and Houston. He started the season a tidy 8-0 with a 0.50 ERA. He also was the first pitcher since 1932 to go at least nine innings in his first eight starts.
Managers LOVED to abuse their pitching phenoms back in those days.
Valenzuela would go on to a fine big league career, but like with Rogers there seemed something unfulfilling about it. Through age 26, Valenzuela seemed a lock for the Hall of Fame. He had 113 wins, more than Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens or Tom Seaver or Randy Johnson or Steve Carlton or many other Hall of Famers. But the mania more or less ended there. He had led the league in complete games three times, he had thrown 250-plus innings six straight years, and his arm just didn't have enough screwballs left. He just wasn't the same pitcher.
He did have a few bigger-than-life moments, though, like the no-hitter he threw in 1990 (some say he predicted it before the game). And in the 1986 All-Star Game he struck out Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken, Jesse Barfield, Lou Whitaker, Teddy Higuera (yes, they let pitchers hit in the All-Star Game back then) and Kirby Puckett in succession.
But Valenzuela did not start that All-Star Game. A new phenom, Dwight Gooden, did.
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Do you remember the Sports Illustrated cover of Dwight Gooden about to unleash a pitch? It looks like his arm is made of rubber.
Gooden was a bit different from Rogers and Bird and Valenzuela. There was no mystery how he got batters out. While Rogers did it with force, Fidrych with magic, Fernando with spiritual screwballs, Gooden did it the old fashioned way, with a blazing high fastball that nobody could catch up with and a curveball so steep and breathtaking that announcer Tim McCarver called it "Lord Charles" because the typical curveball nickname, "Uncle Charlie" simply wasn't splendid enough.
Gooden was the right-handed Koufax. He was a little bit of Bob Feller, a little bit of Bob Gibson, a little bit of Jim Palmer. It's interest: Gooden wasn't all that good right away. The Mets babied him a bit through his early games. He did have moments of brilliance, like the four-hit, 11-strikeout shutout he threw against the Dodgers. But other times, he struggled. He couldn't get out of the third against Houston and got hit around pretty good in San Diego.
Then, against the Dodgers, Doctor K emerged. Gooden struck out 14. Something had clicked. The high fastball he threw was quantifiably different from any other pitch in baseball -- even Nolan Ryan's fastball. Gooden's fastball had this jumping bean life to it. It apparently looked to the hitter as if it was going toward the strike zone and then it jumped up two feet. Batters found themselves constantly swinging at pitches that were actually over their heads. And then, when they saw the pitch was high and going over their heads, they would lay off . and the curveball would come over a hill and tumble right down into the strike zone.
By July, Gooden was striking out 10 or more batters pretty much every game. He struck out 11 in Cincinnati, 12 in San Francisco. In late August and September, he had five consecutive games of 10-plus strikeouts -- the first National League pitcher to accomplish that feat in a single season. He finished off the streak by striking out 16 Pirates in nine innings, and 16 more Phillies in only eight.
When the season ended, Gooden had struck out 11.39 hitters per nine innings -- the highest strikeout rate in baseball history to that point (amazingly, the record would be broken by a 40-year-old Nolan Ryan before being broken numerous times by Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez).
Then, in his second year, Gooden was even better. His 1985 season -- when he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA, eight shutouts, 16 complete games and a league-leading 268 strikeouts -- is tied with Steve Carlton's amazing 1972 season as the highest Wins Above Replacement season in the last 50 years.
After that, well, the story has been told many times -- Gooden fought demons and injuries and hitter adjustments (they did finally figure out how to lay off that high fastball) and he was never a great pitcher after 1985, never even an especially good pitcher after he turned 26.
He still won 191 games with more than 2,200 strikeouts. Even with everything, he's almost certainly one of the 100 greatest pitchers in baseball history. It just seemed like he had a chance to be the best.
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It's easy to forget -- or to undersell -- just how much of a phenomenon Hideo Nomo was when he hit American baseball in 1995. You might remember: Baseball was a mess that year. The 1994 strike had canceled the World Series, and all the talk at the start of 1995 was replacement players and stupidity and nonsense. The season did not even start until the end of April.
Then Hideo Nomo appeared in Los Angeles. He was only the second Japanese-born pitcher in Major League history, the first in 30 years. They called him the Tornado, and rarely has a nickname so perfectly fit a player. He had this wonderful windup, full of twists and bends and pivots and spins -- if you would invent a dance step called "The Tornado" it probably would look a lot like Hideo Nomo's windup -- and for a while there nobody could hit him. First time out, in San Francisco, he went five innings and gave up one hit.
After a dreadful outing in Colorado -- even tornadoes would have had trouble in the old Coors Field -- he gave up two hits in his next 11 innings. He struck out 14 Pirates in Los Angeles and then, a month later, struck out 16 Pirates in Pittsburgh. He pitched back-to-back shutouts against the Giants and Rockies (who proved much less rocky away from Coors).
Nomo was an excellent pitcher his second season too -- he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting -- and then he settled into a routine where he would mix brilliance and lousiness and you were never really sure which one you were going to get. He never did harness his control -- he finished top five in walks (or bottom five, depending on your perspective) five times, and he was susceptible to the long ball. But he kept striking out hitters. He finished with 1,918 strikeouts.
I last saw him in 2008, when he showed up in Kansas City at age 39 for a comeback attempt. He didn't have much left, but unlike other aborted comebacks, this one wasn't sad at all. Seeing that amazing motion again made the years melt away for at least an instant.
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There have been many other brilliant young pitchers who got off to amazing career starts -- Dave Righetti, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in Chicago, Jose Deleon, Jered Weaver, Barry Zito got off to a great start, Wayne Simpson, Stephen Strasburg, even Zach Duke -- but it really is possible that Matt Harvey is off to the best start of them all. This isn't just New York hype.
Through 15 games, Harvey has a 2.29 ERA, 109 strikeouts in 94 innings, and batters are hitting .172 against him. Using a simple formula based on Bill James `Game Scores," I have Harvey's 15 starts as the third best start since World War II ended -- behind only Nomo and Rogers.
Harvey wasn't overwhelming in the minor leagues. Everybody loved his talent, his stuff, his mid-90s fastball and his ability to make his curveball and/or slider move. His strikeout totals were eye-popping. But he never quite dominated in the minors. He walked too many. He threw a lot of wild pitches. His change-up wasn't coming around. This from Baseball America in 2012, when they ranked him the No. 2 Mets prospect:
"He locates his fastball to both sides of the plate and with good life down in the zone . But has below average command and presently lacks a reliable changeup, so evaluators project him as anywhere from a No. 2 starter to a high leverage reliever."
It's so early in his career, and those questions are still open. But, it has to be said: You watch him pitch now and you think -- "How does anyone ever hit him?" Five starts this year, and he has not given up more than four hits in any of them. His pitches are eerily Gooden-like . his hard slider is very different from Gooden's sloping curveball obviously, but Harvey (like Gooden) throws high fastballs, 95 to 100 mph, and to the batter the ball must look like it disappears into the atmosphere, like a plane ascending into the clouds, because they swing and miss it about half the time.
There used to be a magician, I can't remember his name, who would have a child sit in a chair and face him. Then he would make a tissue disappear by throwing it over the kid's head when he wasn't looking. The kid would then look all over for the tissue and have no idea what just happened. That's what Matt Harvey's fastball reminds me of. Hitters swing at it with full confidence and miss it low by a foot.
Phenom pitchers face uncertain futures. Baseball is hard on pitchers. There are injuries. There are adjustments. There are slumps. The odds are always stacked against young pitchers. Most of the best pitchers of the last 40 years had some early career bumps. Greg Maddux had 5.52 and 5.61 ERAs his first two seasons, Pedro Martinez worked out of the bullpen, Randy Johnson struggled so much in Montreal that they traded him, Roger Clemens' ERA through his first seven starts was 7.13. Sandy Koufax famously struggled his first five seasons in the big leagues.
But, again, this might be missing the point. Some phenoms do last. Bob Feller did. Tom Seaver did. Juan Marichal . Robin Roberts . and, anyway, the point with pitching phenoms isn't to think too much about the future. It's to enjoy the moment.