Harvey shows Tommy John return is a process
Righty has shown signs of both brilliance and struggle in comeback campaign
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Harvey has struggled at times through his first year pitching after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. There is such a thing as Tommy John surgery fatigue and Harvey showed the vestiges of it on Saturday in a 4-3 loss to the Dodgers.
"It's definitely hard," Harvey told MLB.com after the game. "It's like one batter to the next batter, the arm slot, staying back, just trusting that my arm will stay healthy. It's been a lot different than I thought it was going to be."
But the big right-hander shouldn't worry about the ups and downs of it, said John Smoltz, who will be the first pitcher to have had the surgery to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he's inducted along with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio on July 26.
Next year will be better, certainly better than Harvey's outing on Saturday at Dodger Stadium when he walked a total of five Dodgers and had to pitch out of two bases loaded situations within the first three innings. When he left after five innings, the Dodgers had a 3-0 lead.
"I've said this to Adam Wainright, to anyone who's asked me, that you're going to be OK the first year, but you're going to be great the second year," Smoltz said during a conference call earlier in the week. "You're going to be OK for stretches and you're going to think that you're going to return to where you were. And you will.
"You go through periods where your arm is not quite locked in because you're just getting used to that ligament and you're going to show those signs of brilliance. Typically, that's what I experienced. It is a process and there's no denying it."
Both Smoltz and Harvey had their reconstructive surgery conducted by Dr. James Andrews more than 13 years apart with one significant difference. Smoltz was 34 at the time and Harvey was 24. Smoltz did his on March 1, 2000. He returned to the Braves on May 17, 2001, but after five starts, found that he couldn't sustain the same zip on his fastball any longer over multiple innings and converted to closer with significant results.
He went on to save 154 games over the next three-plus seasons before returning to the starter's role in 2005, finishing his career in 2009 with 50 of his 213 wins during that period, which included 120 starts.
Harvey's surgery was on Oct. 22, 2013, and he missed the entire 2014 season. He returned this season with a flourish, going 5-0 with a 2.41 ERA in his first five starts. He's 2-6 in his 11 starts since and has had moments of brilliance along the way. Overall now, he is 7-6 with a 3.11 ERA.
Like Saturday, there has been the good Harvey and the bad Harvey within the course of the same game. Harvey sliced through the Dodgers easily in the first inning, throwing a wide variety of pitches at varying speeds. But he lost the strike zone in the second and third, suffering a spontaneous bloody nose on the mound. By time he was out of the fourth inning he had already tossed 69 pitches.
That all came home to roost in the fifth when Adrian Gonzalez homered and Alberto Callaspo hit an RBI single. It could have been much worse. In the inning, Harvey allowed four hits and issued another walk.
For the game, he allowed three runs on seven hits with five walks and four strikeouts and threw 100 pitches. If it was any solace, it certainly wasn't Harvey's worst outing of the season, although it was his shortest since he went four innings May 23.
Afterward, he was more stoic than upset. He hadn't pitched in a week because the Mets have gone to a six-man rotation to limit wear and tear on the three young pitchers in the rotation that have had Tommy John surgery -- Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz. Even with that, Harvey has felt the effects.
"You deal with innings built up and tiredness," Harvey said. "Your body gets tired trying to do a little bit too much. Just getting back and finding a rhythm has been the hardest part."
Mets manager Terry Collins has talked a lot with Smoltz about returning from Tommy John surgery and whether there is a fatigue or hangover that ultimately sets in. Smoltz told him there absolutely is, but Collins said before the game that he hoped Harvey was through that period.
"I do, I think he's gotten over that hangover," Collins said. "I've seen consistent stuff. Is it the stuff that he had two years ago? Not quite, but it's going to get there. That's what we call the hangover, just that late last pop on that fastball."
There's good reason for that, said Dr. Andrews, who has performed hundreds of these surgeries on Major League pitchers.
"There are myths that are associated with the Tommy John procedure," Dr. Andrews said. "The No. 1 myth is that they throw harder after the procedure. And that's just not true."
Thus, that late pop on the fastball Harvey once had might never come back. That doesn't mean Harvey again cannot be an elite pitcher.
"What I found out was that every month and day after 12 months to 14 months the ligament gets used to the stresses and how it's supposed to react," Smoltz said. "I could have pitched at eight months and I would have blown out. You feel great. You want to let everyone know how good you feel because, at least for me, I was pitching with a compromised ligament for a long time."
Harvey can only work through it and wait for the time to pass. With any luck, next year at this time perhaps, Smoltz's words will ring true.
"There have been a lot more ups and downs than I thought there would have been, but we just have to keep going," Harvey said. "You can only hope."