Matt Harvey: Like Dwight Gooden without the awesome supporting cast
On Friday afternoon at Citi Field, one prominent journalist said to me when I asked what he was there to work on: "Matt Harvey. Why the hell else would I be at Citi Field on a Friday night?"
Harvey pitched seven innings of what would be the best start of most other pitchers' seasons, but was about normal for him this year: seven innings, three hits, one run, no walks, 11 strikeouts.
The opposing Washington Nationals looked helpless against him.
The Mets had even given Harvey a 4-1 lead. But the bullpen, awful most of the year but on a hot streak, reverted to form. The Mets lost, 6-4.
That afternoon, Davey Johnson, current Nationals and former Mets manager, spoke about the comparison that's hung over Harvey all season, to the immediate, brilliant emergence of Dwight Gooden back in 1984-85.
"There was a buzz here every night," Johnson said as he reminisced with reporters in the Nationals' dugout Friday afternoon, recalling those lovely 1984 Mets days, when Gooden was a star at 19, and Johnson was the rookie manager pushing all the right buttons. "We were getting 50,000 [fans] a game when he was pitching, and when I'd take him out of a game, I'd start getting booed."
Mets fans of today could understand the sentiment a few hours later, when Harvey left after seven innings and 109 pitches. But current Mets manager Terry Collins has a very different team on his hands.
The Mets don't draw 50,000, or generally come close to selling out Citi Field's roughly 42,000 seats when Harvey is on the mound. Friday night's fans were appropriately amped up, but ticket sales were a shade over 28,000, according to the team.
Harvey is a treasure for those attending, but he isn't yet a draw for fans who have gotten out of the habit of watching the Mets in their post-Madoff decrepitude.
Dwight Gooden's 1.53 E.R.A. in 1985, his second full season, yielded to a 24-4 record. In his rookie year, his 2.60 E.R.A. meant a 17-9 record. He had a young Darryl Strawberry, prime Keith Hernandez, and productive players like Hubie Brooks and Mookie Wilson in 1984 to support him. In 1985, he also had Gary Carter (at the expense of Brooks). He had support within the rotation, fellow prospects like Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, even Walt Terrell and Rick Aguilera, all ready to produce at the major league level.
Harvey has David Wright, but no one else to speak of on that elite level. Marlon Byrd's been hitting recently. Daniel Murphy is a major league caliber hitter. But the team, as a whole, simply isn't capable of giving him good run support with any consistency.
Harvey has now received a no-decision or a loss in six games this season when he's allowed either zero or one run.
As I made my way from the field back to the press box after the bullpen had allowed Harvey's start to get away, the panic was palpable. One woman was convinced that Harvey would choose to leave the Mets this winter, and was much re-assured when I told her about baseball's rules for young players, meaning Harvey was under team control until 2019, and not even eligible for a raise of any significance until 2016. Another said: "Why does the rest of this team have to be so bad?"
After the game, some reporters questioned Collins about whether he should have left Harvey in for the eighth. But most acknowledged, as we awaited Collins, then Harvey, that if the bullpen can't preserve a three-run lead for two innings, it doesn't much matter what the manager dreams up in matchups.
"It's easy to sit here right now, when we've lost the game, and look back in the seventh inning, or the eighth inning, and say 'You should have left him in', or 'You should have made this move, you should have made that move'," an agitated Collins said at his postgame press conference. "It's a very easy thing to say. Yeah, I could have left him in, no doubt about it. I could have let him throw 150 [pitches]. Decided to take him out. Thought he'd had enough."
As for Harvey, his ability to stay on message and positive seems, like his pitching, to be above average. Still, he said, "I was happy about going seven. But obviously, in my mind, going eight or nine is ideal. There's still work to be done."
The Mets are lucky to employ a manager in the final year of his contract, like Collins, who seems to have Harvey's long-term prospects in mind, without being tempted to overtax Harvey to save his job.
Most of the work of team improvement needs to come from Sandy Alderson, the general manager. And that can only happen once Alderson is given a viable budget to work with, which only occurs once ownership is on a sound financial footing.
The Mets made some noise about adding position players last month, an effort from Sandy Alderson to get ownership to finally allow him to build a team with something other than bits of string as he enters the final year of his contract. The Wilpons were noncommittal, and already, word has apparently come down that it won't happen this summer.
“I don’t think that’s something [for] right now,” a club official said yesterday. “That’s probably something more for the offseason."
Even if it were financially feasible for the Mets to build almost an entire offense in a single offseason, it wouldn't be particularly desirable from a baseball perspective. How much more Alderson will put up with is a great question: as one who knows all too well about the shifting budgets and empty promises to Alderson put it to me, absent the ability to shape the team this winter, "Sandy has better things to do with his time."
And until the Mets surround Matt Harvey and David Wright with a stronger supporting cast, much of the fan base that was once so capitvated by Dwight Gooden will come to the same conclusion.
Elsewhere in New York sports:
The Knicks traded for disappointing big man Andrea Bargnani.
The Nets have apparently added a significant piece in Kyle Korver via free agency.
After getting swept by the Orioles, the Yankees have lost five straight, and sit in fourth place in the American League East.