I still remember sitting in the 500 level of Veterans Stadium and taking in the presumed future of the New York Mets. My father and I normally attended one game per series every time the Mets came into town to face the Philadelphia Phillies. But in August 1995, we went to all three. We saw the Mets win a raucous 12-10 decision Tuesday night behind home runs from First Baseman Of The Future Rico Brogna and Right Fielder Of The Future Carl Everett.
But we returned Wednesday because Jason Isringhausen was pitching. He pitched eight shutout innings, and the Mets won, 4-0. And we came back Thursday to see Bill Pulsipher pitch nine innings, allowing a single run, before the Mets pulled it out in the eleventh, 5-1.
It was Isringhausen's fifth major league start; it was Pulsipher's eleventh. And Paul Wilson was busy mowing hitters down at Triple-A.
So began my harsh lesson in projecting the future of pitching prospects. As you probably know, that trio did not lead the Mets to quite as many playoff appearances as the Tom Glavine/John Smoltz/Steve Avery group provided the Atlanta Braves. Brogna hurt his back, and never lived up to his early promise. Everett became best known for attacking an umpire and attacking the premise of dinosaurs.
All three Mets within Generation K suffered injuries. We never really got to see Pulsipher at his best after 1995; a torrn Labrum made him a different pitcher. Isringhausen, too, returned from injuries to have a long career, but as a reliever. And Paul Wilson, whose minor league stats suggest he would have been the best of the bunch, got hurt and never approached his prospect success. The best pitcher the Mets ultimately drafted and developed in the 1990s turned out to be Bobby Jones. For all of my dreaming, planning and projecting, there never was a Generation K.
Accordingly, it would seem that caution is called for when rooting for Matt Harvey, the current New York Mets pitching prodigy who pitched another stellar game Monday night in a 7-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies just a few hundred feet, and roughly 18 years, from where I glimpsed the mid-90s future that would never be. This is the tradeoff we happily make with young talent. They provide some excitement; we mentally fill in the blanks everyone hopes will come with experience.
To be sure, Harvey's Hall of Fame induction would be premature. But 12 starts in, the calculations have already changed as they apply to the exciting righthander who Omar Minaya drafted as a lovely parting gift, while overseeing his final draft in 2010.
With pitching prospects who arrive in the big leagues, watching is a precarious balancing act between appreciating the current talent, making allowances for some trouble against experienced big league hitters, and latching onto adjustments the prospect makes as a possible window into a future where said prospect becomes a reliable mainstay of the rotation. The young pitcher's struggles become our struggles, but that's okay: there's a learning curve. Even with Pulsipher and Isringhausen in that promising summer of 1995, good starts mixed with difficult ones.
This has just not been the case with Matt Harvey. It is as if Harvey emerged, fully-formed, from Triple-A Buffalo last season. He is composed, in both the self-assured way he discusses his craft with reporters, and the way he makes experienced professionals look like they're the rookies just up from the minors.
In his season debut against San Diego last week, Harvey got 24 swings and misses in 94 pitches, an absurd total and the most by a Met in over a decade. And these weren't typical major league swings, either: Everth Cabrera waved lifelessly at a Harvey changeup in the seventh inning as if he barely had any strength left.
But with young pitchers, as with veterans, the stuff isn't always so sharp, the command falters. The veterans know how to adapt.
So did Matt Harvey Monday night in Philadelphia, in his 12th major league start.
Harvey walked Ben Revere to begin the game. He even went to a full count on pitcher Roy Halladay. And the Phillies broke through in the fourth inning for a run, the veteran trio of Jimmy Rollins (double), Chase Utley (single) and Ryan Howard (sacrifice fly) putting the first blemish on Harvey's 2013 record.
But Harvey, clearly without his best command, rallied in the fifth. After walking Laynce Nix on four pitches, he came back to get swings and misses with his upper-90s fastball, his slider that clocks in right around 90 miles per hour, and even his 86 mile per hour changeup. He struck out the side in the fifth, pitched a hitless sixth and seventh, and exited the game ahead, 7-1.
The off-night totals for Harvey: seven innings, one run, two walks, nine strikeouts.
"There was definitely a difference between the first start and this one," Harvey told reporters after the game. "I could tell in the bullpen I was going to have to battle a little harder than I did the first outing."
But how did you possibly know that, Matt? Moreover, even if you knew it, how did you know exactly how to do it? It was your twelfth start! Why do you already sound like Tom Seaver when you talk, and look like him when you pitch? Where did you come from?
It was no different the week before, when he'd discussed preparing for his first start, that dominant outing against the Padres, following the Mets' Opening Day win.
"You can't get into a routine of doing the same thing, over and over again," Harvey said on April 1 as he stood in front of his locker, confidently addressing each reporter's question, his blue eyes meeting ours. "Going out, attacking the zone, using different pitches with different counts, not starting every guy off with a fastball or something like that. That comes with throwing strikes, too. You've got to throw your curveball for a strike, throw your slider for a strike."
Most 23-year-old pitchers can't elaborate on what is required of them so intelligently. But even fewer 23-year-old pitchers can then go out and, so precisely, do it.
The results stand up against the early careers of virtually any early phenom in baseball history. Harvey, in his ten starts last season, struck out better than 10.6 batters per nine innings. Let's put that in perspective: the five pitchers with better K/9 in their first season of at least 50 innings were: Kerry Wood, Stephen Strasburg, Dwight Gooden, Mark Prior and Hideo Nomo. That's it, ever. And just behind Harvey are Yu Darvish, Bobby Witt (kind of an outlier, since he walked nearly as many as he struck out), and Cole Hamels.
What these pitchers all had in common was that none of them required the typical young pitcher patience. By year two of their careers, Nomo, Prior and Hamels were all stars, with top-six finishes in Cy Young Award voting. Strasburg and Wood weathered injuries in year two, and returned to dominate in year three. Dwight Gooden was 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA. Yu Darvish looks like he's on his way to similar success here in 2013.
And so, too, does Matt Harvey. For all of my October dreams for Pulsipher and Isringhausen, their strikeout rates in 1995 were 5.8/9 and 5.3/9, respectively. They wore Mets uniforms like Matt Harvey, but they were entirely different pitching prospects.
As the injuries to Wood and Strasburg, along with the series of injuries to Prior and eventual breakdown of Gooden remind us, injuries can derail even the best pitchers. None of the comps to Harvey on that list went on to win 300 games; most fell short of the Hall of Fame careers that appeared to be their destinies. Strasburg and Darvish, of course, are still to be determined. The dangers of planning for the long-term with a young pitcher haven't changed with Harvey.
Amazingly, though, Harvey's track record makes it clear that the only question remaining for Harvey, 12 starts in, is health, not performance. On a Mets team that doesn't inspire very much dreaming, and requires a great deal of wishful projecting, neither is required when it comes to Matt Harvey. His potential is off the charts, but 12 starts in, Mets fans can enjoy Matt Harvey, already great, right now.
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Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."