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Matt Harvey injury: Pitcher durability still difficult to project

Clean mechanics don't guarantee 200 innings, and violent deliveries aren't an instant recipe for injuries. These are things you already know.

Rich Schultz

If White Sox fans thought they couldn't have nice things this season, try being a Mets fan. Just when it looked like the Amazins had finally put "Generation K" in the past by developing their first legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitcher since Dwight Gooden, they announced that Matt Harvey has a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament and may need surgery, although he's going to try everything in his power to avoid it.

We watched Harvey hold the Sox to one measly infield hit over nine dominant innings back in May. I've watched him plenty since then -- at least the first three innings, since most Mets games start an hour before White Sox games -- and nobody built much of a book on him. He's usually "on," and that means he overpowers opponents without looking taxed or distressed, which is a spectacle in its own right.

The easy aesthetics have led to a number of confident projections about his durability, like this one from Mets analyst Ron Darling:

"I don't want to jinx him," says Ron Darling, "but he's got mechanics as good as Tom Seaver."

Mets manager Terry Collins:

"I feel like I can go out there [and throw] 120, 130 pitches each time," Harvey said. "My body can handle it."

Collins said Harvey's delivery is pretty quiet – "There's no violent movement," he said – but he still isn't a fan of drastic tweaks to any pitcher's throwing routine. Harvey said he was planning to spend some time in the bullpen Sunday to get his arm loose

Allen Barra at The Atlantic:

His effectiveness largely comes from the fluid, almost flawless mechanics of his pitching motion, which have minimized stress on a precious right arm—an arm that seems to grow stronger every outing.

Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated:

Mets fans have every reason to be excited about Harvey, the cover subject this week in Sports Illustrated. He has a strong will, a keen pitcher's intellect, clean mechanics, a prototypical power pitcher's body and the rare four-pitch arsenal based on stretching the strike zone vertically and attacking hitters.

Verducci fell in love with Harvey's mechanics from his reporting in the magazine story he mentions, where he said Harvey's father chose the smooth "arm-swing" delivery over the less fluid "inverted W."

I could list more, but it starts to get into a circular-reference loop, with analysts, bloggers and fans offering similar variations from the same sources (though there is a YouTube video breaking down Harvey's "safe" mechanics high on the first page of search results, which can't be good for business).

Verducci loved the delivery so much that he said he'd pick Harvey above all the other talented 25-and-under pitchers in baseball. Rob Neyer didn't buy it, saying "clean mechanics" weren't enough:

He's thrown just 100 innings in the majors, and history is littered with big strong pitchers with clean mechanics who spent a year on the Disabled List before reaching 200 innings.

The unfortunate news about Harvey immediately brought Chris Sale to mind for me. He's this franchise's Appointment Viewing 25-and-Under Pitcher (might need a pithier name), although he goes about it in a far freakier fashion.

His unorthodox build and "Condor M" delivery combined to create all sorts of concerns about his ability to hold up as a starter. So far, Sale has been able to outpace the speculation long enough to quiet it somewhat. The contract extension also helped, because it signifies that the White Sox aren't waiting for his elbow to explode. Many will never be able to get over how painful it looks, but are willing to concede that appearances can deceive -- at least until they don't.

In case you missed that echo chamber, you'll probably see the same thing happen with Tyler Danish, whose crazy right-handed arm action will likely generate a lot of the same "this-can't-be" objections if he ever reaches a similar level of prospect prominence. So far, so good for the 18-year-old:

2013 Bristol 1 0 1.38 13 1 26.0 15 1 5 22 0.769
2013 Kannapolis 0 0 0.00 1 0 2.0 1 0 0 4 0.500
1 Season 1 0 1.29 14 1 28.0 16 1 5 26 0.750

But you never know. Danish could meet the Jake Peavy comparisons, or he and Sale might face Harvey's fate sooner than later. Of course, if Sale ever had the dreaded date with Dr. Andrews, there'd be a stampede for the first "I told you so." But nobody foretold anything along these lines during Harvey's rise, and it still happened.

It's always a safe bet to assume pitchers will get injured at some point; expect the worst, hope for the best and all that. So sad stories like Harvey's really offer no further enlightenment, just context. If you're looking for a bigger lesson than "yaneverknow," here are a couple more:

  1. Enjoy good pitchers while they're good.
  2. Pitching remains an unnatural action for humans.

That's about it, at least from our distance. Given everything that can go wrong, everybody involved should feel extremely fortunate when a pitching prospect can establish himself with minimal interruptions, so stop punching Gatorade coolers with your throwing hand.