- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
LOS ANGELES -- The last month has been the best of this season for Matt Harvey, as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. Earlier in the year, his command sometimes eluded him, but in August, Harvey has surrendered only two walks, with 24 strikeouts, and just 15 hits allowed in 27 innings. He's made four starts and allowed just one run, lowering his ERA to 2.48.
Harvey is back to throwing the way he did in 2013, before he hurt his elbow, and he is the Mets' best pitcher at the moment, in how he is throwing.
But there is this looming problem.
Harvey has only a handful of innings remaining under the number prescribed by surgeons -- 180. Harvey has thrown 160 this season, with four weeks remaining in the regular season and the month of October to come. What happens next is unclear.
For the Washington Nationals, there was no fudging with the numbers. Stephen Strasburg -- who, like Harvey, is represented by agent Scott Boras -- was shut down when he reached his prescribed number of 160 innings in 2012 (159 1/3 innings, to be precise). That decision was debated throughout the industry that summer and even since, with some teams back-loading the innings of young pitchers later into the season specifically to avoid the Strasburg quandary late in the season. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo explained his decision with Strasburg and has continued to stand by it, saying, in so many words, that he couldn't possibly work against the advice of the best people in the medical field.
The Mets pitched Harvey from the outset of the season, and now they could be bumping against the recommended innings limits very soon, amid a lot of unanswered questions:
1. How will Harvey handle this? He could continue to ask for the ball and eschew the advice of the doctors.
2. What will the Mets do? Harvey can ask for the ball, but will the Mets give it to him? Will they defer to the medical recommendations, or will they be OK in having Harvey pitch past the prescribed innings limits, in the name of trying to win ballgames?
3. With the Mets in a strong position to make the playoffs, how will they use the innings that remain for him? Will they sit him down for an extended period of time leading to the postseason?
If the Mets' medical staff and front office intends to abide by the 180-inning limit for Harvey, there would be an argument to be made to shut down the right-hander right now -- when the team has a 5½ game lead -- before ramping him back up for a start or two at the end of the regular season. That way, Harvey could get some needed work for refinement, and have some innings left for the postseason, when he probably would start two or three games.
4. If the Mets decide to pull the reins back on Harvey, whether in limiting his innings before the postseason or in shutting him down entirely, will general manager Sandy Alderson protect the pitcher from public scrutiny the way that Rizzo protected Strasburg by taking full responsibility for the choices?
Because if and when this all goes down, this is going to be an enormous story in New York, no matter how the Mets handle it, and the pitcher could face tremendous scrutiny.
There have been examples, of course, of pitchers compiling huge innings totals as they helped their team into and through the postseason, like last year, when Madison Bumgarner threw about twice as many innings as any other pitcher in October in the Giants' championship run. Cole Hamels increased his innings total from 190 in 2007 to 262 1/3 in 2008 (regular season and postseason included).
But neither Bumgarner nor Hamels was coming back from Tommy John surgery and still working through rehabilitation from an elbow injury, as Harvey is in 2015.
It's a situation worth watching.
Lefty-hitting Rizzo now adept at hitting lefties
6dJeff Banister, Special to ESPN.com
7dBrayan Pena, Special to ESPN.com
10dMatt Buschmann, Special to ESPN.com
11dA.J. Ellis, Special for ESPN.com
12dRob Manfred, Special to ESPN.com
12dSean Doolittle, Special to ESPN.com