How the data-driven Orioles and a New Jersey pitching facility led Matt Harvey to Baltimore

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Jon Meoli, The Baltimore Sun
·5 min read
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Shortly before Matt Harvey agreed to his minor league contract with the Orioles last weekend, a video from the New Jersey training facility he worked at in the offseason outlined his goals.

At his All-Star peak, Harvey used to blow hitters away with his intimidating high-90s mph fastball. But the video posted by the Baseball Performance Center of South Jersey highlighted the veteran’s data-driven work to better learn how his pitches move and spin — and opened his eyes to how much he needed to improve.

“I just didn’t really open up to the fact that my numbers kind of sucked,” Harvey said Sunday from spring training in Sarasota, Florida. “It was, I think, a humbling experience to go up to the facility in New Jersey and kind of get numbers from whether it was high school kids that are working out there that are throwing better numbers — maybe not as hard — but better numbers up than I am, and realized that I need to take a step back and figure out how to improve things.

“Obviously, I’ve pitched in a lot of different game situations, playoff games, had some success. World Series. And I think once I get those mechanics back and numbers back, I think the experience that I do have is going to get me back to being the successful pitcher that I know I can be.”

Harvey was one of the best pitchers in baseball when he first came up with the New York Mets, though that was nearly a decade ago. As an All-Star in 2013 at age 24, he had a 2.27 ERA with a 0.931 WHIP in 26 starts, though he missed the following year with elbow surgery. He returned in 2015 with a 2.71 ERA to help the Mets reach the World Series.

Harvey has struggled since. He was traded to the the Cincinnati Reds in 2018, then signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels before moving on to the Kansas City Royals. He’s had a 5.82 ERA with a 1.504 WHIP since that World Series year in 2015, and had an 11.57 ERA with a WHIP near three in 2020 with the Royals.

But those aren’t the numbers he’s focused on anymore. Now it’s about the rise and ride on his fastballs, his release point and his spin rates.

As he weighed his options for where to pitch in 2021, Harvey said what he picked up during his week at that pitching facility in New Jersey was so eye-opening that he chose to come to the Orioles to continue learning in a data-driven environment.

“Between using the TrackMan and using those cameras that they use now, that’s obviously something that they do here pretty frequently,” Harvey said. “[Orioles pitching coach] Chris Holt has studied that very well and knows a lot about it. … It seems like they knew what I was doing wrong the last couple years. It was a good fit to try to get me back to throwing the way I did before.

“The last couple of years, I’ve had trouble kind of getting back to that, and just really searching, I guess you could say. I talked to my agent and it just seemed like a good fit and a good opportunity to get things going in spring training and have an opportunity to get back into the big leagues.”

This isn’t the first time Harvey has flirted with reinvention. He pitched in a similar program to what the Orioles will be running with the Angels, whose pitching coach at the time was Doug White. White came to the Angels from the Houston Astros, and worked with Holt there.

All of the information was available to him then, but Harvey said his elbow surgery and issues with his shoulder have changed him from being someone for whom things came naturally to a pitcher who needs to expand his horizons to be at his best.

He’s gone from fighting himself and his delivery to embracing any help he can get, saying he told the Orioles’ pitching coaches, including Holt and assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes, that he’d do “whatever you think mechanically could help me, whatever you believe needs to be done in order to get me back, because I know it’s in there.”

“Over the years of kind of bouncing around from team to team, it’s been an interesting ride,” Harvey said. “I think the whole thing is not giving up and pushing forward, and definitely keeping my ears open to options and opinions of other people, pitching coaches, trainers, different staff. I’m not saying I didn’t do that before, but now it’s definitely more something that I pay attention to and really keep my ears open to anything that’s going to help me get better and help the team win.”

Manager Brandon Hyde said Harvey was throwing his first bullpen session Sunday and they’d just had a few conversations so far. But hearing Harvey point to the Orioles’ pitching and analytics infrastructure — which was nonexistent when Hyde and executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias came to the Orioles before the 2019 season — as a reason to choose to pitch for their club was heartening.

“That’s a huge plus,” Hyde said. “I think that our guys have positive track record with pitching, and with getting pitchers better, and you saw what Holty did with our minor league system, how much our minor league system improved, even in that first year.

“Obviously, [assistant general manager Sig Mejdal] bringing over his analytic expertise and a lot of the people that he’s hired that dive into it, he has great info, and we have great people working on our analytics team. I think that’s great to hear that players want to play here and I’m hoping that continues.”