Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/18/14
Matt Harvey didn’t throw a no-hitter against the Braves on Tuesday, but he did almost do that, not allowing a hit until the bottom of the seventh. It’s not that Harvey relied entirely on the strikeout — of the batters he faced, 13 didn’t whiff. But then, of the batters he faced, 13 did whiff, and Harvey’s season rate is verging on 30%. Matt Harvey was already good a year ago. Since then he’s only induced more grounders and cut his walk rate in half. Harvey, at this point, is in the argument for being the most valuable young pitcher in all of baseball. Against the Braves, Harvey registered 15 swinging strikes on secondary stuff, which is outstanding. Yet he also picked up eight whiffs on his heater, which is kind of par for the Harvey course. No other starter’s fastball has led to so many swinging strikes, as Harvey can just be completely overwhelming. Instead of just using his fastball as a foundation, Harvey uses it also as a weapon, which is a rare gift. To have a swing-and-miss fastball is to have one hell of an advantage, and though fastballs tend to get slower over time, for now, at least, Harvey’s elite. Every Friday, here, I write about the week’s wildest pitches and the week’s wildest swings. The latter are the swings at the pitches furthest from the center of the strike zone, and they’re almost always whiffs, for reasons self-evident. Those swings are evidence of batters getting tricked. They’re just about always wild swings at offspeed pitches outside or in the dirt. I thought I’d do something similar with Matt Harvey, except the opposite. I thought I’d isolate whiffs at fastballs that were the closest to the center of the strike zone. Essentially, I isolated fastballs that were grooved, but cut on and missed anyway. What’s more overpowering than a swing-and-miss fastball in the very middle of the zone? What makes for a better show of dominance? Every pitcher, of course, will occasionally get a whiff at a grooved heater. That’s just the nature of probability. But Matt Harvey possesses a special heater, and here comes a top-five list. These are the five Harvey whiffs at fastballs closest to the middle of the zone, so far in 2013: 5 Batter: Pedro Alvarez Date: May 12 Location: 3.6 inches from center of zone Everybody has a different strategy when it comes to first-pitch swinging. The general rule of thumb, though, is that you should swing only at pitches you think you can handle, pitches in hittable places. The first pitch of an at-bat is no time to be over-aggressive, because there’s a whole rest of the at-bat left to go. Some people go up just looking dead red, and “dead red” is a baseball term for “fastball down the middle.” If you’re swinging at a first pitch, or if you’re swinging in a hitter-friendly count, what you’d like, ideally, as a hitter, is a fastball down the middle. Alvarez swung at a fastball down the middle from Matt Harvey. He swung right through it. In a sense, the idea was good, because it was a grooved fastball. But then, how hittable is a grooved Harvey fastball? 4 Batter: Jordan Schafer Date: June 18 Location: 3.1 inches from center of zone Same principle. First pitch, this time with a runner on. Schafer is no stranger to first-pitch swinging, and while that’s gotten him in trouble in the past, there’s nothing wrong with swinging at a first-pitch fastball over the heart of the plate, since you might not see a better pitch. That’s kind of part of the problem with facing Matt Harvey. Sure, you might not see a better pitch than a fastball down the middle. But that doesn’t make that a mashable fastball. It’s still a Matt Harvey fastball. It’s just that other pitches might be even more difficult. Schafer took a big hack and cut right under the baseball. 3 Batter: Jordan Schafer Date: June 18 Location: 3.1 inches from center of zone Well wouldn’t you know it, but this happened to Jordan Schafer twice in consecutive plate appearances on Tuesday. In the first inning, Schafer swung through a different centered fastball, although this one came in an 0-and-1 count. Look at John Buck. Harvey, at this point, had the count in his favor. This was more or less the pitch that Buck wanted. This was a fastball over the middle of the plate. That’s how much confidence the Mets have in this pitch, and justifiably so. Schafer couldn’t catch up. 2 Batter: Ezequiel Carrera Date: April 8 Location: 3.0 inches from center of zone Again, Harvey’s ahead. This time, it was a 1-and-2 count, and John Buck called for a fastball just about in the middle of the strike zone. Harvey threw a fastball just about in the middle of the strike zone, and Ezequiel Carrera swung and went away. The first two strikes of this at-bat involved Carrera swinging through consecutive Harvey fastballs. Harvey and Buck had a clue that Carrera couldn’t catch up, and so Harvey went right after him with two strikes. That’s a ballsy challenge, if diminished slightly by the fact that the score was 7-1. 1 Batter: Carlos Quentin Date: April 3 Location: 1.3 inches from center of zone When you’re behind in the count, you don’t know if you’re going to see a fastball or something offspeed, which can give a good fastball something of an advantage. On the first pitch of an at-bat, you don’t necessarily want to be too aggressive, because you know you might see more and better pitches later. Here, the count was 3-and-1. Carlos Quentin is a good hitter, and he must’ve known he was probably going to see a fastball for a strike. That’s a classic fastball count, a classic hitter-friendly count, and plus the score was 8-0 so Harvey had little to lose by coming over the middle. With Quentin knowing what was coming, Harvey grooved a pitch at 93 miles per hour. Quentin swung right through it, despite everything. He seemed late, and he wound up off balance. That is, basically, a .gif of Carlos Quentin getting overpowered by Matt Harvey’s fastball. He couldn’t have asked for a better pitch in a better spot in a better count, and he couldn’t hit it. That’s not unimpressive. Matt Harvey isn’t the only pitcher in baseball with an overpowering and overwhelming heater. He isn’t the only pitcher in baseball to rack up a ton of strikeouts, and he isn’t the only pitcher in baseball to pitch like an ace. Many pitchers get swinging strikes on fastballs over the plate, at least some of the time. But few make a habit of it quite like Harvey does, and that’s one of the reasons why Harvey’s the real deal.
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