Move over, Doc and Tom Terrific: Harvey is fastest-starting Mets ace ever
With every dazzling start, Matt Harvey continues to write his way into Mets history, evoking lofty comparisons to dominant pitchers from their past such as Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden — one a Hall of Famer, the other a pitcher who clearly had the talent to get there before taking a wrong turn. In his first 17 major league starts, Harvey has actually outpitched both, as well as every other name of note in the Metropolitans annals.
Since their inception in 1962, 24 Mets pitchers have thrown at least 85 innings in their first 17 major league appearances (an average of five per game). Of those pitchers, Harvey has the lowest ERA (2.07) by more than half a run, and what’s more, he’s done it in a much higher-scoring era than his closest competition, making that accomplishment all the more impressive. Here’s a look at the top 15, with a couple other notables past and present added to the list for comparison:
|9||Bobby J. Jones||1993-1994||3.24||111.0||0.6||3.5||5.1|
|10||Jae Weong Seo||2002-2003||3.32||97.7||0.5||1.8||4.7|
That list tells a story about the foundation of the Mets’ first three pennant-winners (1969, 1973, 1986) and two world champions (1969 and 1986), all of which owed much to their young, homegrown pitching. Each of those three staffs featured at least one pitcher who won NL Rookie of the Year honors thanks in part to the stretches reflected above.
Seaver, Koosman, Gentry, McAndrew and Ryan were all part of the Miracle Mets team that improved from 73 wins in ’68 to 100 wins in ’69 and then beat the Orioles in the World Series, part of a staff so stacked that the latter worked mostly out of the bullpen and was limited to spot starting duty. “Tom Terrific” was the staff ace, and the Mets literally won him in a lottery. Initially drafted out of the University of Southern California by the Dodgers in the 10th round of the inaugural amateur draft in 1965, his contract demands were too rich for their tastes. He was chosen again by the Braves in the secondary phase of the 1966 draft (for players who had already been through the draft once), and while he reached an agreement, his contract was voided when it was discovered that USC had played exhibitions in that season; MLB rules prevent a collegiate player from being signed once his team’s season has begun. Three teams willing to match the Braves’ $40,000 offer were entered into a lottery, and the Mets won.
After a year in Triple-A, Seaver was in the majors to stay, and won Rookie of the Year honors in part on the strength of the stretch above; note that despite his success and his future racking up the K’s, (3,640 in his career, to go with 311 wins) he was actually well below the league average of 5.8 per nine in that early stretch. He won Cy Youngs in 1969, 1973 and 1975, all with the Mets, and stuck around Queens until a controversial mid-1977 trade to the Reds.
The left-handed Koosman was signed as an amateur in 1964, the year before the draft started, and he debuted on April 14, 1967, the day after Seaver had done so; the duo pitched the second and third games of the year for a team that would go just 61-101, which still rated as the second-best season of the team’s first six. Koosman didn’t click as a rookie as quickly as Seaver did; he was back in the minors by mid-May but would return for good in September and go on to a 19-year career featuring 222 wins and 2,556 strikeouts himself.
Gentry was a third-round draft pick out of Arizona State who debuted in 1969; he was the third starter in their postseason rotation behind Seaver and Koosman, and tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings against the Orioles in the World Series. He lasted seven years in the majors but fell off markedly after his first three, and was traded to Atlanta in November 1972. McAndrew, an 11th round 1965 draft pick, got off to a strong start with the 1968 Mets and made 21 starts for the 1969 team, the same number as veteran Don Cardwell. McAndrew stuck around the Mets through 1973, albeit with diminishing returns.
As for Ryan, a 12th round 1965 draft pick, he debuted as a raw 19-year-old in September 1966, but he made just two appearances that year, and didn’t pitch at all in the majors in 1967, mainly due to service in the Army Reserve. Hampered by control problems reflected in that gaudy walk rate, he would spend each of the next four years trying to get a foothold in the Mets’ rotation, topping 150 innings and making more than 20 starts in a year only in 1971, and it wasn’t until he was traded to the Angels that December that he would become a star and, eventually, a Hall of Famer with 324 wins and a still-standing record of 5,714 strikeouts.
Matlack, the fourth overall pick of the 1967 draft, was a key part of the 1973 rotation alongside Seaver and Koosman. He debuted in mid-1971, and the next year began emerging as one of the league’s best young lefties, winning Rookie of the Year honors with a 15-10 record and 2.32 ERA. In the 1973 postseason, he threw a two-hit shutout in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Reds, and started Games 1, 4 and 7 in the World Series; he didn’t allow an earned run in 14 innings in the first two turns, but was chased after allowing four runs in 2 2/3 in the finale. The Mets traded him to the Rangers after the 1977 season; in all, he pitched 13 years in the majors and won 125 games.
Gooden, Darling, Fernandez and Aguilera were four of the five starters on the 1986 Mets, a Davey Johnson-piloted team that won 108 games before eking out tough series wins against the Astros in the NLCS and Red Sox in the World Series. The fifth pick of the 1982 draft, Gooden debuted as a 19-year-old in 1984 and earned Rookie of the Year honors with a 17-9 record and 276 strikeouts in 218 innings, just over half of which are reflected in the stretch above. Note that his strikeout rate was not only higher than Harvey’s during his initial stretch, it was nearly double the league mark of 5.6 per nine, whereas now it’s 7.5 per nine. In 1985, Gooden turned in one of the best seasons of the past 30 years, winning the NL Cy Young and the Pitchers’ Triple Crown with 24 wins, a 1.53 ERA — the lowest mark since the mound was lowered in 1969 — and 268 strikeouts. By 1986, though, he had leveled off, and his off-field problems with cocaine had begun. He would continue to battle those demons throughout a 16-year career in which he nonetheless notched 194 wins and hurled a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1996 amid a compelling comeback.
Darling, the ninth pick of the 1981 draft by the Rangers, was traded to the Mets the following April in a deal that sent the popular Lee Mazzilli to Texas. He debuted in September 1983, put up a 12-9 record with a 3.81 ERA in 1984, and went on to a 13-year career with 136 wins; today he’s one of the analysts in the SNY booth calling Mets games and marveling at Harvey. Fernandez, a third-round 1981 pick by the Dodgers, had already made his debut with two appearances for L.A. in 1983 before being traded to the Mets that December; he entered the rotation in mid-July the following year and pitched well before tiring late in the season. He stuck around the Mets through 1993, and wound up winning 114 games in a 15-year career that ended in 1997. Aguilera, a third-round 1983 pick out of Brigham Young University, debuted in June 1985 and went 10-7 with a 3.24 ERA in 21 appearances (19 starts), most of which are reflected above. He served primarily as a starter with the Mets through mid-1987, but elbow problems forced him to the bullpen. Traded to the Twins in 1989, he emerged as as an All-Star caliber closer who wound up notching 318 saves in his 16-year career.
The strong start to Harvey’s career eclipses all of those young Mets, but interestingly enough, one of his current rotation-mates ranks high on the list as well. Dillon Gee, a 21st-round draft pick out of Texas-Arlington in 2007, he debuted in September 2010 and put up a 2.18 ERA in five starts totaling 33 innings. After starting the following year in the minors, he rejoined the team in mid-April, and pitched very well through mid-June, right up to the end of the stint reflected above. Alas, he was roughed up the rest of the way, and wound up with a 4.43 ERA that year, and while he’s shown occasioal promise since then, he has persisted mainly as a back-rotation type, with a career 4.26 ERA.
Now, the question for Mets fans is when does Zack Wheeler get his chance to join this list?