Matt Harvey vs. Stephen Strasburg: Which Phenom Will Have Better MLB Career?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 19, 2013

Looking for a fun way to spend your Friday night?

No, this isn't some late-night ad geared toward singles on the prowl, it's a plug to make sure you don't miss perhaps the marquee pitching matchup of the 2013 season so far: Stephen Strasburg versus Matt Harvey.

Strasburg has received no shortage of pub over the years. He entered this season as a Cy Young favorite and was recently ranked as the game's fourth-best pitcher by Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter. Harvey, meanwhile, has snuck up on the sport in some ways, even among baseball experts like ESPN's Keith Law.

Law had this to say about Harvey's lights-out stuff in his big league debut last July:

I've never seen Harvey throw this hard or with a slider this sharp, so he may have just been amped up for his first big league start, but if this is the "new" Matt Harvey, Mets fans should be even more excited than they were before.

Strasburg and Harvey actually share quite a few qualities. 

Both are big, hard-throwing right-handers, both are 24 years old and both are former first-round picks, with Harvey going seventh overall to the Mets a year after Strasburg was the top selection in the 2009 draft by the Nationals.

In this breakdown comparing Strasburg to other young flamethrowers, sure enough, Harvey's name was in the mix. The Mets breakout star was dismissed, though, because he's only made 13 starts to date. 

With a two-start stretch that garnered him NL Player of the Week honors, it might be time to reconsider. As we head into Friday night's showdown, let's compare the first 13 starts of each pitcher's career:

Talk about your lucky number 13, huh?

Strasburg edges Harvey five categories to four, but many of the numbers are so close the disparity is practically negligible, especially when we're dealing with a small sample size. Plus, we all know wins and losses shouldn't really be pitcher stats, right? In which case it's a draw: four to four.

What's interesting is that while both pitchers have extremely similar WHIPs, how they limit base runners differs. Through his first 13 starts, Harvey has given up nearly two fewer hits per nine innings than Strasburg did, but he's also walked almost one-and-a-half more per nine.

That brings up the question of whether it's better to be less hittable but more walk-prone (the Harvey profile) or more-hittable but less walk-prone (the Strasburg profile).

One way to figure that out is to take a look at an underlying metric called batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

The league-average BABIP typically settles in around the .295 to .300 range, per FanGraphs.

Generally speaking, a pitcher who sports a BABIP much higher than that (say, .330 or above) is usually getting unlucky because balls are falling for hits; whereas a BABIP lower than that (say, .260 or below) usually spells good fortune and fewer dinky base knocks.

Looking at Strasburg and Harvey's numbers, it's immediately clear that of the two, the baseball gods have been kinder to Harvey so far.

To wit, Harvey owns a .228 BABIP—the lowest among active starting pitchers with at least 80 innings since the start of 2012—which is unsustainably low.

Strasburg, on the other hand, has a .304 career BABIP, which is just about on par with the league average.

In other words, while Harvey has the sparkly sub-1.00 WHIP right now, that's come in large part on the basis of allowing merely 48 hits in his first 81.1 innings (that's the 5.31 H/9 in the table above). By the law of averages, that simply won't continue.

As Harvey's BABIP and then hit rate begin to normalize, we'll see a dip in performance. That said, with Harvey's mid-to-upper-90s fastball and killer slider, it might not be much of a drop-off. 

Unfortunately, that is out of his hands to a certain extent. What he can control, though, is, well, his control.

After all, if Harvey is eventually going to start surrendering more hits, then the best way to counteract that and continue to limit baserunners is to walk fewer batters.

This is where Strasburg is better, as the Nats ace has a walk percentage (walks per plate appearance) of 6.6 percent in his MLB career and was a bit better than that in about 75 innings in the minors (5.5 percent).

After posting a walk percentage of 9.1 percent in nearly 250 minor-league innings, Harvey's is only slightly worse in the bigs at 10.0 percent—still good, but not elite. The average MLB walk percentage, per FanGraphs, is about 8.4 percent.

What is promising, though, is Harvey's walk percentage has dropped from 10.6 percent as a rookie to 8.0 percent so far this season. It's a small sample, but if Harvey can keep that up, it might be his best path to hanging with Strasburg, whose blend of strikeout stuff and top-of-the-line command is what makes him so special.

But enough with the stats, right? When it comes to these two incredible young arms, both should be a heck of a lot of fun to actually watch as they face each other in the NL East for years to come.

Starting on Friday night.


All statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


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