New York Mets stud pitcher Matt Harvey has become all the rage in Major League Baseball over the last 12 months since debuting on July 26, 2012. His starts have become events on Twitter, leading to inevitable comparisons to some of the best young right-handed pitchers in baseball history.
Roger Clemens, for whatever fans and media might think of him now, was the gold standard by which right-handed pitching was measured for many years. Before Justin Verlander in 2011, the Rocket was the last pitcher to win an MVP award (1986) and won a record seven Cy Young Awards in his career.
But rather than try to project Harvey's career relative to Clemens', because there are so many things that can and often do go wrong with pitchers in a hurry, I want to look at similarities and differences between the two at the same point in their respective careers.
The parameters for the comparison are straightforward, though I will be looking at it in two different ways.
Since his debut nearly one year to the day, Harvey has made 30 starts. I will put Harvey's numbers up against Clemens after his first 30 starts with the Boston Red Sox in 1984-85.
The second way I will evaluate their careers is based on age. Harvey debuted at the age of 23 and is pitching the 2013 season at age 24. Since Clemens debuted at an earlier age—he was 21 when the Red Sox called him up—we will compare 30 starts he made from July 30, 1986 through July 1, 1987.
Doing so gives us an idea of where both pitchers stood at the time of their call-up, but looking at where they were at the same age puts them on a somewhat similar plane. You wouldn't judge what a 19-year-old rookie did against a 28-year-old superstar.
Wins and losses are always fun to look at because they don't really tell you much about how a pitcher threw. They just give you a gauge of whether one team was able to provide enough run support for its starter.
However, considering what the Mets' lineup looks like, the fact that Harvey has been able to post an 11-7 record in his first 30 starts is quite an achievement.
Clemens' record was helped by the fact he played on good Red Sox teams in his early years.
The numbers skew wildly in favor of Harvey through 30 starts when you look at ERA, strikeouts and batting average against. He is averaging 10.41 strikeouts per nine innings, compared to Clemens' average of 8.24, which is a very good number but not in the same league as Harvey.
Diving deeper into the numbers, Harvey's fielding independent ERA, which factors in the things a pitcher has direct control over and doesn't penalize or reward him for the caliber of defense behind him, Harvey has a career mark of 2.44.
In contrast, Clemens' FIP was at 2.88 after his first 30 starts. That is a wide margin compared to his 4.14 ERA, putting him alongside Nolan Ryan and Fernando Valenzuela, who were third and fourth in that category, respectively. Clemens didn't have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in either season, so we don't know if he would have kept up that pace.
But given Clemens' knack for striking hitters out and the rapid career trajectory he had starting in 1986, it stands to reason that he may have been able to maintain those numbers.
Comparing Age 23 and 24 Seasons (30 Starts)
Given what we know about how pitchers are managed today, the fact that Clemens threw 11 complete games and 26 more innings than Harvey at the same age in their careers should not come as a shock.
Harvey has had more than a few games he could have finished if the Mets wanted to let him go out there. He has thrown nine innings once, on May 7 against Chicago, and allowed just one hit with 12 strikeouts. But the Mets didn't score until the 10th inning, so Harvey wasn't credited with a win (more proof that wins and losses tell us nothing) or a complete game.
Despite Clemens being regarded as a strikeout pitcher throughout his career, Harvey continues to dominate him in that category though their respective age 23 and 24 seasons.
However, there are a few factors working in Harvey's favor. First, pitching in the National League, with pitchers still being forced to bat, elevates strikeout totals in ways that the designated hitter doesn't allow.
Second, the respective eras in which Harvey and Clemens pitched are very different. During 1986 and 1987, the average team in the AL scored 4.75 runs per game. Clemens' 3.08 ERA during that time was nearly 65 percent lower than that total.
By contrast, Harvey's 2.38 ERA comes at a time when the average National League team is scoring 4.15 runs per game. His ERA is 57 percent lower than the average. That's still a very good total, but not nearly as good as Clemens'.
Harvey's career FIP is actually higher than his ERA (2.44, though it is a microscopic 2.07 this season), but he doesn't close the gap that Clemens had with ERA since the latter had a 3.07 FIP during his 30 starts at the same age.
Looking at ERA+, Harvey's career mark is currently at 155. That is an incredible number that puts him 55 percent better than the average pitcher in baseball. Clemens' mark in 1986 was an astounding 169, and he followed that up with a 154 total in 1987.
To split up Harvey's ERA+ by season, he is close to Clemens' 1986 season with a 162 mark in 2013, but doesn't quite match the former Cy Young winner.
Everyone has a different definition of value, which is what makes the MVP races in baseball so compelling. Few people would argue that Mike Trout was the best player in the American League last season, but because Miguel Cabrera won the traditional Triple Crown for a team that made the playoffs, he won the award.
Applying that voter logic to this Harvey-Clemens debate, very few would argue that Clemens was the more "valuable" pitcher because he won more games and did it for a team that, at least in 1986, made the postseason.
It would be interesting to see this debate happen over the Cy Young award, since voters have no problem giving it to a pitcher whose team doesn't make the playoffs.
But that said, the best measure we have to put all the stats I have presented (and many more used to evaluate value) in perspective is wins above replacement.
Harvey has racked up 5.8 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, and 6.5 using Baseball-Reference. Since there are still two months left this season, I have to project Harvey's WAR, rounding the WAR totals out to 7.7 (Fangraphs) and 8.4 (Baseball Reference).
By the same token, Clemens' Baseball-Reference WAR after his first two seasons in 1984 and 1985 was 4.6. It is a respectable total, but also doesn't come close to matching the 18.3 wins (Baseball Reference) and 16.8 (Fangraphs) he added during the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
The huge difference comes from Clemens pitching in a tougher league and throwing more innings.
The Survey Says...
Harvey is doing a lot of great things on the mound. Unlike Clemens, who had a few starts even in his stellar 1986 season that lasted fewer than five innings, Harvey has never really had a bad start. There have been a few rough spots here and there, but nothing that lasted from start to start.
However, despite all his success and possible Cy Young victory this season, Harvey has a lot of work to do before he can be put on the Roger Clemens path, at least if you are judging them at the same age.
Harvey was more valuable than Clemens when both were rookies, but when you put their same-age seasons up against each other, it really is advantage Clemens. That isn't to say Harvey won't get to the level Clemens was at during his peak—though I would hesitate to say that he will, because Clemens' peak was among the best for any starting pitcher in history.
Still, for a franchise like the Mets to know that their future at the top of the rotation is secured for at least the next five years is a lot more than most teams can say. Harvey's stuff is as good as there is in baseball, with two 70-grade pitches (fastball, slider) as well as a much-improved curveball and changeup that he throws when he needs to but not because he has to.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.
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