How much will Matt Harvey pitch? Innings limit debate coming to a head

Mets star right-hander Matt Harvey may be getting close to his innings limit. Or he may not be.

It's hard to know who's right here, but one thing's for sure: The Harvey innings situation is a budding controversy and source of consternation at a time nearly everything seems right in the Mets' world.

The Mets, Harvey and agent Scott Boras are going to have to figure this out before too long, but so far they can't even agree on who the disagreeing parties are. Mets GM Sandy Alderson contends he's not going to let Boras determine Harvey's innings; meanwhile, Boras says it's not him but the doctors who are making the determination to limit Harvey to 180 innings, and the doctors are the ones the Mets have no choice but to abide. If Harvey has just two starts left this year, it's hard to see how much, if any, playoff impact he might have.

"This is not a club's decision. This is a doctor's decision," Boras said. "Any club that chooses to defy a surgeon's wishes is putting the player in peril."

Alderson again suggested the Mets will skip another one of Harvey's starts, which should still leave him with at least three more regular-season starts, then allow him to pitch some more in the playoffs (but with an eye on what's reasonable and prudent). That's according to Alderson, anyway. Boras, meanwhile, says the doctors -- including Harvey's surgeon James Andrews -- are putting a 180-inning limit on Harvey, who has 166 1/3 innings already (and a 12-7 record and 2.60 ERA). That would basically mean he only has two more starts to go, playoffs included, in his first year back from Tommy John elbow surgery.

Alderson, however, contends the parties spoke before the season about protecting Harvey by having some innings limitations, and that they "see no reason to deviate from the original plan." Alderson also says that the Mets had a "soft" limit all along he felt was acceptable to all. He maintains that he has been in consultation with doctors as well.

But Boras said, "Expert opinion by medical practitioners is not a soft number. There are no soft numbers. These are medical practitioners providing opinions about when a pitcher is at risk, and when a pitcher isn't at risk."

Meantime, Alderson, who sounded exasperated by the whole debate, suggested he was floored when he received an email from Boras late last month setting what he saw as a new limit when he said the team has proceeded cautiously in terms of pitch limits (he's had no games over 115 pitches and only went over 110 pitches once) and everything has been going so smoothly. "For a guy to say to us on the 29th of August '180 innings and then you're going to shut him down ...' don't call me seven months later and tell me you're pulling the rug out from under me, not after all we've done to protect the player."

Alderson also suggests he's done debating Boras about this and sepeculates that the caution arose after Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, another Boras client, had to be sidelined with a biceps issue this year following the pitcher's return after a year off. Alderson also points out that Harvey did not pitch in a major-league game for 17 months after the surgery, which is a longer than usual time off -- though Boras said that doesn't change the innings limitations. 

As for why he didn't say something sooner, Boras said doctors don't like to set innings limits early because they want to see how the pitcher is doing and for fear of setting up false expectations. But the agent contends that it shouldn't go beyond the number of innings thrown the full year before injury.

That's why he didn't contact Alderson until Harvey was around 140 innings, when he said he let him know he would be checking with the doctors to see what was possible then. But Boras also said research shows that pitchers returning from Tommy John surgery are better off not setting personal innings records (Harvey had 178 1/3 innings in 2013), and that these limitations worked for Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, who was famously shut down for the playoffs with Washington. That controversial decision to shut Strasburg down in 2012 is still debated -- though it should be noted that Strasburg's elbow has held up after his return and he is still throwing up to 98 mph. 

Alderson, meanwhile, assumed everyone was on the same page about the innings, and suggested the difference of opinion only arose after Alderson told Harvey there was a possibility he might go slightly above what they had talked about. That's when, according to Alderson, Boras came up with the 180-inning limit. (For his part, Boras says his other consulting surgeon, Neal ElAttrache, actually recommended an even lower innings limit of 165-170). Alderson's position seems to be that he intends to keep pitching Harvey, except for one more missed start, and that they would watch him closely and take it on a "case-by-case basis" should the Mets get deep into October. Alderson said it has been his understanding that they mostly need to avoid "fatigue" or a loss of "rhythm" (that means he can't be expected to pick up and pitch after a lengthy layoff).

The GM also said that they had an approximate innings limit in mind, but he didn't name it and said that it wasn't hard and fast, anyway. "We had a soft target, and we really don't expect to go much above it,' Alderson said.

Boras counters that "there are no soft numbers" and that "this is not a negotiation."

Mets people seem to have the idea Boras has influence over the doctors, but Boras said that isn't so -- though he contended his own research does tell him pitchers returning after Tommy John surgery do better long-term with lower innings totals, naming Shaun Marcum and a few others who exceeded previous totals, and later ran into more arm trouble.

"These are doctors' opinions," Boras said. "And club officials are not determining how many innings he can pitch. Matt Harvey would love to pitch. But the surgeon who saved his career and other surgeons consulted have said that for maximum safety he is not to exceed 180 innings for the year."

Alderson conceded there may be a "slightly enhanced" risk if a pitcher goes past 180 innings, and one "doesn't need a medical degree to say that."

Both men do agree on one thing, and that is that Harvey badly wants to pitch. Alderson suggests this is all about Boras trying to limit the innings. But Boras said he has nothing to do with the number.

"This is not a dispute between between representative and player, and club. This is about a doctor providing expert medical opinion regarding the safety and well being of the player. If the club chooses to violate the ethical standard of the medical opinion, that is strictly their prerogative. I'm not a medical doctor. I don't make these things up."

Boras further suggested that no one should think this has anything to with anything other than Harvey's long-term soundness. Namely, it's not about money. Boras said, "I wish he could pitch 220 innings. It's better for him economically if he pitches 220 innings."

Harvey is next scheduled to pitch Tuesday at the Nationals, who trail the Mets by six games in the division. 

Matt Harvey, Terry Collins
How much will Matt Harvey be available to Mets manager Terry Collins down the stretch? (USATSI)
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