It was a Mets season that began with, and briefly threatened to founder upon, questions of how many innings Matt Harvey would be allowed to throw, and for how many innings he’d be able to be effective. In the end, Harvey threw 216 innings—the most ever for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery—and on the whole he was very, very good. The final eight of those innings were great: eight innings of dominant, nine-strikeout, four-hit ball to preserve a slim lead and keep his team alive in the face of elimination. Unfortunately for the Mets, Matt Harvey didn’t throw just eight innings. He went eight-plus.
To be perfectly clear: the Mets did not lose Game 5 or the World Series because Terry Collins decided to let Harvey start the ninth. The Mets lost—more accurately, the Royals won—for a host of reasons, including New York’s penchant for poorly timed errors, and an inability to scratch out more than four hits over 12 innings, and Kansas City’s freakish late-game hitting. (Seriously, stats like this and this are insane, and have to be at least as aberrative as they are indicative.)
Harvey was rolling. He had retired six straight, thrown just nine pitches in the eighth, and was sitting on 102 pitches. Citi Field was throbbing, and promised to throb harder if Harvey returned for the ninth. Jeurys Familia had appeared in two straight games. Everything, heart and brain, said that as good a closer as Familia is and can be, no pitcher in the world at that moment was a better option than Harvey.
Harvey said it too. In the dugout in the eighth, as the crowd chanted “We Want Harvey” (Mets fans may be suffering some collective guilt this morning), cameras caught Harvey firmly telling pitching coach Dan Warthen “no way.” You knew what the question had been.
Harvey hadn’t pitched a complete game since 2013, a few weeks before he ripped apart his UCL. But he said he felt as great as he ever had: “I felt like my mechanics, everything was right where I wanted it to be...In this situation I wanted the ball.” So he sought out manager Terry Collins.
Afterward, Collins said Harvey had told him, “I want this game. I want it bad. You’ve got to leave me in.” Collins pushed back:
“I said, ‘Matt, you’ve got us exactly where we wanted to get.’ He said, ‘I want this game in the worst way.’”
Collins acquiesced, and right then and there, left the evaluation of one of the bigger decisions he’ll ever make in the hands of the fates. The compartmentalization of baseball gives hindsight so much strength, and it felt odd, as a viewer, knowing in the moment that history would look back on his choice almost entirely through the lens of an outcome that hadn’t yet happened. The ante hoc calculus brutally simple, as Harvey ran out to the mound for the ninth: Collins’s call, already made, would only have been the correct one if Harvey won the game. The probabilities would be discarded in favor of short-term statistical noise.
Harvey allowed two straight baserunners, something that happens to the best of pitchers in the best of times, and that was that. Collins’s decision had been “proven” the wrong one.
I find it hard to find immediate fault with the decision to leave Harvey in, even if reasonable people can, have, and will disagree. But I take major issue with two aspects of how he implemented it. The first can be found in the quote that’s probably going to follow Collins to his grave. On being swayed by Harvey’s plea to stay in the game:
“I let my heart get in the way of my gut. I love my players. And I trust them. ... And it didn’t work. It was my fault.”
You’re the manager. You’re the boss. If you want to stick with your starter, do it. If you want to go to your closer, do it. But it’s your call. Collins is hinting that he was swayed, or at least allowed Harvey’s protestations to serve as the tiebreaker. That’s not good. Make your decisions based on what you believe to be best, and don’t get caught up by excitement or placating insistent players. If Collins were able to own this ultimately fatal decision, if it were one made by cold and calculating strategy that simply didn’t work out, that’s a million times less embarrassing than admitting that he didn’t intend to make it until he was swayed by emotion.
Collins’s second error was his plan after he did go back to Harvey:
“If you’re going to let him just face one guy, you shouldn’t have sent him out there,” Collins said about the decision not to lift Harvey after the leadoff walk. “When the double [was] hit, that’s when I said, ‘I’ve got to see if we can get out of this with only one run.’ And it didn’t work. It was my fault.”
The standard, when semi-reluctantly giving your starter the ninth, is to keep a tight leash. Put a man on, bring up the tying run, you’re done. Not so for Collins. His logic—if you’re going to trust a guy, trust him—doesn’t wash. A manager ought to be looking for any sign of slippage. Do his pitches still have the same pop, the same break? Is the other team figuring something out the fourth time through the order? There would have been no shame in removing Harvey after Lorenzo Cain worked a leadoff walk—traditionally the definitive sign a pitcher might be losing the strike zone, and may desperately try to get it back by serving up a meatball to the next guy—and Harvey would have understood or had to deal with it. Instead, Familia came on with the tying run already in scoring position. He was great—he got three straight ground balls—but Harvey had been left in long enough to do all the damage necessary.
In the end, and with all the benefits of posteriority, I think Terry Collins made the right decision to leave Matt Harvey in the game. I think he made it for the wrong reasons, and I think he didn’t have a good exit plan. And I think all of this will be endlessly debated, and that there is no right or wrong answer—only the facts of what happened, and that Harvey and Collins will have to live with those decisions on a level that’s far more painful than the fun little thought exercise it’ll be for the rest of us.