For years, in lieu of some lame office picnic or team building exercise, the owners of the company that employs me has held our annual employee outing at the race track in Del Mar. The food and drinks are on the bosses. The gambling is not.
Free agency seems a lot like betting on horses. You pick your horse, put your money down, and see what happens. Sometimes you boom (Braves with Anibal Sanchez last year) sometimes you bust (Zack Cozart last year), and you never know how it is going to go.
Betting on favorites is a fairly safe, yet extremely boring endeavor. If you want to come home with a decent bundle of winnings, you have to hit on some long shots. But taking all long shots is a recipe to come home broke. One key is knowing which races to take the favorite, and which races to go boom or bust.
In signing Matt Harvey, Billy Eppler is clearly taking a long shot for the rotation. The fun part is trying to figure out why. Here’s my completely un-provable hypothesis:
Matt Harvey had an illustrious start to his career before injuries mounted and derailed him in his mid 20s. Tommy John, thoracic outlet syndrome, surgeries, he’s had it all. He appeared to be on the way to the glue factory for quite a while, but he’s still only 29 years old and those injuries are getting further and further in the rear view mirror.
In his most recent stint in Cincinnati, Harvey struck out 111 hitters while walking only 24 across 128 innings, his best numbers since his surgeries. He’s trending up, which is not common for a free agent (and about the only way to go after his disastrous 2017).
Harvey would be far from the first athlete to need 2-3 years to get back to peak form. And, at his age, something near peak form is still a possibility. He might have another good lap in him.
The second tier or free agent pitchers isn’t full of upside. Gio Gonzales, Derek Holland, and company have a solid floor that is also pretty much their ceiling. In a race without a true favorite, it makes sense to play for a bigger payout.
The Angels desperately need to add upside to a rotation lacking Shohei Ohtani, Garret Richards, or any semblance of an ace. In fact, the rotation as constructed looks to lack a clear 2. Harvey probably won’t reach that level, but he’s about the only guy in the second tier with potential to do so.
As usual, Fangraphs wrote a great article. This one focuses on Matt Harvey of 2018 vs. Matt Harvey of his dominant 2015 days. The synopsis is that while Harvey’s average fastball has dropped from a lofty 96.5 to a still good 94.8, his spin rate has plummeted from being among the best in baseball to below average.
Conveniently, the Angels have hired one of the Houston Astros gurus of spin rates as well as some outside of baseball gurus of spin rates. I think this signing shows Eppler has a lot of trust in his new staff. In fact, it might be as big of a bet on them as it is on Harvey.
Billy walked up to the betting window and plopped down a whopping $11 million, more than I would have estimated. But he did so only after getting the cheat sheets from the guys outside the track, taking a look at the other horses in the stable, then chatting with some trainers.
This is a different bet than Bud Norris and Blake Parker. The stakes are higher in both the potential damage and potential payoff.
Long shots are long shots for a reason, and Harvey definitely has bust potential. Just like with every long shot, it is easier to bet against Harvey than on him.
But if we want the Angels to actually compete in 2019, Eppler is going to have to take some gambles that pay off and there’s not much better than seeing your long shot in the lead pack around the final turn.
Now it is time to see if Harvey wins, places, shows, or is put out to pasture.