The Harvey Affair: Matt, the Mets, and Moral Hazard

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It was inevitable for several reasons that Matt Harvey’s innings limit would blow up into the weekend’s biggest story. Harvey is the biggest star in a New York baseball landscape in which Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have retired, David Wright is often injured, and Alex Rodriguez has completed his transformation into the physical manifestation of Vanth, the winged demon of the underworld from Etruscan mythology, so any news about Harvey’s ability or willingness to play is big.

Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, recently expressed concern over his client’s workload. His understanding was that Harvey, a year removed from Tommy John surgery, would throw no more than 180 innings this season. Harvey, who’s set to face the second-place Nationals tonight, has already thrown 166.1 innings with almost a month left in the season, plus the playoffs still to come.

It took mere hours for Boras’s comment to turn into a full-blown, gate-suffixed scandal, with the Mets, Boras, and the surgeon Dr. James Andrews all offering their accounts of what was promised and when, as well as whether this hypothetical innings limit was a hard number like the one imposed on Stephen Strasburg in 2012, or whether the looming and somewhat unexpected playoff run afforded some wiggle room.1

The Mets, to their credit, have been cautious this year not only with Harvey but with Noah Syndergaard as well, skipping a start here and there and going to a six-man rotation from time to time to afford all of their young pitchers an extra day of rest when they could swing it. Insofar as we have any idea how to prevent arm injuries, that’s pretty much the smart thing to do to avoid the total Strasburgeois shutdown.

But regardless of whether 180 innings was ever supposed to be a hard cap, or if it was ever supposed to become public, that number is out there now, and it will run in our minds alongside every inning that Harvey pitches for the rest of the year, like the lap counter on a NASCAR broadcast.

But don’t worry: Harvey says he’s going to pitch in the postseason.2 Or maybe you should worry, because he might not pitch very much if the Mets, who currently sit five games in front of the Nats, make it there.

Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to unpack.

The drama over Harvey's innings limit has cause the clouds to gather over Citi Field.

Elsa/Getty Images The drama over Matt Harvey’s innings limit has caused the clouds to gather over Citi Field.

My initial reaction was that Harvey ought to pitch when he’s asked until the season is over, because that’s how it works: If you’re healthy and present, you might wind up in the game. That is, I imagine, how most people see it.

But the relationship between player and team is not one of equals, and like almost every such relationship in our society, “because that’s how it works” serves as sufficient justification only if you don’t ask why that’s how it works. And if you even think about starting to pull on that thread, the whole tapestry starts to unravel.

Obviously Harvey, as Boras has expressed, feels at least some anxiety about his long-term health. If Harvey wasn’t the best pitcher in the National League in 2013, he was close to it, so if he stays healthy, he should be in line for a contract whose value runs into the multiple hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet we live in a world in which one Tommy John surgery for a pitcher is routine, but two is usually a death sentence, and Harvey’s free agency is still three full seasons away. If Harvey makes it over the line, he’ll get that contract, but if his elbow pops again — which it could at any moment — that financial future will be in severe jeopardy. There’s more at stake here for Harvey than a division title.

The issue here is what’s known as a moral hazard, which occurs when one party in a deal is well protected from the risk of failure while the other isn’t. The way things work now, teams determine pitcher usage pretty much unilaterally, while the player — and the player alone — bears the physical risk of the arrangement. The Mets certainly don’t want Harvey to get hurt, but if he does, they can always go find another pitcher. Harvey, meanwhile, has only the one throwing arm, and once it’s ruined, so, too, are his hopes of getting paid. And the five or so Wins Above Replacement a season that Harvey would provide mean a lot less to the Mets than a hypothetical $200 million contract would to Harvey.

Management gets away with this in the court of public opinion for three reasons: First is the unavoidable notion that the team is the operative unit of emotional attachment for fans. Mets fans don’t care about Harvey for his own sake — they care about him because he makes the Mets good, and most of them will stop caring once he stops making the Mets good. The only bad thing about that is that it tends to skew the balance of power toward management and away from labor.

Second is that fans tend to be unsympathetic toward players in these situations because it’s hard to feel bad for young, famous, good-looking millionaires when you’re wondering how you’re going to pay your mortgage, send your kids to college, and save up enough money to retire. Or, if you’re under 30, it’s hard to feel bad for millionaires your age when you know you’ll never be able to afford a house, kids, or retirement. The sheer amount of money involved in sports labor disputes clouds the larger moral issue.

The third reason is perhaps the single most insidious export from the culture of sports to culture at large: The idea of abnegating our own self-interest for the well-being of others is the heart of human morality. It’s how we show love for one another. But in a capitalist society, that impulse is often nothing more than an avenue for plutocrats to exploit the workers on whose shoulders — necks, really — they stand.

Sacrifice is foolish if it’s not in service of something worthwhile, and winning baseball games is not in and of itself an inherent moral good.3 Expecting Harvey to pitch without any substantial future financial guarantee, no matter the physical risk, is asking him to make such a sacrifice.

For that reason — and I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself here, but this is a really important point — we’ve got to stop treating sports like something special and start treating them like what they are: a for-profit entertainment enterprise run by a government-sponsored cartel with total control over the vast majority of its labor force.

Honestly, Harvey’s situation is pretty low-stakes in the grand scheme of things: If he gets hurt, he’ll probably retire with millions of dollars in career earnings, rather than tens or hundreds of millions. But management in real-life workplaces uses sports in the same way coaches use war — as a place of heightened intensity to appeal to when demanding more from employees. As coaches talk about “battling” and “the warrior mentality,” real-world managers talk about “leaving it all on the field” and “being a team player.” If Harvey, as a pre-arbitration pitcher with one Tommy John surgery on the books already, balks at overextending himself, it’s no different from an office worker refusing to work unpaid overtime or forego a raise “for the good of the company.”

The Mets hold a five-game lead over the Nationals thanks in part to Harvey's excellent season.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images The Mets hold a five-game lead over the Nationals thanks in part to Harvey’s excellent season.

There are, of course, ways around this. The Mets could acknowledge the risk Harvey would take by pitching (potentially) deep into October by buying an insurance policy on his arm or negotiating a contract extension to make sure he’d feel comfortable exerting himself fully without having to worry about his future. In the past, after riding an important pitcher to a championship at the player’s expense, other organizations have made him whole with a contract that honors past performance more than future value. The Cardinals did this with Chris Carpenter, as did the Giants with Tim Lincecum, and in most organizations, some sort of arbitration buyout would likely end this matter discreetly and more or less amicably. Perhaps the best example of this is the Cincinnati Bengals keeping Devon Still on their practice squad while his daughter was being treated for cancer so he could keep his health insurance.4

Unfortunately, Harvey did not have the good fortune to be drafted by such an organization. Because another sneakily nasty aspect of labor relations in baseball is that employees, if they choose to play professional baseball in North America, do not have any say in where they work, for whom they work, or what they get paid until they hit arbitration after around three years of major league service. The result is that young players, such as Harvey, get paid far less than what they’re worth.

Between his draft bonus and three and a half years of major league salary (minor league salaries are so low that they’re at best negligible and at worst abhorrent), Harvey will have made about $4.72 million in gross earnings by the end of this season. By FanGraphs’s $/WAR calculation, he’s been worth more than $83 million to the Mets so far in his career. Now, we can argue about the inexactitudes of FIP-based WAR or the theory of $/WAR itself, but the injustice in Harvey’s economic state is so egregious that rough numbers will do.

More relevant to this story is that in any other field, Harvey would’ve come out of college with the freedom to sign with an organization that was inclined to show a little more good faith, if that was something he felt was important. Instead, he was forced to work for the Wilpons, who have shown themselves to be neither particularly savvy nor particularly inclined to do right by their employees.

And because someone’s going to take issue with the word “forced” — no, nobody put Harvey in chains and literally compelled him to play for the Mets. But let’s review his other options. He could’ve given up his dream of playing in the big leagues and instead played for peanuts in independent ball or overseas. He could have given up on baseball altogether. Or he could have refused to sign and gone back to school, though if Harvey’s worried about his elbow now, he would’ve been crazy to spend another year playing for free at a program that does this to its top pitchers. So for all practical purposes, he has no choice but to play for the Mets until the end of 2018, or until they tire of him, whichever comes first.

Which brings us back around to the moral hazard of the team determining the workload while the pitcher carries the risk. Having your agent spout off about a potential wildcat strike on the eve of the playoffs is a really bad look, but what other recourse does Harvey have? Across all levels of all major sports, teams are looking to squeeze every last ounce of value out of their players, no matter the physical risks, because the onus is on the players to look after their own health.

But players are discouraged at every turn from doing just that, which is the most dangerous hypocrisy of this situation. All the stuff about money is gross and exploitative and unjust, and the longer we wait for the worldwide proletarian revolution the worse off we’ll be. But it’s just money. Physical health is something else, and again, Harvey represents a low-stakes case of a scourge that sports visits on us, on television, every week. Oregon head football coach Mark Helfrich is double-talking himself into plausible deniability over whether quarterback Vernon Adams suffered a concussion last weekend. Meanwhile, former MLS and U.S. national team forward Alecko Eskandarian made headlines with a scathing criticism of former D.C. United team doctor Robert Kurtzke, who until recently served as the neurologist for that city’s NFL team.

We’re relying on the fiction that players are empowered to trust their own bodies while those who have power over them instill a culture of toughness and ignoring weakness. Deep down, athletes know that being cautious with injury recovery, against the wishes of the team, is anathema to the ethos of high-level sports. Playing hurt is evidence of moral fortitude, while refusing to play hurt is a mortal sin. The idea that athletes have any option but to play no matter what is a fiction in the face of pitchers frequently suffering career-threatening elbow and shoulder injuries, and painkillers being passed around like sunflower seeds, and an increasingly alarming number of football players suffering depression and neurological issues before dying young.

This fiction is a spectacular act of cognitive dissonance that’s necessary for those who profit from the status quo. It’s also necessary for us, the fans and media, to consume and comment on this system and still be able to sleep at night.

But if you think for a second that it’d be an easy choice for a player to openly put his own health and long-term best interest ahead of his team’s short-term goals, look at what people are saying about Harvey now and think again. Consider that I spent the past 2,000 words making an ethical case for Harvey in particular and athletes in general, using ideas and rhetoric that veer at times into being nakedly Marxist, and if you asked me to pick a side, I’d say Harvey ought to go ahead and pitch anyway.

At this point, Matt Harvey would be best served by listening to his agent and telling the rest of us — the media, the fans, the Mets — to go to hell. Because no matter what you think of the timing or methods of this endeavor, one thing is true of Scott Boras: He has Harvey’s long-term best interest in mind. And he’s probably the only one.

Filed Under: MLB, New York Mets, Matt Harvey, Scott Boras, MLB Contracts, MLB Injuries, Tommy John, Washington Nationals, 2015 MLB Playoffs, NL East, Stephen Strasburg, Pitchers, Pitching, Sports Scandals, Baseball, Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann is a Grantland contributor and author of the book Philadelphia Phenoms: The Most Amazing Athletes to Play in the City of Brotherly Love.

Archive @ mj_baumann