It feels like Hunter Harvey has been part of the Orioles organization for eternity, and in baseball terms, he pretty much has been. The 24-year-old pitcher was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, and has spent the last seven seasons bouncing around the minor leagues and appearing in alarmingly few games during that time.
As is always a concern for young pitchers, Harvey has struggled with injuries throughout his development. He missed the 2015 season with elbow tightness and then pitched in only 12.2 innings in 2016 before having Tommy John surgery. That surgery then only allowed him to pitch in 18.2 innings in 2017. He came into 2018 healthy and even earned an early-season promotion to the big leagues, although he did not appear in a game. Then he injured his shoulder while attempting to dodge a foul ball and did not pitch after June 1.
You get the idea. Harvey’s professional career reads more like a medical textbook than the story of an exciting young hurler.
Even still, Harvey entered the 2019 season with the big leagues in his sites. He was on the 40-man roster, invited to big league spring training and seemingly at 100%. To begin the year, he was sent to Double-A Bowie.
With the Baysox, Harvey continued to work almost exclusively as a starter. But the results were worrisome. Over 50 innings in a starting role, the right-hander had a 6.12 ERA, a .304 batting average against, a 1.62 WHIP and 50 strikeouts.
On June 14, Harvey made his first professional appearance out of the bullpen, a scoreless three-inning performance in which he did not allow any hits, struck out four and walked one. He would not start another game the rest of the season as he made his ascent up the Orioles organization.
Why? Well, because this is what he could do in relief:
Over nine innings of relief for the Baysox, Harvey had a .039 batting average against and 11 strikeouts against a spotless ERA. The performance earned him a quick promotion to Triple-A Norfolk, where his stats were not as jaw-dropping, but his performances were.
Moving from starter to reliever allowed Harvey’s stuff to play up. Rather than sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball, he began regularly flirting with triple digits. That added velocity appeared to help his splitter as well, and two really good pitches is usually enough to be a successful reliever.
Harvey tossed 16.2 innings for the Tides, all in relief. His 4.32 ERA won’t impress anyone, but his 22 strikeouts and .206 batting average against might. It was enough for the Orioles to decide he was ready to make his big league debut, which he did on August 17.
It didn’t take long for Harvey to become the latest obsession for most Orioles fans. In his debut, he struck out two hitters in one scoreless inning. In fact, he would not allow a run in his first four appearances, tossing four shutout innings and striking out seven big league hitters in the process. In total, Harvey threw 6.1 innings over seven games, allowed just one run and struck out 11 batters to go along with a .136 batting average against in his first taste of the majors.
Of course, there was some negative news. Harvey did not pitch in a game between September 2 and September 13. He was experiencing bicep soreness, which the pitcher himself called “normal stuff” at the time. But then on September 19 he was shut down for the remainder of the season due to that very same soreness.
Given Harvey’s injury history, you would be forgiven for thinking “Oh, here we go again.” But this sounds more precautionary than anything else. Harvey threw 82 innings this season between the minors and majors after throwing just 63.2 in total between 2015 and 2018. That’s a big jump, and it’s understandable if he is simply just sore.
Harvey’s performance out of the bullpen puts him firmly in the major league discussion heading into 2020. What happens to him really depends on what the Orioles feel is the best decision for his development. It’s important to keep in mind that Harvey is likely still an unfinished product. Sure, he’s 24 years old and spent parts of seven season in minor league baseball, but he only has 258.2 innings of professional baseball to his name. There is the chance that he could get even better.
But that begs the question: starter or reliever?
There are some out there that still believe Harvey could be a steady starting option, although the chances of him ever becoming an ace who delivers 200 innings per season are likely slim to none. On the other hand, there is tangible evidence to suggest that the flame-thrower is a weapon in relief and could begin pitching in high-leverage stations immediately. At the same time, it may be easier to keep him healthy out of the bullpen.
That is for the Orioles to decide. If they do want to put him back into a starting role, then it could be back to Norfolk to begin 2020. If they feel he is going to be a reliever, then he is probably going to stay in the bigs. For my money, you keep him in the ‘pen. Back-of-the-rotation arms with injury problems are a dime a dozen Truly electric relief arms are harder to find.
Whatever the decision ends up being, Harvey may have already achieved the honor of being the most exciting thing about the Orioles in 2019. His 6.1 innings were must-watch TV for fans that stuck out the team’s 54-win season. Hopefully it becomes a much more common scene at Camden Yards in the future.