New York Mets starter Noah Syndergaard has come a long way since being validated by his first major league standing ovation 10 months ago.
About 10 days before the season started, I asked the Twitterverse what the ceiling was for Syndergaard this season. The result was a mix, mostly high end (“Kershaw” was the response of a few) but with a little more conservatism (3.15 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), too.
I posed the same question after Syndergaard’s second start and the high-end assessments were even higher (“ceiling Clemens, floor Smoltz”). The conservatism was gone, replaced by superhero worship (with humorous intent, of course).
This was my favorite response:
@msimonespn literally Thor. I fully expect him to bring lightning, thunder and rain down upon his foes at some point this season.— Tejesh (@MetsProspectHub) April 16, 2016
I asked the same question about Syndergaard’s ceiling of a few people who evaluate baseball talent for a living.
“As high [as] or higher than anyone in the game,” said ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling, a former MLB fireballer.
“[His] ceiling is unlimited. Amazing talent. I wish him good health," said a longtime major league scout.
"My 2016 NL Cy Young favorite," said ESPN baseball analyst Dallas Braden, another former big league pitcher.
What has everyone so excited is not just the 99-mph power Syndergaard regularly displays -- he has thrown 36 pitches of 98.5 mph or faster in his first two starts -- but also an amazing, relatively new pitch, which some call the "Warthen Slider" (read the explainers from Eno Sarris and Jeff Sullivan) and others in the scouting world think is a cutter.
Syndergaard has thrown the pitch 45 times this season, resulting in 16 outs and only one baserunner (a soft line drive single by Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain on April 5). The offering functions as an amazing put-away pitch -- he has thrown it 23 times in two-strike counts and recorded 11 strikeouts.
The average pitcher gets a strikeout on about one-fourth of his two-strike sliders and one-sixth of his two-strike cutters. Syndergaard’s rate through two starts is 48 percent.
The great thing about the pitch for Syndergaard is how low risk it is. He has thrown only one of those pitches in that “middle-middle” happy zone in which hitters often crush baseballs and three of them in that “middle-third” location width-wise where it is easy for a hitter to make good contact. You can see that, particularly versus right-handed hitters, Syndergaard's location is pinpoint.
Though everyone was wowed when Syndergaard hit 95 mph with the pitch against the Royals, his velocity with it settled in at an average of 92, both with the 23 he threw against the Royals and the 22 he threw against the Marlins his last time out on April 12.
For some context, the next-highest average slider velocity for a pitcher this season is about 90 mph. The highest average cutter velocity was right at Syndergaard’s 92 mph (Jeff Samardzija and closers Kenley Jansen, and David Robertson throw it that hard).
“That he can throw it not only that hard, but that he can command it, I think, is most impressive,” Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki told ESPN.com's Adam Rubin on Saturday. “To be able to throw a 95-mph slider and not know where it’s going is not easy, but I feel like you can throw it as hard as you can and not know where it’s going. But for him to be able to throw it as hard as he does and know where to put and to spot it up, I think, is most important.”
Added fellow backstop Travis d'Arnaud: “It has the depth, too. Sometimes guys who learn the slider, it moves more horizontally instead of vertically. The depth on it makes it very good as well.”
This is a pitch that, Syndergaard's long-term health permitting, has a chance to be as well regarded as Mariano Rivera's great cutter.
"To call it an equalizer implies that there is a point in time during an at-bat that a hitter has a chance," Braden said. "This is just not the case. It's a neutralizer, a devastator. It sends batter after batter to their final resting place in Valhalla."
The mental challenge
There's an aspect of Syndergaard's potential transition from star to superhero that will bear watching throughout the season -- the mental challenges that come with being the man. He may not have to be the man on the Mets, but he could end up being just that, given Matt Harvey’s slow start. That's a challenging transition.
"A player needs to stick to what he did to get to this point," Dr. Ray Karesky, who has been a team psychologist for multiple major league teams, wrote in an email on Sunday. "If he is a humble, down-to-earth guy, he needs to stay that way. Likewise, if he is a cocky, aggressive [person], he needs to stay that way also. He can't let outside influences take him away from his game and who he is. The best way to do this is for the player to keep doing the same routines and talking with the same people that got him to this point.
"Most of all, a player must try to stay true to the best in himself. This is not only a way to increase the likelihood of his continued success, it will also see him through tough times that are an inevitable part of baseball and life."
Said Braden: "He must remind himself daily that what he has done to get to this point is not enough. He has shown the capacity to welcome all challenges mental and physical alike, his greatest opponent will always be himself."