"Imagine hitting a guy who is pitching on stilts, where his stride foot lands in the batter's box. Then he releases a white ball out of white clouds that he scrapes with his condor wing span. Lastly, cloud to ground lightning comes towards you and when you swing, you realize that the lightning flash has blinded you. That sums it up."
-- Doug Glanville, ESPN baseball analyst
There are great expectations for New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard this season after a brilliant 2016 in which he emerged as the best hurler on the staff. He delivered a 2.60 ERA and matched zeroes for seven innings with Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner in the NL wild-card game. Then Syndergaard came to spring training this season bigger and stronger than the 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame he possessed last season. Not that he might need the extra bulk -- he already throws the fastest average fastball of any starting pitcher in the game (98 mph).
When you watch Syndegaard pitch the way Glanville describes, you begin to wonder: Could Syndergaard become the best in the game, reaching the level of Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw?
For 21 appearances (20 starts) last season, Syndergaard was very close. That's from his first 14 games and his last seven, good for a 1.96 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio just over 6-to-1. That was wrapped around his 10 other starts from June 22 to Aug. 16, when Syndergaard went through a dead arm period and dealt with a bone spur. He didn't look like an ace then; he looked like a pitcher trying to get through a 162-game season for the first time, posting a 4.06 ERA and 1.56 WHIP while hitters slashed .302/.357/.458 against him.
But when you watch Syndergaard at his best, you think he has the capability to be a Kershaw, not just for 20 starts, but over a full season. How realistic is that? Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, PECOTA, offers a series of forecasts, ranging from the one you typically see in print (a “50th percentile” pick) to the most optimistic (“90th percentile”) and pessimistic (“10th percentile”) extremes. PECOTA at its 50th percentile projects a drop-off for Syndergaard, as he falls back to a 3.14 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. But we’re here to dream the way Mets fans are, so look at PECOTA’s 90th percentile numbers -- a 2.28 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, which are coincidentally the same numbers Kershaw posted in his breakthrough season in 2011.
To find out what it would take for Syndergaard to reach a Kershaw-like level, we reached out to a couple of former pitchers -- ESPN baseball analyst Dallas Braden and former Met Ron Darling, who analyzes Mets games on SNY and nationally on TBS. Both agree that Syndergaard is on the cusp of something amazing.
“As far as pure stuff is concerned, Noah is there,” Darling said.
Said Braden: “If you start with the physical aspects, he’s well on his way. The pace, the physical stature, the work ethic, the workload. He’s on the right path.”
So how does he finish the journey?
Syndergaard possesses a blow-you-away fastball, a hard slider and a bottom-dropping changeup that induce misses on half the swings against them when they’re at their best. But during Syndergaard’s slump, those pitches, along with his curveball (his weakest pitch), were not as effective. The slider returned to close to form by the end of the season, but the changeup didn’t. Syndergaard has refined the pitch in spring training. He proved he could learn a year ago, when he took the slider, a pitch he threw for a strike less than half the time and turned it into a strike 72 percent of the time, while it was being thrown upwards of 90 mph.
“[His secondary pitches are] about as good as can be,” Darling said. “He’s a 7.5 to 8 [on the 2-8 scale] with his slider. It has room for improvement, which is scary. His changeup is a 7.5 to 8, with room for improvement. That’s scary.”
“The next progression for Syndergaard is taking that repertoire to the next level,” Braden said, “commanding the slider and commanding the changeup. Adding a third devastator pitch that someone like Kershaw possesses.”
Limiting base stealing
In nine seasons and nearly 1,800 innings, Kershaw has allowed 59 stolen bases. In his two seasons and 333 2/3 innings, Syndergaard has allowed 63. Granted, Kershaw has a significant advantage because he’s left-handed, but there are plenty of right-handed pitchers who can minimize the damage the running game does. This is Syndergaard’s biggest weakness.
Syndergaard allowed 48 stolen bases last season. The baserunner who stole a base scored 15 times. Had Syndergaard allowed 10 of those runners to score instead of 15, his ERA would have been 2.35 instead of 2.60. Finding something that works for him could be of significant value.
“A friend of mine had a very difficult time holding runners,” Darling said. “So he and I worked on a rote system of four. He’d start with ABCD. In the next inning, he’d go BCDA. One letter would be slide step, one throw over to first, one hold the ball and step off the rubber and so on. It became a rote thing, how he would alternate. I would think [Syndergaard] has to find something [like that]. There were many starts with Noah last year where he looked like Kershaw, but [allowed] two runs. He can cut that in half with the ability to hold runners on.”
Braden thinks that sharing the numbers on the benefit of fewer steals with Syndergaard could get him to commit to something to the point of making it work.
“If you can pose an adjustment mechanically or pitch selection-wise and tell him that this could lower your ERA by three-tenths of a point, that we could be more efficient in your pitch count which would get you deeper into a game, I think he would listen,” Braden said.
"A feel for pitching" is what announcers will say separates the good from the great. It’s baseball’s version of ESP. Syndergaard is still learning it.
“What does feel mean?” Darling said. “A sense that a hitter is going to swing on the first pitch with a guy on third and less than two outs. He never swings first pitch, but you have a feel that now is the time. You feel that a guy is about to lay down a bunt, or steal a base. Or the first swing a guy takes, you say, 'He’s trying to take me deep tonight. We’ll pitch to that.' You might have a leadoff guy who is extremely patient. You throw him two right down the middle. The elite guys are right 85 percent of the time. It’s not only having a feel for hitters, but having a feel for yourself. [Syndergaard] is used to thinking he’s got to be two hours of fury out here. But [he may realize] tonight for him, it’s going to have to be more cunning than strength.”
“The Tom Seavers and Clayton Kershaws have a feel for pitching. All that comes with experience.”
The stamina to get through a game
Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has averaged 14.1 pitches per inning, the fewest of any starter in the majors. Syndergaard’s average in his two seasons is 15.9 pitches per inning.
That kind of difference came into play against the Giants in the wild card, when a 25-pitch fourth inning and a 20-pitch sixth inning helped push Syndergaard’s pitch count to 108 through seven scoreless innings, leading to his exit. He got hit harder as the game went on and was saved from allowing a run by a terrific catch by Curtis Granderson. Syndergaard’s opponent, Bumgarner, was at 94 pitches through seven innings; he was on the mound all the way to the finish line.
“What I would do if I were Noah is I would push the envelope,” Darling said. “Noah’s young, so they’re very protective of him. At some point, he should tell whoever’s involved in that that he should be untethered. That 100 isn’t my number, that 115 or 120 is. I could see him becoming that guy.”
The stamina to get through a season
Kershaw has had a lower ERA after the All-Star break than before it in every season he’s pitched. His career ERA before the All-Star break is 2.62. His career ERA after the break is 2.04. Syndergaard has had a higher ERA after the break than before it in both of his MLB seasons (though only a hair worse in 2016, 2.56 vs 2.65). His career ERA before the break is 2.77. After the break, it’s 3.01.
Darling thinks Syndergaard can address that, but it’s something that comes with going through a 162-game schedule, which Syndergaard has done only once.
“That comes with experience and knowing how to take care of yourself,” Darling said. “I’m sure Kershaw knows not to push it if he feels he can’t go on a four-mile run or an hour bike ride. He lets his body tell him what to do. Really good pitchers are like big trains. It takes them a while to get going. But once they do, there’s not stopping them. Noah can do that. That’s just knowing between starts that you need to let your body rest.”
Braden goes back to the idea of how a feel for pitching can be Syndergaard’s best friend for the next six months.
“What makes Kershaw special is he figures out what is working for him and then he works one at-bat ahead of you,” Braden said. “Not one pitch. An entire at-bat. He knows what you think you’re going to get as a hitter. And he knows what you’re going to get. It’s like he has a crystal ball.
“For Syndergaard, that’s going to take a cerebral approach. He understands the talk of not letting it rip for every pitch. He feels that doing so would not allow him to execute the way he’d like. But I think he’s going to have to concede a little bit of ego and allow his great mind and mental strength to take over and make adjustments. If he can stay smart instead of trying to out-muscle a situation, that will help him.”
First up for Syndergaard is his first career Opening Day start. It will be a good test. The crowd will be amped up like it’s a playoff game, and he’ll be facing a Braves team that hit him for five runs in 3 2/3 innings in a start last September.
Darling and Braden both rank Syndergaard among the five best pitchers in baseball. Braden said he can be a perennial Cy Young contender. Darling noted that Syndergaard ranks top three in intimidation factor, too. We’ll give him the last word on Syndergaard’s future potential.
“It’s only going to go north,” Darling said. “He has the ability and the will -- that makes the special ones. A lot of guys have the ability. Very few mix it with the will to be great.”