Is hardthrowing Noah Syndergaard a physical freak or a danger to himself? The answer could determine the outcome of both his career and the Mets' World Series hopes.
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On May 6, 1998, upon watching his Astros strike out 20 times against 20-year-old Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, Houston manager Larry Dierker observed, “You can clearly distinguish what he is throwing from what everybody else in the league throws.”
Today, the same must be said about Noah Syndergaard. There are elite pitchers such as Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, but nobody else can throw a baseball like Syndergaard. The Mets' 23-year-old righthander is 6'6" and 240 pounds, and he throws with so much velocity, even when he spins the ball, that in short time we will know one of these things for sure: He is either a threat to himself—pushing the limits of musculoskeletal integrity—or he is a once-in-a-generation physical marvel.
“Physical freaks come along once a generation,” said one rival general manager. “He’s either that or this is not sustainable. The odds tell you that it’s not sustainable. It’s easy for people to point to his size and say that’s why he’s different than everybody else. But I don’t know that size alone protects you. He does look like he has good mechanics.
“Right now, he stands alone with his stuff. Nobody sits at 99 mph and throws a slider 93. Nobody. It’s just a matter of time before you see a perfect game, a no-hitter or a 17-strikeout game. When he goes up against a team with righthanded hitters that’s not an elite offense—San Diego in San Diego, Milwaukee—you’re going to see something special.
"The question is, does he hold up? There’s almost no one else to go by.”
Why is Syndergaard such a pitching freak? Because he throws both the hardest fastball and the hardest slider in the majors (98.2 mph and 92.2 mph, respectively, according to Fangraphs). The last starting pitcher who did that was his Mets teammate Matt Harvey in 2013—and he blew out his elbow the next year without throwing nearly as hard as Syndergaard (95.8, 89.9).
Nobody is even close to Syndergaard. His fastball beats all other qualified starters by 1.3 mph and his slider beats all others by a whopping 3.3 mph. In a world where easy access to elite training, nutrition and information has reduced the gap in outlier physical skills, Syndergaard is the modern pitching equivalent of a 1961–62 Wilt Chamberlain, a '68 Bob Beamon, a 2000 Tiger Woods and an '01 Barry Bonds.
Yet we still don't know the answer to this question: Does he throw too hard for his own good, especially since he adopted the slider as his secondary pitch of choice last September?
"Ask any baseball person,” the GM said, “and the kind of torque it takes to spin a slider is what concerns you. It’s not a cutter. Arrieta throws a cutter with how he lets it come off his fingers. This is a true slider, with more depth than a cutter.”
It’s hard to find anybody in recent memory who threw a fastball and a slider at such extreme velocities. Wood threw a slurve at between 82 and 84 mph. (He blew out his elbow the year after his rookie season.) Felix Hernandez broke in with an extreme fastball/slider combination but quickly lost velocity and de-emphasized the slider in favor of a changeup. David Price also reached the majors as an elite fastball/slider thrower but then junked the slider in favor of a cutter. Stephen Strasburg, as a rookie in 2010, complemented his 97.3 mph fastball with a curveball. Justin Verlander also featured a curveball instead of a slider to complement his extreme fastball.
“It was 97, 98 when I wanted,” Verlander said of his fastball. “That was just the way that I threw. It wasn’t like I was trying to max out on every pitch, especially once I learned my sophomore season [in college] that I could start out at a lower velocity and get 97, 98 when I wanted. When I see [Syndergaard] throw I see the same thing. I see easy [velocity]. I like his arm swing—I’m big on studying guys’ arm swings—and his mechanics look clean. He’s a big guy with long levers and quick-twitch muscles. It doesn’t look like he’s putting all of his effort into 98.
“The difference you’re seeing now is the training. It’s nothing like what it was when I came up, the way you can train the body for pitching and velo. I’m talking about what kids are doing even before they hit the big leagues—the way they train through high school and college to prepare for that. All the shoulder strengthening exercises and personal training—the stuff I look back on and wish I had—that’s all in place even in high school now.”
The age of specialization is producing finely tuned pitchers who throw harder and maintain extreme velocity when they spin the baseball. Syndergaard increased his use of Pilates this winter, for instance. Just behind Syndergaard in this new category of elite fastball/slider starting pitchers are the Yankees' Luis Severino (95.6, 89.6) and Nathan Eovaldi (96.6, 88.9), the Angels' Garrett Richards (95.8, 88.7), the Nationals' Strasburg (94.4, 88.4), the Indians' Trevor Bauer (93.8, 90.8 out of the bullpen) and the Mets' Harvey (94.2, 87.9) and Steven Matz (93.8, 88).
Ten years ago, among pitchers who featured the slider at least 10% of the time, Kelvim Escobar threw the it the hardest: just 86.3 mph. Now a dozen starters throw sliders harder than that.
Yes, this year Matz also has started to feature the hard slider, otherwise known around Queens as The Dan Warthen Slider. New York's pitching coach loves teaching his pitchers to throw the tar out of the slider. To mitigate the traditional torque on the elbow created by most sliders, Warthen has his pitchers focus on creating the proper spin axis by getting the fingers around the front of the baseball as it spins out of their hand, rather than snapping the wrist. How much does Warthen love the power slider? Check out which pitchers threw the hardest slider among all qualified pitchers in MLB the past four seasons:
|2013||Matt Harvey, Mets||89.9|
|2014||Zack Wheeler, Mets||89.1|
|2015||Harvey and Jacob deGrom, Mets||89.7|
|2016||Noah Syndergaard, Mets||92.2|
It's worth noting that Harvey, in 2014, and Wheeler, in '15, needed Tommy John surgery after a year in which they threw the hardest slider in baseball.
Syndergaard didn’t throw the slider in earnest until last September, but he has fallen more and more in love with the pitch, and why not? Few can hit it. He has thrown 178 power sliders in his career and still not allowed an extra-base hit with any of them. More than half the at-bats decided on a Syndergaard slider end in a strikeout (54%), and hitters bat just .111 against the pitch.
Over his last 11 starts (postseason included), here's Syndergaard's game-by-game count of sliders thrown: 14, 11, 5, 0, 17, 2, 17, 23, 22, 21, 26. The career high came Monday night against Cincinnati at Citi Field. Syndergaard threw 20 of the 26 sliders for strikes. Reds batters swung at 17 of them and missed eight times. Syndergaard averaged 92.7 mph on the sliders, with a high of 94.5.
By comparison, in his 20-strikeout game against Houston 18 years ago, Wood hit 100 mph with his fastball, and sat in the 95–99 range. But he didn’t throw his slider as hard as Syndergaard—not even close. Wood used his slurve in the range of 82-84 mph.
Wood also threw with a crossfire delivery that taxed his shoulder and elbow more than Syndergaard's motion does. Syndergaard has smoothed his simple mechanics even further this year. When he swings his front leg toward home plate, he no longer does so with his foot well off the ground and his toes pointed up; he now keeps the foot closer to the ground with the toes down, which allows him to land more softly on that foot.
To find the closest comp to Syndergaard, you have to go back to a Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest lefthanders who ever lived: Randy Johnson. The Big Unit in his prime threw his fastball about 98 mph and his slider about 92 mph. Syndergaard throws with a touch more velocity. Johnson, a late bloomer, didn’t register his first qualified season until he was 26 years old. Syndergaard threw 198 2/3 innings last year at age 22—packing on a 65 2/3-inning increase.
“Randy Johnson was a freak as far as pitchers go,” the GM said. “He was the one guy who threw that hard with a fastball and slider who held up. It’s once a generation somebody holds up like that.
“The one concern I’d have about Syndergaard is he could wind up throwing 260 innings this year. It’s pretty clear already that this is a two-team race with Washington. The Nationals are going to be in it. The Mets and Nationals are going be neck and neck for the division all year. So it’s not like you’re going to be able to give your big guy a blow.
“And he’s been so efficient—going seven innings every time out—he’s going to pile up innings. On top of all that, he’s going to be in the mix for the Cy Young, so late in the season you might start to think about making sure you give him that chance at a historic season. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.”
There is also the fast-mounting evidence that Syndergaard is the best starting pitcher the Mets have—after a year of debate—so the team will want to get him the ball whenever they can. Among New York's other talented starters, deGrom is behind in form because of minor injuries and time missed due to the birth of his son; Matz hasn’t pitched a full season; and Harvey has not looked the same this year, with both his walk rate (3.2) and strikeout rate (5.6) noticeably worse than they were a year ago (1.8, 8.9)
“The thing with Harvey is after five or six innings his stuff drops off,” said one executive. “When he first came up he threw that invisible fastball that would just explode on a hitter and disappear. It’s interesting to watch him now. He doesn’t have that invisible fastball any more.”
In 2013, Harvey’s fastball drew a .215 batting average and a 12% whiff rate. Those numbers were down to .247 and 10.2% in 2015 and are now at .298 and 8% so far this season.
Syndergaard’s weapons have separated him from not just his own staff, but also from anybody we have seen in years. It doesn’t mean he’s better than Arrieta or Kershaw. He doesn’t control the running game or maintain pinpoint command the way they do. It just means no one throws like him. A starting pitcher who sits at 99 and tops out at 95 with his slider? If you programmed a video game avatar to throw like that, the baseball purists would scoff at the lack of realism. But Thor is the real deal.
To throw this hard this young is especially captivating. Syndergaard hasn’t even been in the big leagues for a calendar year. The first anniversary of his debut is still 16 days away.
Monday night marked his 28th career regular-season start. In it, Syndergaard became only the seventh pitcher to record 200 strikeouts in his first 28 starts, pushing his total to 208. The six other strikeout prodigies that preceded him to 200 this quickly make for a laundry list of blown elbows and derailed careers: Wood (243), Hideo Nomo (236), Dwight Gooden (235), Mark Prior (216), Yu Darvish (214) and Harvey (211).
Only time will tell if Syndergaard is more Randy Johnson than Kerry Wood. But what we are watching every time he takes the mound is unique. There is nothing like how Thor throws a baseball. Eighteen years after Wood wowed baseball, you can borrow from Dierker’s observation again: You can clearly distinguish what Syndergaard is throwing from what everybody else throws.