Noah Syndergaard’s return to New York on Tuesday night did not go well. In his first start in the Big Apple since signing with the Angels last November, the 29-year-old righty gave up five runs and didn’t make it out of the third inning as his team extended its losing streak to six games via a 9–1 thrashing at the hands of the Yankees. After missing nearly all of the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery, a pitcher who was the game’s hardest-throwing starter is in the process of reinventing himself, but the results have been rather uneven.
Syndergaard agreed to a one-year, $21 million deal with the Angels last November, a day before the deadline for him to accept or reject the $18.4 million qualifying offer he received from the Mets. He missed all of the 2020 season after tearing his UCL in March and then made just two one-inning starts last year following setbacks in his rehab — first a bout of inflammation in his right elbow in late May, then a positive COVID-19 test in late August — so it would not have been a surprise for him to stay in Queens on a one-year deal and rebuild his value. And while Syndergaard had interest from multiple suitors, some of them willing to sign him to a multi-year deal despite his long absence, he told reporters that he was intrigued by the Angels’ plan to keep him healthy. Via MLBcom’s Rhett Bollinger:
“It was a no-brainer once I had that sitdown meeting with Perry,” Syndergaard said Friday. “He had a really in-depth plan of attack to get me back to where I was in 2015, ’16 and ’18. Not pitching for two years, he had a great game plan that I’m 100% confident in that’s gonna keep me healthy and allow me to flourish and blossom to my true potential.”
The idea of pitching in a six-man rotation appealed to Syndergaard, as it’ll help keep his innings total at a manageable level in his first full season back from his elbow surgery. The Angels utilize the six-man rotation to make room for two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who stayed mostly healthy throughout the 2021 season while making 23 starts and throwing 130 1/3 innings.
Syndergaard said his innings total will be limited next season, but he didn’t have a total in mind just yet.
For that stretch that Syndergaard mentioned, he was one of the top pitchers in baseball… when he was available. From 2015 to ’18, only Clayton Kershaw outdid Syndergaard’s 2.66 FIP; only Kershaw, teammate Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer beat his 2.93 ERA; and only eight pitchers had a higher strikeout-walk differential than his 21.6% (27.1% strikeout rate, 5.5% walk rate). Syndergaard’s 14.4 WAR for that period ranked “only” 15th because he threw just 518.1 innings in that span, the majors’ 71st-highest total. A strained latissimus dorsi limited him to just seven starts and 30.1 innings in 2017 (who can forget his refusal to take an MRI for shoulder and biceps discomfort, followed by a 1.1-inning start and then a nearly five-month absence?), and then he missed nearly seven weeks in 2018 due to a strained ligament in his right index finger.
Syndergaard’s four-seam fastball velocity during that window of time was unrivaled:
Four-Seam Fastball Velocity Leaders Among Starting Pitchers, 2015-18
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Data includes only games as starting pitcher, with a minimum of 1,000 four-seam fastballs in period. Surgery dates via the Tommy John Surgery Database (http://goo.gl/3IN6HM)
Only two starting pitchers were even within one mile per hour of Syndergaard, but as you can see from that last column, those hard throws carried a cost, in that more than half the pitchers above wound up needing Tommy John surgery — some before that window , some during, and some after. And sure, it wasn’t just the fastballs in that four-year range that caused those ulnar collateral ligaments to fray and snap; it was also the curves and sliders and the general wear and tear(s) of the job. In Syndergaard’s case, that included the fastest averages for sliders (91.6 mph, 1.6 mph faster than the second-ranked deGrom) and change-ups (89.8 mph, 0.7 mph ahead of second-ranked José Ureña) as well.
Those major league-leading velocity rankings all hold if I extend the window through 2019, but Syndergaard’s final season before getting injured was a step down. While he made 32 starts for the only time in his career and set a high with 197.2 innings, he posted career worsts in ERA (4.28) and FIP (3.60). He threw 43.1 more innings than the season before, but his 4.3 WAR was just 0.1 higher.
Two and a half years and 2,800 miles removed from that season, Syndergaard is a different pitcher in terms of both velocity and repertoire:
Noah Syndergaard Repertoire Change
|Pitch||2015-19%||2022%||%Dif||2015-19 Bike||2022 Bike||Velo Dif|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Syndergaard’s four-seam fastball and sinker are both down nearly four full clicks — he has only fleetingly reached 96 mph all season, whereas he almost never dropped below that mark pre-surgery — and his slider is down more than seven. Just before the season, he said that he expects his velocity to rise as the season continues, but the average velo on both of his fastballs has actually dipped by about one mile per hour from April to May. Maybe he’s made a conscious (or even unconscious) decision not to dial it up yet, but it’s quite possible that upper range is just out of reach now.
Syndergaard is throwing his sinker and slider with a frequency similar to his pre-injury rates, but he’s replaced about a quarter of his four-seamers and a third of his curves with changeups. Platoon-wise, he’s favored the four-seamer over the sinker against lefties (33.6% versus 10.5%), with lots of changeups (34.3%), but he’s barely thrown the four-seamer to righties (11.4%) and is instead far more relying on the sinker (45.2%) and slider (22.1%, about double his rate to lefties) with about half the changeups (16.1%) that lefties see.
He’s traded some of that velocity for movement:
Noah Syndergaard Pitch Movement
|Pitch||year||Green Drop||Horizon Break|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Syndergaard’s fastball is dropping more, which is to say that it’s getting less rise — hardly a surprise when shifting from 98 mph to 94, particularly via a heater with a spin rate in the 22nd percentile. In fact, in terms of Statcast’s % Rise vs. Avg calculations, he’s gone from -9% in 2019 to -23% in ’22. The movement of his sinker hasn’t changed much, but both of his breaking balls (and particularly his slider) are moving a whole lot more. Within the small sample of this year’s work, however, the results on each pitch besides the sinker and curve haven’t come close to measuring up to the Thor of yore:
Noah Syndergaard Pitch Results
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Syndergaard’s four-seam fastball and changeup are getting tattooed, and he’s gotten better-than-expected results on his sinker and worse-than-expected results on his slider. It’s not a great place to be, and particularly with the degradation of his four-seamer, he can’t work high in the strike zone as effectively anymore. Where batters hit .182, slugged .278, and whiffed on 27.7% of pitches in the upper third of the zone and higher from 2015 to ’19, they’re at .333/.333 (but with a .477 xSLG) with a 20% whiff rate so far this season.
For all of that, Syndergaard pitched quite well through his first five starts (2.45 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 29.1 IP) but has been knocked out early in two of his last three. He retired just two of nine batters faced against the Rangers in Texas on May 16 and was charged with six runs (four earned), but rebounded to throw eight innings of one-run ball against them eight days later, in his third outing of the season against them.
That was Syndergaard’s last start before facing the Yankees, who pounced upon him for four first-inning runs on Tuesday. After retiring DJ LeMahieu on a hard-hit grounder, he walked Aaron Judge and then gave up back-to-back doubles to Anthony Rizzo (96.6 mph) and Gleyber Torres (103.2 mph). On the former, Mike Trout tried to make a diving catch but the ball grabbed his glove, and on the latter, Trout slipped while in pursuit of the carom off the top of the center field wall. Torres was initially called safe at third, but the call was overturned via replay as he briefly overstepped the bag while Matt Duffy applied the tag. Miguel Andújar then dunked a single into center and stole second, followed by Matt Carpenter cranking a middle-zone slider for a 93-mph short porch special to right field, giving the Yankees a 4–0 lead.
In the second inning, LeMahieu scorched a slider for a 105.4 mph double to left field, bringing home Joey Gallo with another run before Syndergaard escaped via a Rizzo groundout. After a single by Torres to start the third, followed by a 102.4-mph fly ball by Andújar, Syndergaard got the hook.
Syndergaard got just one swing and miss from among his 45 pitches and took hard his failure to halt a five-game losing streak, saying, “I dropped the ball and didn’t get the job done.” Via the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike DiGiovanna, he added, “I just kind of noticed how tense my upper body was, and it’s hard to deliver a quality pitch when you’re really tight out there.”
More via Bollinger:
“I felt pressure and tension in that first inning,” Syndergaard said. “Baseball is a funny thing. You can have a really good start and then six days later it’s the complete opposite. My prep work in between starts felt really good, but then I was pressing the whole time and trying to throw a ball through a garden hose instead of just being free and easy and letting it rip. I was really aiming the ball up there and falling behind in counts.”
At times during his run with the Mets, Syndergaard seemed superhuman, the ultimate power pitcher, but his current 4.02 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 15.5% strikeout rate, and pitch mix all mark him as quite ordinary. Admittedly, he’s a work in progress early in the transition that so many have to make in mid-career. He’s got a lot riding on the extent to which he can fine-tune or improve upon his first two months as an Angel, and while he may not be quite as compelling as watching Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Taylor Ward light up opposing pitchers, it could certainly have an impact upon whether we get to see them in October.