When I set out to write this article, the subject was entirely different. The initial idea was to write about how Noah Syndergaard, the man known as Thor, was set to be the Mets' best pitcher in 2016. With his repertoire of pitches, most notably his sinker from hell, the sky could be the just the floor for Syndergaard.
While that statement still rings true for me, something curious happened. When I began to sort Syndergaard's data, it became clear that of his five pitches (fastball, sinker, curveball, changeup, slider), one of them paled in comparison to the rest. That's not uncommon, as many Cy Young winners, Hall of Famers, and countless others have all struggled with one pitch at various times in their respective careers. However, Syndergaard's weakness is surprising given his reputation.
With a sinker that can reach 100 MPH, a fair guess would be that it's Syngeraard's most lethal pitch; but shockingly, it's his biggest problem by a wide margin. While watching him throw a sinker at a velocity that nobody else in baseball can match, it's apparently his worst pitch.
|FanGraphs data (number of pitches thrown)
Excluding his walk rate, Syndergaard's sinker either comes in last or is tied for last in every category listed. According to FanGraphs, it's his easiest pitch to make contact with (83.8 percent compared to 79.6 percent for his fastball), and consequently, generates the fewest swings and misses (8.1 percent compared to 18.8 percent for his slider, or depending on how you feel about sample sizes, 18.4 percent for his curveball).
Going by Baseball Savant's data, Syndergaard threw just over 40 percent of his sinkers within the strike zone. Their data also gives us a sense of where the majority of them wound up, which could help explain why this should be lethal pitch is getting walloped.
While that's not a bad place to have a pitch centered, Syndergaard may need to start throwing it even farther inside. With a maximum velocity as high as 100.84 MPH, and -7.1 inches of horizontal break, Syndergaard should be trying to place his sinker below and inside the hands of the batter, not directly on the inner border of the strike zone. It's got deadly movement, which as Freddie Freeman found out, essentially makes it a super-charged screwball that many players might have a hard time believing in.
Despite the pitch's shortcomings in 2015, Syndergaard should absolutely keep using the sinker. He's only made 24 starts thus far in his major league career, and as he gains more experience, his plan of attack with the sinker will evolve. Perhaps he'll become more selective with it, and cut down from using it 23.4 percent of the time. Syndergaard could begin to increase his fastball, changeup, or curveball percentage, but it would appear as if he has a different plan.
The "cutter" Syndergaard is learning is actually the vaunted Dan Warthen Slider. It's neither a traditional cut fastball nor a slider grip.— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) February 25, 2016
Syndergaard did throw a slider last season, and while there's a disagreement on the overall number of times it was thrown — FanGraphs and Baseball Savant say 48 times, Brooks Baseball says 86 — in the grand scheme of things, all three sources agree that it was an insignificant amount. At best, his slider usage was 3.6 percent in 2015. Of course, now that Syndergaard has established himself as a pillar of the Mets' rotation, it's time for him to learn the vaunted [Dan] Warthen slider, which as FanGraphs' Eno Sarris has pointed out, is a unique variation on the pitch.
"The Mets' Dan Warthen may not have the name value of legendary pitching coaches that have come before him, but he does have his own pitch. If you want to see what it looks like, you just have to notice how the Mets, as a team, are outliers when it comes to slider velocity and movement.
The Mets are throwing a different kind of slider...
'It's a different spin, it's a different grip. The whole idea is not to use your wrist to try and spin the ball, you want your fingers to spin the ball. You're thinking fastball and just kind of cutting through the ball...
He [Jacob deGrom] was trying to make it [his slider] break, and we don't want to make it break, we want to think about getting our fingers to the front of the ball and spinning the baseball.'"
In 2015, already established Mets starters Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey flashed their elite sliders all year long. They ranked 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in terms of slider velocity, and not surprisingly, given Warthen's comments about the pitch's break, they ranked 57th, and 56th, respectively, in terms of horizontal movement. Syndergaard on the other hand ranked 35th in terms of slider velocity, but 8th in horizontal movement; the polar opposite of deGrom and Harvey.
Now that Syndergaard is reportedly fine-tuning the Warthen Slider — a pitch that he began tinkering with in July of last year — he should have five legitimate plus pitches to break out at any given time. If Syndergaard can prove to throw this new slider effectively, it should immediately make his sinker better. With another movement to prepare for, batters likely won't be able to sit on his worst pitch anymore.
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Matt Goldman is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score & MLB Daily Dish. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.