There is nothing more that I enjoy than watching great pitching. Some pitchers achieve greatness by overpowering their opposition with velocity; some utilize lots of movement; others exploit hitters with offspeed offerings. What makes New York Mets starter Noah Syndergaard so appealing to the eye is that, well, he does each of these things.
Another thing that makes Noah Syndergaard appealing (and it’s related to the first thing) is that he is one of the most dominant pitchers in our game today. By now, you know his calling card. The man they call “Thor” combines a blistering upper-90’s fastball with a devastating low- to mid-90’s slider. It’s the kind of stuff you’d see from an elite relief ace, except Syndergaard stretches it out for six to eight innings. That’s all there is to him, right? Just a guy using two plus pitches to blow it by hitters. Well, not so much.
Coming into 2017, the 24-year-old already owned two of the best pitches in baseball, and he could’ve just stuck with that. For those of you who were wondering how the heck he could even develop further (myself included), he has answered that question in his first two starts. Two starts, to be clear, that have netted Syndergaard 13 innings, a 16:0 K:BB ratio (!!!), a 64.5 percent ground ball rate, and an outstanding 0.69 ERA. Video game numbers.
There’s a lot I could do to show how Syndergaard has evolved this offseason, but there is one specific at-bat that really encapsulates it all. A face-off against Justin Bour in the second inning of his second start of the season against the Miami Marlins. It’s a five pitch at-bat, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better representation of how we have seen Syndergaard pitch so far.
Ah, there’s old reliable. The high-90’s two-seam is Syndergaard’s bread and butter, the pitch we are used to seein—wait, what the hell was that? That pitch started on the inner-third of the plate to the lefty Bour and ran to the outer-black.
That must’ve been the camera angle, right?
Outside of the elevator pitch from Backyard Baseball, baseballs just don’t move that much. Especially a fastball leaving the hand at 98 mph. Let’s just go check Brooks Baseball to see the horizontal movement on that—oh my, that pitch actually had ~11 inches of arm-side run. Now, we’ve all seen Syndergaard uncork some fastballs with crazy movement, but this season he is doing it in a way we have never seen from him before:
Through two games, Syndergaard has given us the two highest instances of arm-side run on his sinker in his young career. When you already own the highest velocity of any starting pitch, one option to improve it is to add more run. Sometimes adding movement comes with the trade-off of losing velocity, but that hasn’t been the case for Syndergaard this season. He’s has found a way to maintain velocity while increasing movement, making an already phenomenal pitch even stronger. In addition to that, he even appears to have decided to use it as his primary pitch rather than his four-seam fastball.
So not only are we seeing even more movement on his two-seam, we’re seeing Syndergaard use it much more. The switch from four-seam fastball to two-seam fastball, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News, came about when he realized the two-seam was just a better pitch:
"Well my four-seam is just straight," [Syndergaard] said. "I mean my two-seam is as hard as my four-seam, but it moves a lot more. So I'll just throw my two-seam."
The most fascinating thing about the newfound trust in his two-seam is that no starting pitcher during the PITCHf/x era has, on average, thrown a two-seamer as hard as Noah Syndergaard. Combine that with above average movement, and it’s a recipe for a ton of missed bats and ground balls.
So his first pitch to Bour was a two-seamer just off the plate. While Bour has been a decent fastball hitter over the course of his career, Syndergaard, now behind in the count 1–0, certainly must throw him one here to get back to even.
Woah, that is not a fastball. That changeup had some depth to it. Bour hadn’t seen this changeup and, in fact, it was the first that Syndergaard threw that night. Bour saw (what he thought was) a slower two-seam fastball that was left over the middle of the plate, and he wanted to cash in. This is another consequence of working primarily with a two-seam fastball — it helps Syndergaard mask his changeup. What is masking, you ask? Well, for Syndergaard, it’s about replicating mechanics, release point, and arm slot to increase the deception of the cambio. He even replicates spin angle, in this case, as Syndergaard’s two-seam fastball spins at an angle similar to his three-fingered changeup grip.
Mechanics and arm-slot we can’t really measure through PITCHf/x data, but release point and arm angle we can. These GIF’s do a little bit to allude to similar mechanics and arm slot, but in games where Syndergaard threw a changeup at least 10 percent of the time and a two-seam fastball at least 10 percent of the time he has, on average, done a better job at minimizing the difference between the release point and spin angle of his sinker and changeup:
If Syndergaard can make his changeup look exactly like his two-seam fastball for as long as he can, hitters won’t be able to recognize the pitch until it’s too late. They won’t have enough time to react. The same can be said for when he establishes his changeup early in a start. If hitters have trouble differentiating between the two pitches and know that he is willing to throw either in any count, he can really mess with their timing and keep them off-balance.
It’s one thing to look for a 98 mph fastball running ~9 inches toward Syndergaard’s arm side; it’s even harder when you also have to react to a 90 mph changeup running ~10 inches to his arm side and with depth.
Syndergaard’s development has really manifested itself in this area. It’s an ability to deceive hitters by disguising the improved depth and late-break of his changeup behind his two-seam fastball. That is why it helps to establish it early on.
Another strong changeup from Syndergaard. That movement away from Bour was even more appealing to the eye than on the 1-0 pitch. It’s no surprise hitters are whiffing at nearly a 65 percent rate on this pitch.
So, to recap, Syndergaard threw his changeup behind, even, and ahead in the count. This is what makes him so dangerous. Not only is he using his changeup just under 15 percent of the time, but he isn’t afraid to throw it three times, in a row in any count. Bour was able to lay off the pitch a third time, and looked to have tracked it better, but he also knows he can’t get too comfortable looking for that changeup running away. Syndergaard can, at any time, kick him inside with that two-seam fastball. Two pitches, while eerily similar, that work in a beautiful tandem to keep hitters off balance. Who says baseball isn’t romantic.
To this point, we’ve seen some filthy stuff from Syndergaard. But here’s the kicker. Check out this 2-2 pitch:
Soft away three times, then... soft in? I guess the term “soft” is relative, as all offerings range from the high-80’s to mid-90’s, but still. How do you even prepare for that?
On 2-2, after throwing three consecutive changeups, Syndergaard knocks on Bour’s front-door with a wicked slider. It stymies left-handed hitters from just looking for movement away from their body, not to mention that Syndergaard’s slider is an incredibly tough pitch to hit even before you look at how pitch sequencing plays a role.
Thor throwing sliders to lefties isn’t something we saw a whole lot last season; it was only about 16 percent of his pitches to left-handed batters. So far this season, that number has swelled to 28 percent—and nearly half of those pitches have come with two strikes.
What this means is that Syndergaard is using his slider as an out pitch to lefties, something we have not seen him do to this extent in his career. Granted, it’s just two starts, but if it is any indication of how he plans to pitch this season, we are in for a real treat. Syndergaard has consolidated down to three main pitches—the two-seam fastball, slider, and changeup. He has shown an unbelievable feel for all three pitches, occasionally even mixing in a curveball, and his mastery of all those offerings means he can throw them in any count to hitters on either side.
Is it possible that, in seasons prior, Syndergaard didn’t trust his stuff as much? That’s a scary thought, and one we’ll likely never know. Whatever the case may be, he now has an improved feel for an already incredible arsenal. This idea is one that his personal catcher, Rene Rivera, entertained in spring training:
“He has so many good pitches,” said Rene Rivera, Syndergaard’s personal catcher even in an intra-squad game. “We feel we can use any of them in any count. … [The changeup] is another weapon that he can use that is not a fastball or a slider. Now, he has fastball, slider, changeup and curve.”
Syndergaard has always had “blow it by you” stuff. Syndergaard has always missed bats at an elite level. Now that he has added in more movement to that equation, he has managed to get even better. The somewhat-subtle improvements to his repertoire are amazing, but really it is his implementation that will give hitters fits all year long.
It is incredibly early and who knows if Syndergaard will be able to keep it up all year long, but Syndergaard is a smart pitcher with a repertoire he understands. Having good feel for your stuff aides unpredictability on the part of the hitter. He now has three pitches he can throw at any point in time, and each one is filthy in unique ways.
It’s no wonder that, through two games, hitters are swinging more often at pitches out of the zone and making far less contact than Syndergaard’s first two MLB seasons. And it’s no wonder Justin Bour walked away from that at-bat like this:
One thing is for sure: Bour won’t be the last hitter this season to leave a Syndergaard at-bat shaking their head in wonderment.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and a pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Junior double majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com