Noah CyYoungdergaard? Why the Mets’ number three starter might be the Majors’ number one.

With a pinch-hitting B&N debut, here’s UK Baseball Blog’s Ben Carter. The author takes no responsibility for his editor’s choice of title…

After a somewhat surprising surge to the National League pennant in 2015, expectations for the Mets were sky-high entering 2016. In predictably Mets fashion, the lovable Queens residents started the season 2-5 provoking Terry Collins to claim that Wednesday’s close-fought victory over the Marlins was a must-win game amid #PanicCity tweets taking over the now ubiquitous #MetsTwitter.

As if the arctic chill taking hold on the batting line-up wasn’t enough, the much trumpeted rotation has also seen some early-season concerns with Matt Harvey ineffective through two starts, Jacob DeGrom possibly injured and Steven Matz shelled in his first outing of the year.

It would be easy to dismiss the first couple of weeks of the season as a lost cause for the Mets. However, to do that would be to overlook the utterly dominant start to the season that Noah Syndergaard has enjoyed. Syndergaard’s breakout is hardly surprising – he was wonderful over 150 innings of regular season action in 2015 – but the manner of his success deserves some investigating.

Through thirteen innings of action in his two starts this season, Syndergaard has struck out twenty-one hitters, given up two walks and boasts a shiny 0.69 ERA. Now there are a couple of caveats to these mind-boggling statistics of course. This is two starts we’re talking about. Any pitcher in baseball can look like vintage Pedro Martinez over two starts.

The two starts have come against the Kansas City Royals and Miami Marlins – hardly a murderer’s row of sluggers (although KC are almost impossible to strike out) and as a young pitcher the growing pains he experienced in 2015 through home run issues will continue this year. But to ignore this dazzling start to the season out of hand would be to ignore the fact that Syndergaard’s results have been backed up by improved stuff.

In 2015, Noah Syndergaard boasted the highest average fastball velocity in the Major Leagues among starting pitchers at 97.1mph. So far, in 2016 – again, just two starts – his fastball has averaged 98.1mph. No-one is close to him in the velocity department and Thor has shown an ability to use that velocity to get swings and misses: twice he struck out Dee Gordon on fastballs over the plate.

Last season, Syndergaard’s primary secondary offering was a curveball – affectionately nicknamed Mjolnir – but in 2016 he has used the pitch far more infrequently, instead leaning on a new slider and a developing change-up.

Let’s talk about that slider. Thor has used it 23.6% of the time this season, considerably up from the 2.1% usage in 2015 and he has used it against right and left-handers alike – he  clearly is comfortable with this new weapon. The average velocity is 92mph, again a comfortable first in the Majors, but on Tuesday night we saw it comfortably nudge 94 and even 95 on occasion. This kind of slider velocity is simply unheard of and had players, scouts and fans alike wondering if such a pitch had even been seen before.

You do have to wonder what kind of good a 100mph fastball and 95mph slider will be doing to his arm, but whilst he remains healthy and pain free it’s probably best that we just enjoy it.

In his start against Kansas City, he threw three straight sliders to Kendrys Morales with the bases loaded to strike him out, emphasizing once again the trust Thor has in the pitch but also its effectiveness even against left-handers. This particular pitch to start the at-bat left Ned Yost claiming that ‘no man alive’ could hit that slider. Just to let you know, in 2015 only twelve starting pitchers averaged 95mph on their fastball.

It’s early in the season, but that slider has looked pretty deadly so far (second best in the Majors after Kershaw according to fangraphs), joining the triple-digit fastball and hammer curve as another plus pitch in the Syndergaard repertoire. In fact, so far he has dialed back the curveball usage in favour of the slider suggesting it is now his go-to breaking ball. The change-up has also improved against left-handers. It’s not a consistent pitch yet, but Syndergaard has shown confidence in throwing it and his last two punch-outs of Tuesday’s masterclass both came on the change piece.

To get a taste of the repertoire in action and also to look at his pitch sequencing we’re going to look at a second-inning match-up with Giancarlo Stanton – one of the Majors’ most potent power hitters. With the bases empty and no-one out, Thor starts him off with a show-me curveball – one of only six he threw in the game with three coming in this at-bat alone.

Pitch 1

It’s a perfect pitch. It was the first time that Stanton had faced Syndergaard and he clearly was looking fastball as his knees buckle and the pitch drops in for an easy strike. Ahead in the count, Syndergaard goes straight back to the curveball.

Stanton checks his swing in time for ball one. It was another fairly perfect pitch, just off the plate outside where Stanton is known to have a weakness and to the slugger’s credit he lays off well.

Pitch 2

Thor’s next pitch is an ugly change-up that he leaves high and outside. Although in this scenario he gets away with the mistake he is probably trying to be too cute at this point, throwing his worst pitch to one of the Majors’ top hitters. On 2-1 he goes fastball but misses low and suddenly it’s a hitters count. On 3-1 he hits the zone with a fastball to run the count full, and we have a battle on our hands.

Foul Ball

Stanton is all over this fastball, even at 98mph but the location is down and away enough to have him reaching for it. When Syndergaard can locate the fastball like this he makes it so tough to hit, but his issue in 2015 was leaving that fastball up, and against guys like Stanton those will turn into home run balls more often than not.

On this occasion, he challenges him but locates well enough to get away with it.

Strikeout

Next comes an almost identical pitch to the 0-1 offering, but with having been sped up by the two fastballs and protecting with two strikes, Stanton cannot lay off. Again, it’s a fairly perfect pitch, a strike until it is two-thirds of the way to the plate at which point it dives away and is impossible to hit. Even with a couple of poorly executed pitches in the middle that saw Syndergaard fall behind 3-1 he had the confidence and the execution to put away the most dangerous hitter in the Marlins line-up without even using his slider. Scary stuff.

Syndergaard is not going to strike out 12 hitters per game all season and sometimes when he misses location it’ll end up in a ringing double or home run instead of a foul ball or a walk. His raw stuff is simply mesmerising however, and in limited action this season he has shown a mature approach to his pitch mix, not afraid to throw the fastball for strikes and showing supreme confidence in a new and dazzling slider.

He has the stuff, the hair and the strong twitter game to one day be the National League Cy Young winner, and on the basis of his recent performances that day may not be too far away. For the time being, let’s just enjoy one of the most supremely talented and exciting pitchers that baseball has thrown at us in a while.

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