New York Mets fans are excited to crown Zack Wheeler as their next ace after watching him last season, but Noah Syndergaard will be the superior pitcher in the long term.
This claim is not definitive, as the improvement of any player with potential depends on the work the player puts in to maximize their natural gifts, and I am not trying to disparage Wheeler’s work ethic. And, while I don't write positively about Wheeler much, that does not mean I think he will be a bust whatsoever.
However, based on Syndergaard and Wheeler’s current skill sets, Syndergaard is more likely to become a dominant pitcher at the major league level.
Despite the fact the Syndergaard has not pitched at the major league level while Wheeler has already had some success in the big leagues, Syndergaard will be the better pitcher. This is because of his already superior command, his faster rate of development, his more ideal frame and how he is able to repeat his mechanics much more consistently than Wheeler.
While Wheeler has consistently struggled with his command throughout his career, Syndergaard has excelled in this area and should continue to improve upon this skill moving forward.
First, I feel the need to define control versus command. Control is the ability to throw strikes and not walk hitters, while command is the ability to hit spots and work within the zone.
Wheeler spent his minor league career pitching around hitters and walking batters at a high rate when he should have focused on locating his pitches and improving his arsenal.
Outside of his 27 innings playing for High-A St. Lucie in 2011, Wheeler has walked an unacceptable amount of hitters, giving free passes to greater than three batters per nine innings at every level. He failed to improve upon this following his major league debut, as he had a 4.14 BB/9 last season, and was lucky his ERA was just 3.42.
Syndergaard, in comparison, outside of 32 innings in rookie ball during which he had a 3.09 BB/9, has never allowed more than 3.0 BB/9.
While BB/9 is just one statistic and cannot capture how both pitchers approach their craft, they indicate that Syndergaard attacks hitters, while Wheeler doesn’t have that same approach or ability.
In the below highlight reel of Wheeler from 2013, you can still see him struggling with his command despite the fact that the clip shows him at his best. While he occasionally hits his target perfectly or throws a dirty breaking ball to get a swing and miss, he fails to hit his spots even when he strikes out hitters on a number of occasions.
Notice how the catcher is sometimes sitting on the outside corner of the plate, yet Wheeler gets the strikeout with a fastball up, making the catcher reach up and over the plate. The fact that Wheeler gets the strikeout anyway speaks to his potential dominance, yet being unable to hit his spots consistently does not bode well for long-term success, and he must improve his command.
On the other hand, Syndergaard pounds the strike zone and repeatedly hits the catcher’s target. While Wheeler often has no idea of where his fastball is going, Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus states (subscription required) that Syndergaard has, “excellent manipulation of the pitch… [a] true 80 grade offering” (80 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, meaning among the best in all of baseball).
In an at-bat from last August (which you can watch here) Syndergaard’s impressive command and pitchability are readily present. This at-bat is ideal to look at because it wasn’t just Syndergaard dominating a minor leaguer with his overpowering talent, but he was able to sequence his pitches intelligently while hitting his spots, winning the battle against the hitter.
Outside of the first pitch, in which Syndergaard is clearly overthrowing and misses outside, the at-bat is a work of art. After falling behind 1-0, he nails the outside black and evens the count. He then throws a fastball inside that catches a little too much of the plate but was down in the zone, and the hitter fouls it off. With the count 1-2, Syndergaard throws a fastball high, just as the catcher asked for. While the pitch was way too high, it is better to miss up in that situation, as a fastball up in the zone is easily hittable. It also set up the following pitch, a breaking ball off the plate outside, fouled off by the hitter.
He then throws a fastball right at the glove down and in, once again fouled off, but a pitch that very few hitters would be able to drive. He throws another off-speed pitch, again fouled off, but again exactly where he wanted it, on the outside corner. He finished off the hitter with a blazing fastball on the outside black.
While the at-bat was a struggle, Syndergaard executed exactly what he wanted to do with every pitch except the first one, and that is the type of approach that will get most major league hitters out. Wheeler, on the other hand, fails to hit his spots often, which causes him to be more of a thrower than a pitcher at times.
Wheeler was able to succeed last year because he has the physical gifts of an ace, but as time wears on, hitters will figure him out unless he can start commanding his offerings. Syndergaard has very good control right now, which could translate into elite command, and with his stuff on the mound, he is a safer bet to succeed than Wheeler.
Both Wheeler and Syndergaard should be commended for their development as players drafted out of high school who have worked their way to likely major league careers. However, Wheeler has failed to improve the greatest weakness of his game throughout his entire career, while Syndergaard has noticeably improved his flaws as a player.
Since Wheeler was drafted, his biggest issue has been his command (as discussed above). As a prospect with an electric arm, reports consistently indicated that if he improved his control, he then could become a dominant pitcher at the big league level.
While Wheeler developed to the point where he was ready to contribute in the big leagues, he has yet to truly fix his command. His BB/9 while pitching for Double-A Binghamton in 2012 was 3.34, an unremarkable total but a promising one with respect to his development. However, when he was promoted to Triple-A that year, he regressed to a 4.36 BB/9. This continued in New York, as he was able to succeed despite his 4.14 BB/9.
Beyond just the numbers, Wheeler’s command was concerning in many of his starts upon reaching the majors. There were times last season when Wheeler could whip a fastball to the outside corner and show off why he was so highly touted but follow that up with a fastball three feet outside to a right-handed hitter.
Pitching is a chess match, and every pitch should have a purpose. Wheeler’s inability to repeat his delivery and his tendency to miss spots by wide margins will hold him back, and his failure to make strides in this area while in the minors is concerning for his future.
Syndergaard, on the other hand, has made significant improvements in his areas of weakness. He has always had the ideal frame and overpowering fastball of a front-of-the-rotation starter, but in his early years, scouts were widely concerned about the potential of his secondary offerings.
Jason Parks was high on Syndergaard earlier than many scouts across baseball, but even he questioned Syndergaard’s off-speed pitches last winter. Parks wrote that Syndergaard’s “curveball isn’t consistent and will lose depth” and that his “changeup can get too firm.”
ESPN’s Keith Law was also unimpressed with Syndergaard’s curveball entering 2013, writing (subscription required) that, “Finding a consistent, average breaking ball has been an issue for Syndergaard since he entered pro ball, with reports this year grading it as average at best, and often coming in below that.”
This offseason, both scouts have noted great improvements in his secondary offerings. Parks wrote (subscription required) that Syndergaard’s “curveball is plus at present; projects to be plus-plus; upper 70s/low 80s with sharp vertical action; impressive depth; power pitch.”
Law is less enthusiastic about the curveball but still acknowledges the improvement the pitch has made (subscription required):
His curveball, a grade-40ish pitch in high school and early in his pro career, is already solid average, and plays up because he gets on top of the ball and releases so close to the plate; hitters swing and miss at it like it’s a sharper, harder pitch.
The reports are confirmed by comments Mets manager Terry Collins made following Syndergaard’s first bullpen session of the spring, as quoted by Mike Vorkunov of The Star-Ledger.
Syndergaard has transformed his curveball from his greatest weakness into a potential plus pitch at the major league level. Usually a pitch has a limited ceiling as to how much it can improve, as it is a physical trait, while command is one of the more improvable pitching characteristics.
Wheeler has failed to improve upon his command throughout his path to the majors, while Syndergaard is working to maximize his physical abilities.
Syndergaard has also risen to the challenge upon being promoted, while Wheeler regressed upon most of his promotions. As discussed above, Wheeler’s walk rates dipped as he rose through the system, but he later improved upon them before rising to the next level.
Syndergaard responded better, instead improving upon his performance after his promotion from Single-A to Double-A, one of the most difficult jumps in the minors. His strikeout rate climbed from 24.8 percent to 32.2 percent, and his walk rate declined from 6.2 percent to 5.6 percent.
While Wheeler regressed upon his promotions, Syndergaard displayed fortitude and improved abilities, rising to the challenge just as Matt Harvey did upon reaching the big leagues.
Another reason Syndergaard is more likely to be a superior pitcher to Wheeler is because of his frame and ability to hold velocity later into games (and conceivably, later into a season).
Wheeler stands at 6’4” and 185 pounds, a nice frame for a pitching prospect but one the Mets have hoped would fill out over time. He is still skinny, which wouldn’t be a problem if he were able to maintain his velocity. In a number of starts last season, Wheeler began games by dominating, but as the game wore on his fastball velocity dipped into the low 90s and was hit harder as a result.
This is further substantiated by Bleacher Report’s Mike Rosenbaum, who wrote last week that Wheeler wore down last season and noted that it could be seen in his declining release and dip in velocity. Rosenbaum used the below charts via BrooksBaseball.net to exhibit the dipping velocity and mechanical adjustment.
Syndergaard doesn't have this issue, as he is sturdily built, and his body projects to handle the workload of a front-of-the-rotation starter. Syndergaard is known for his work in the weight room and came into spring training this year massive, as SNY’s Kevin Burkhardt noted.
The big Texan pitched a career-high 117.2 innings in 2013 and still needs to prove he can handle a major league starter’s workload. However, considering his frame, lack of injury history and fluid mechanics, it seems fair to project Syndergaard as a workhorse.
While Wheeler’s velocity is inconsistent and shows signs of wearing down, Syndergaard has an ideal body and projects to be an innings eater at worst moving forward.
Repeatability of Mechanics
Both Wheeler and Syndergaard’s mechanics allow them to generate great velocity. However, Wheeler’s mechanics have many moving parts that, when not working together, cause him to lose command often. In contrast, Syndergaard has a more compact motion that makes it easier for him to repeat his delivery and therefore be more consistent throughout games.
Wheeler is long and lanky, allowing him to generate leverage and zip fastballs with movement to the plate. When all of his moving parts stop working together, he can struggle and end up often pitching from behind in the count.
Wheeler’s motion requires him to tuck his shoulder, turning his back partially to the plate, yet he strides directly toward home. If he doesn’t tuck his shoulder properly, or his legs begin to move prior to him untucking his shoulder, his arms and legs get out of sync, and the ball can end up anywhere. When all the pieces are moving as one, Wheeler’s motion looks picturesque, but he needs to continue working on standardizing his delivery moving forward.
Baseball Prospectus' Doug Thorburn, who specializes in pitcher mechanics, debunked the idea that Wheeler’s mechanics are as free and easy as they seem:
Actually, [Wheeler’s] mechanics aren't really that "easy." There's a bit too much up-down with balance during the lift phase, and [his] arm action has a lot of extra movement during the "pick-up" phase prior to initiation of rotation. There are also times when [Wheeler’s] timing is off and [he suffers] from elbow-drag.
Wheeler’s inability to repeat his delivery causes several problems for him. The obvious issue is that he starts walking hitters, and beyond that he starts falling behind in the count and putting himself in tough situations. Also, once he begins losing control, he can start trying to aim the ball, losing velocity and movement while also becoming much more hittable.
Syndergaard, on the other hand, has very clean mechanics for a pitcher his size. Thorburn wishes that Syndergaard would use more of his legs to generate the power in his delivery, but he believes (subscription required) he “takes the Matt Cain approach to pitching, with great balance yet a slow pace to the plate.”
As you can see in the below video, Syndergaard has very little unnecessary movement, getting himself in a clean position to throw the ball and then driving with a short stride to the plate.
Some coaches and scouts would probably like to see Syndergaard take a larger stride and get more on top of the hitter, taking advantage of his size. However, by taking a short stride he is compacting his delivery and making it more repeatable, allowing him to dominate hitters with his stuff on a more consistent basis.
Both pitchers have workable mechanics that, when in sync, can let their power offerings overwhelm opposing hitters. However, Wheeler has much more trouble repeating his delivery than Syndergaard, and as long as that is still the case, Syndergaard will be more consistent in the future.
Despite everything I have written, Wheeler has one big advantage going for him over Syndergaard: Wheeler has succeeded at the major league level while Syndergaard has yet to pitch above Double-A.
I understand that claiming a pitcher in the minors will be better than someone with major league success is a bold statement. However, I still believe that for the reasons above, Syndergaard has superior qualities in enough areas of importance that will allow him to be the superior pitcher in the long-term.
Sean is a featured columnist for the Mets on Bleacher Report and also writes for Perfect Game. You can follow Sean on twitter at @SCunninghamPG.