The stories out of spring training were about how Noah Syndergaard wanted to throw harder, and also about how he wanted to throw softer.
Faster fastballs but more changeups, too, all designed to make baseball’s most intimidating starting pitcher just a little bit more impossible to hit.
The bar is being raised, even if Syndergaard’s fastball velocity through three starts this year has been basically right where it was a year ago.
The 6'6" 242-pound Mets ace has a microscopic 0.95 ERA and 0.84 WHIP with 20 strikeouts and 0 walks over 19 innings. "Thor" has been nothing short of dominant to start off 2017.
He is getting better, even if he’s throwing just one more changeup than he did in his first three 2016 starts (45 vs. 44, according to Brooks Baseball).
He’s better, even though finger problems have cut short two of his three starts. Syndergaard said the blister (Opening Day) and the split fingernails (last Friday) weren’t a big deal, and since he hasn’t missed a start and hasn’t missed a beat, we’re inclined to believe him.
Whatever is happening with his fingers—and his fastball and changeup—the massive Mets right-hander has been harder to hit than ever. He’s using his devastating sinker more, and while it isn’t costing him any strikeouts, it’s resulting in more ground balls and more outs.
He hasn’t allowed a home run, and he hasn’t walked anyone, which is a pretty good formula for success even if you don’t throw 100 mph. Syndergaard, of course, can do that, too.
Syndergaard threw harder than any other starting pitcher in baseball last year (98.3 mph on his average four-seam fastball, according to MLB.com’s Statcast). He’s throwing harder than any other starting pitcher in baseball this year (97.6 mph on his sinker).
He’s so good already that it seems foolish to suggest he can get even better, except that he’s still just 24 years old and as determined as ever to improve every year and every start.
When I wrote about Syndergaard last June, he talked about a simplified and improved delivery that was “night and day” different from the one he used as a rookie. This spring, he spoke to James Wagner of the New York Times about why he worked on getting stronger over the winter.
“I want to set goals,” he said. “Not necessarily throw harder, but make the game easier. Just never become complacent and try to maintain anything, because once you start maintaining, you ultimately lose.”
The attitude is almost as impressive as the sinker, or the 95 mph slider Syndergaard unleashed against the Kansas City Royals in his first start of 2016, or the up-and-in fastball he threw to Alcides Escobar to begin his one World Series start in 2015. It’s all part of what makes Syndergaard great, but also part of why he has a real chance to become greater.
He's comfortable with what he is and who he is. He embraced the Thor nickname, and he's always looking to entertain, the way he did last week when he stole the Phillie Phanatic's scooter:
He may not ever throw any harder than he does now, but he’ll keep coming up with better ways to make that velocity work for him. He may not ever throw significantly more changeups than he does now, but he’ll keep making it a pitch hitters have to consider when facing him. He may never fully control the running game, but with the help of catcher Rene Rivera, he’ll keep stolen bases from beating him.
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but that’s the other significant zero on Syndergaard’s 2017 ledger.
No walks. No home runs. No stolen bases against.
Oh, and about that zero in the walks column. It’s not like Syndergaard is giving in when he gets to a three-ball count. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he has gone to 3-0 twice, to 3-1 four times and to 3-2 14 times, giving up just two hits.
He’s hard to hit, even when the hitter supposedly has an advantage. He’s hard to hit, and it’s getting harder.
He’s getting better, and there’s still room to improve. There’s reason to believe Noah Syndergaard can get even better than he is now.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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