Today I’ll be talking about the holy one, the pitcher with arguably the filthiest repertoire, the most dominating stuff, the man who should win every single at-bat.
And I’m going tell you why that probably isn’t going to happen. At least not yet.
Let me preface this by saying that I love Noah Syndergaard. I have a relationship with pitching that is directly opposite of the Orioles and cutters, and I struggle to watch Syndergaard pitch without starstruck eyes. Just look at this triple digit heater:
Or this casual 93mph slider:
And why not, here’s a changeup with absurd movement and hinting 90mph:
Three pitches that no mortal deserves to own (and I’m even ignoring his above-average curveball). But he is no mortal. Funny, but jokes aside, even with these three pitches, Syndergaard hasn’t yet been the definitive “best pitcher in baseball.” There is a problem here, a flaw that is holding him back and it’s about time we talked about it.
If you’ve followed my articles here at Rotographs, you may have picked up that I’m a firm believer that the technique utilized while wielding these tools is just as important as the strength of the hammer. And that’s where we have a flaw, rooted in one ghastly number.
Let double preface this. That other preface was the preface before the preface. The numbers I’ll be referencing here will be taken from 2016 and 2016 alone. 2017 is laughable as a sample and has all the reasons for us to throw it out the window, and 2016 presents us with the best representation of Thor that we have. If you’re upset and think it’s a point of contention, by all means, let me know in the comments.
Back to the BABIP (great band name). Intrinsically, the problem really isn’t the BABIP, but it’s a number on the shallow level that hints at the massive iceberg hiding underwater. I use the word “hints” because it’s not a guarantee. Sometimes pitchers have bad luck and sometimes that bad luck carries for a full season. It’s common for us to see everything else looking so great – not even just numbers, look at those GIFs above! – then brush off a high BABIP as “no wonder it didn’t all go right, his BABIP was super unlucky at .334.”
You’ve been guilty of this. I’ve been guilty of this. We’re bad people. It’s time for us to scrutinize this number and treat it for what it actually is: A representation of Syndergaard as a thrower and not a pitcher.
That phrase is often thrown around wildly and seems like “psuedo-analysis” but there is an actual quantifiable explanation for it and if you bear with me, we’ll get to the meat of this article.
Let’s start with a table, I often do.
|Pitch Type||# Thrown||BAA||BABIP|
So Thor’s BABIP was pretty poor across the board, but regarding Batting Average Allowed, Thor’s sinker is the sore thumb. It really shouldn’t be – the reason for the gap in his sinker and fourseamer BAA is due to Syndergaard using his four-seamer as a strikeout pitch (27.4% K rate), while his sinker rarely was the finishing blow (11.3%). Ignore the sore thumb, the whole hand is in pain. Combining for over 1750 thrown, Syndergaard’s fastballs combined for a .344 BABIP. That’s terrible and it’s even a worse mark than the .334 that started this whole conversation.
Is it just bad luck that Syndergaard’s fastballs returned terrible BABIPs? Or is there something else at play here?
You could make the argument that his high velocity should make it tougher for batters to get solid wood on the pitch, resulting in more pop-ups or dribblers, convincing you that this is a poor spin of the roulette wheel. You could also argue that batters have to do less to get a higher exit velocity as “a ball coming in harder goes out harder,” and there’s your explination for Syndergaard’s batted ball issues.
I don’t think either is the correct theory. Here’s mine: Syndergaard doesn’t have full command of his fastball. Again, he’s a thrower, not a pitcher.
I had that instinct and my first thought was to jump to the heatmaps. Where is Syndergaard locating his fastballs regularly? Here’s your answer:What you’re looking at is Syndergaard predominately hitting the center of the plate or staying away from batters regardless of handedness, while locating mostly middle-to-low in the zone. And it makes a lot of sense. Because this is exactly where you don’t want to put your fastball.
You can say what you want about deception and if batters can pick up Syndergaard’s heaters better than other flamethrowers – you may have a solid argument there. It doesn’t remove the fact that the locations of Syndergaard’s four-seamers and sinkers are making it easier for batters to get hits.
A perfect example of the problem is what Javier Baez did on a fastball middle-away and thigh-high:
Baez didn’t have to do much with this fastball. He went with the pitch to right-center instead of pulling it, and pushed the ball into the outfield. He didn’t have to overswing, just look away, poke the bat out along an even plane – the easiest of planes – and it turns into a base-hit.
It raises a question. If this isn’t the correct approach for Syndergaard’s fastballs, what is?
The first adjustment is easy: don’t locate thigh-high, especially with a tinge of sitting lower than higher. This is the day-and-of-age of more batters emphasizing higher launch angles, which makes them better low-ball hitters. The counter to this approach is to feature more elevated fastballs that make it tougher for the more pronounced upper-cut swings to get the barrel on the ball (we’ve actually seen pitchers have plenty of success with this including Syndergaard’s teammate Jacob deGrom who features four-seamers predominantly above the belt and held a marvelous 15.6% whiff rate in 2017).
I wouldn’t call this the biggest flaw, though. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the core of the problem. The major step Syndergaard needs to take is the real separator between pitchers and throwers: Command fastballs on both sides of the plate.
What we call “crafty” pitchers are ones that utilize all four quadrants of the strike-zone, often having success with just two pitches in their repertoire, but their locations acting as the significant variables from pitch-to-pitch. Ervin Santana crafted his success last year doing this, Dallas Keuchel is a master of it, and Kyle Hendricks is making us slam our heads into walls as he defies odds with a near two-pitch approach of fastball-changeup as he works all around the zone. Hendricks does this with an average fastball velocity over 10mph slower than Syndergaard’s. Pitcher, not thrower.
Syndergaard not only lacks this skill, but I’d argue his current fastball approach is making it a less effective offering.
If we have to choose just one side of the plate to throw four-seamers and sinkers, throwing only inside to right-handers would be a better approach for a flamethrower like Syndergaard. Let me explain via a very crude MS Paint drawing showcasing a simple concept:
What you see are two baseballs on each side of the plate represented by two red circles and the theoretical bat paths needed to make contact with those pitches. Notice where the ball is in each scenario: batters need to start their swing earlier to hit an inside pitch, while they can wait longer to attack a pitch on the outside corner. To illustrate this further, here’s a fantastic image of Ted Williams making contact with an inside pitch – it’s slightly off the bat in this shot, but you can see how far in front of the plate the bat had to be to made contact.
With Syndergaard throwing absolute cheddar, locating inside will create more weak contact as hitters need to react quicker. Outside pitches often “speeds up bats” slightly, as it’s a shorter swing path in order to make contact with the ball. It’s a major reason why the Pirates pitchers throw inside fastballs a ton – it’s known to create weaker contact and it’s why batters are so easily jammed.
Here’s a great example of what can happen what Syndergaard throws inside with authority:
Now, it’s harder to do this. There’s a smaller margin of error as a little too far inside could result in a limp to first, while overcorrecting toward the middle could send the ball over the fence. It’s why you see many favor the outside corner where there’s a larger margin for error. You can miss as far as the opposite batter’s box and at worst you’re punished with a 1-0 count. It’s a tough skill to master and it’s not one that many pitchers can develop.
But that’s the point. Clayton Kershaw is able to attack the inside corner. Max Scherzer is able to elevate with his heater consistently. Chris Sale is able to do both, going high and also bust right-handers inside. Corey Kluber…well his fastball is bad, that’s another story, but we’re talking about Syndergaard’s ceiling here as the “#1 starting pitcher” and unless he masters his fastball command in some fashion – a greater focus on elevating, increasing the number of inside heaters, or simply having more variety – I just don’t see him getting there.
Look, it’s possible. It’s easy to forget how little Syndergaard has actually pitched in the majors and the 25-year-old (25!) has plenty of time to develop this skill. However, we need to begin questioning the innate talent of the pitcher and not spend so much time getting seduced by what he throws. I want to believe Syndergaard can become the god among men, but it might be smart to temper our expectations until he figures out his fastball command. It’s a significant flaw and one that will hold him back from the coveted ceiling.