Noah Syndergaard is not the same dominant pitcher right now that he was earlier in the season. Through the middle of June, he pitched like one of the most in-command electric pitchers we've ever seen. But since a bone spur flared up on June 22, his run prevention has dropped off considerably, and so have some of his other skills and peripheral statistics.
Syndergaard said he had trouble finishing his pitches on the night the spur flared up. Syndergaard told reporters, "it was just a little thing I was feeling that wasn't allowing me to finish my pitches and compete to the fullest ability that I'm able to compete at."
Since that start, there has been a dramatic difference in his run and baserunner prevention.
|2016 MLB average||4.18||1.32||.255||.321||.417||.738|
Prior to that start against the Royals at Citi Field, Syndergaard pitched himself into the handful of the most elite starting pitchers in the sport. Since, he's been about an average pitcher by ERA, and below average by baserunners and total bases allowed. For some perspective, Eric Campbell has a career OPS of .622. Syndergaard turned all opponents into much less productive versions of Eric Campbell in his pre-bone spur version, holding them to a .564 OPS. Since, he's allowed an OPS of .808, which is equal to three time All-Star Hunter Pence's career OPS.
His pitch locations have not been as precise. At times earlier this year, I felt like the only time he walked batters was when he wanted to pitch around them. Now, both his command and control have been less consistent. Command is precision with pitch locations. Control is the ability to throw strikes and limit walks.
His walk rate before the spur flared up was an outstanding 3.6%, and at least some of those walks were the aforementioned "unintentional intentional" walks. His walk rate since is 7.4%. Before the spur, Syndergaard went to a three-ball count only 69 times against 332 batters faced, an excellent 20.8% rate. Since, he's gone to a three-ball count 73 times against 217 batters faced, a 33.6% rate, which is below average. MLB average three-ball count rate is 31.6%.
|Walk rate||3 ball count rate|
|2016 MLB average||8.1%||31.6%|
A visual of poor command on a pitch from a start in late July. Rene Rivera emphasizes he wants the pitch low and away, Syndergaard misses up and over the middle.
We didn't see much of these types of non-competitive pitches from Syndergaard early in the year.
Allowing more base runners and working into more 3 ball counts and has contributed to being less efficient in his pitch counts. Before the spur, Syndergaard averaged about 86 pitches through six innings. Since, Syndergaard has averaged about 95 pitches through 6 innings.
Syndergaard is also striking out less batters, dropping from an elite 32% strikeout rate before the spur flared up to a still strong but noticeably lower 26% rate since. He is also not putting away batters as efficiently when he gets to a two-strike count. His put-away rate, or the percentage of two strike pitches that end in strikeouts, has dropped from 27.5% pre spur to 20.7% post spur. MLB average put away rate is 18.9%.
|Strikeout rate||Put away rate|
|2016 MLB average||21.0%||18.9%|
The rise in walks and drop in strikeouts has led to a decrease in strikeout to walk ratio from just under nine to about three-and-a-half.
|2016 MLB average||2.58||12.9%|
Syndergaard's 28.3% K-BB% before the spur was on pace to be one of the greatest in baseball history for a starting pitcher. Had it held all year, it would have ranked 6th all time, behind only 1999 Pedro Martinez (33.1%), 2016 Clayton Kershaw (30.8%), 2000 Pedro Martinez (30.8%), 2001 Randy Johnson (29.5%), and 2015 Clayton Kershaw (29.1%).
Syndergaard does have a strong 2.92 FIP—with a .410 BABIP against—since the bone spur flared up in mid-June, so maybe there are better days ahead. But using FIP alone can present some problems. I very much like using FIP as a peripheral statistic, but it is flawed as an ERA estimator in that it does not take into account the type of contact allowed on non-home runs. Some types of balls in play are more likely to result in hits and production than others. Line drives have BABIPs of .640 on average with an OPS of 1.650. Ground balls with positive launch angles have BABIPs of .450. Ground balls with exit velocities of 95-99 mph have BABIPs of .340, and ground balls with exit velocities of 100+ mph have BABIPs of .440. Having a high BABIP against is not necessarily bad luck if the pitcher is allowing a lot of the type of contact that easily cuts through defenses for hits.
Digging deeper into his batted ball data via Statcast, Syndergaard has allowed a 35.0% line drive rate on balls in play since the spur, which is well above the MLB average of 25.1% on balls in play. Before the spur flared up, Syndergaard allowed a 27.7% line drive rate. We examined this with Matt Harvey earlier this year, who was allowing tons of line drives while pitching with thoracic outlet syndrome symptoms, and subsequently under-performed his FIP by over a run.
These types of batted balls cut through defenses easily and result in high BABIPs. The line drive is hit off a floating change up.
Syndergaard has also been giving up more high-end exit velocity on batted balls.
|Line drive rate||% of batted balls with an exit velocity of 100+ mph|
|2016 MLB average||25.1%||20.1%|
Syndergaard is allowing line drives and high end exit velocities at rates higher than the average MLB pitcher since the spur flared up, showing some evidence that hitters have had an easier time barreling him up.
The Mets have downplayed the severity of Syndergaard's injury, with Sandy Alderson estimating that 90% of pitchers have similar conditions to Syndergaard's elbow. He also stated that Syndergaard will not need surgery for it after the season ends. Unfortunately, the Mets have a history of downplaying injuries and having them turn out to be more severe than publicly stated. Syndergaard also has downplayed the pain of the spur, and instead cited fatigue stemming from his first full season in the big leagues.
So whether Syndergaard's drop in performance has been related to his bone spur or the build up of fatigue, he has not been the same dominant starter since the injury went public in mid June, and that's cause for some concern.