On Opening Day, Mets fans were treated to a typically-dominant performance by Noah Syndergaard. Many of the headlines following the Mets’ shutout win were consumed by the blister issue that forced him from that game at the end of the sixth inning, but other than that, things couldn’t have gone more swimmingly for the Mets’ ace. And Syndergaard has seemingly enhanced his arsenal with another nasty swing-and-miss pitch.
The changeup Syndergaard sported on Opening Day was wicked. He has always had a changeup—last year he threw it 11.1% of the time, according to PITCHf/x—but the one we saw in this start was different because of its horizontal movement. According to Brooks Baseball, Syndergaard averaged -9.81 inches of horizontal movement on his 12 changeups thrown against the Braves on Monday afternoon. That minus sign means that he was getting arm-side movement—running the pitch inside on a right-handed hitter—on the pitch.
And if -9.81 inches of horizontal movement seems like a lot, that’s because it is. A Rotographs piece from 2015 wrote up the average horizontal movement for various pitch types for both right- and left-handed pitchers—via Eno Sarris’s recent article for FanGraphs on Clayton Kershaw’s changeup—and had the average horizontal movement on right-handers’ changeups at -6.7 inches.
With that baseline, the changeups we saw from Syndergaard on Opening Day had about 46% more arm-side movement than the average right-hander’s. That’s obviously exceptional, and perhaps you’re not surprised that he is so far above average in that category because we’re all kind of spoiled by him being exceptional in almost every way on the mound. The scary thing, though, looking back to the Brooks Baseball data, is that Syndergaard’s average horizontal movement on his changeup in 2016—including the Wild Card game—was -7.99 inches, meaning that he increased the movement on that changeup by nearly 23% from what it was last year.
It’s clear that with the increased movement, Syndergaard’s confidence in the changeup has increased to the point where he’s comfortable using it as an out pitch in key situations. This was on full display Opening Day when he twice went to the changeup to record key strikeouts of Matt Kemp with a runner on third base and one out, in both the fourth and sixth innings.
Here’s that fourth inning strikeout:
And here’s the nasty sixth-inning changeup that got Kemp again:
In both instances Syndergaard desperately needed a strikeout to keep the score tied at zero, and in both cases he went to the changeup for a swinging strikeout.
Per Brooks Baseball, he got swings and misses on 41.67% of the changeups he threw on Opening Day, compared to 22.39% in 2016. Narrowing down to whiffs per swing, Syndergaard got batters to whiff on 71.43% of their swings against changeups Opening Day versus 41.44% in 2016. We’re talking about an extremely small sample size for 2017 so far, so we shouldn’t expect those incredible numbers to continue at that level. But there’s perhaps less small sample size noise here than one might expect given the dramatic spike in movement on the changeup, as movement on pitches is thought to stabilize relatively quickly.
The changeup is obviously improved, but as the name of the pitch suggests, the key to the pitch is the change from the pitcher’s primary offerings to throw off hitters’ timing. The key is to make hitters think they’re seeing a fastball/high-velocity pitch when they’re actually getting something offspeed. Talent evaluators always note that the key to a great changeup is that you need to throw it with the same arm action, release point, and arm speed as your fastball, while maintaining about seven-to-ten miles per hour of separation from your fastball in order to create the necessary deception.
Syndergaard has always been noted for his excellent athleticism and ability to repeat his delivery and release point despite his massive frame, and he certainly maintains the requisite velocity separation between his blistering fastballs and sinkers, which sit between ~97 and ~98 mph, and his changeup which sits ~89 mph. Perhaps as important in generating deception, though, is ensuring that the general movement and shape of the changeup closely resembles a pitcher’s primary offering. This is where his sinker comes into play.
Syndergaard typically will mix both four-seam fastballs and sinkers as his primary pitches. Last year, per PITCHf/x, he threw 37.8% four-seamers and 21.6% sinkers. On Opening Day, he heavily rode his sinker, tossing 42 of them compared to just one four-seam fastball. Not only did he lean on the sinker more than usual on Opening Day, but the ~97 mph offering exhibited a massive horizontal movement bump from 2016—even more so than was exhibited with his changeup. Per Brooks Baseball, the pitch averaged -9.00 inches of horizontal movement compared to -6.02 inches from 2016. That’s a practically 50% increase in arm-side horizontal movement.
So there’s another crazy horizontal movement increase on one of Syndergaard’s pitches, but let’s observe how closely the horizontal movement now aligns between the sinker and the changeup. In 2016 Syndergaard’s -6.02 inches of horizontal movement on his sinker was within about 25% of the -7.99 inches on his changeup. After one start in 2017, Syndergaard’s -9.00 inches of run on his sinker has closed to ~8.3% of the -9.81 inches of horizontal movement on his changeup. The improvements of each pitch in terms of movement are significant. The dramatic increase in the similarity of the sinker and the changeup’s movement profiles in relation to one another is really significant.
Major league hitters are really great at what they do, but it’s tough to see how they’ll be able to stand a chance against Syndergaard when he’s throwing really nasty 97+ mph sinkers and 89+ mph changeups that look almost exactly the same. And on top of that, they have to contend with this slider and a good curveball. It’s hard to imagine Syndergaard being better than he was last year, but it looks like he might be.