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Noah Syndergaard goes into 2018 with a real shot at the NL Cy Young

In the brief time he was on the field last year, the Mets’ Opening Day starter was outstanding.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets might not have five pitchers in the mix for the debate about which one is the team’s ace, but Noah Syndergaard would probably be the lead contender for that title regardless of how many other options there were. That’s no dig to Jacob deGrom, who could very well end up putting up the better season this year. Syndergaard’s stuff and the things he did with it last year are simply too good to predict that anyone but him has the best shot at that title—and the National League Cy Young award.

In seven starts last year, Syndergaard struck out 27.4 percent of opposing batters, walked just 2.4 percent, and did not allow a home run in 30.1 innings in a year that saw virtually every pitcher’s home run rate increase significantly. Through the first four of his starts, he had a 1.73 ERA with 30 strikeouts and zero walks. But that insanely good start hit a brick wall on April 30 in Washington, D.C., as Syndergaard gave up five runs in one-and-one-third innings in the start that saw him tear his lat muscle, bringing his season to a halt. He made it back for a total of three major league innings at the very end of the season, all of which were scoreless, and ended the year with a 2.91 ERA and 1.31 FIP.

The injury quickly became an infamous one, as Syndergaard had chosen to refuse an MRI when something didn’t feel right before the lat went out. There’s no guarantee that he would have maintained the rates that he put up if he had pitched over a longer span of time, but for reference, his strikeout percentage would have been just outside the top ten among qualified starters in all of baseball.

Syndergaard’s walk rate would have been the best, and it would have been interesting to see how long he could go without allowing a home run. Stephen Strasburg’s rate of 0.67 home runs allowed per nine innings was the best in baseball last year, and Syndergaard himself had the best HR/9 rate of all qualified starters in 2016 at 0.54. And the best qualified starter in the game by FIP last year was Chris Sale, who finished the year at 2.45.

A fully healthy season from Syndergaard might have yielded more human results, for sure, but there was also a good chance that he could have been the best pitcher in baseball if that had happened. It’s not often that you can say that about a guy, especially when Clayton Kershaw is still active and just about as good as he’s ever been. And it’s easier to believe that might happen when that starting pitcher routinely throws 100 miles per hour. Per Brooks Baseball, Syndergaard’s average fastball velocity has gone up in each of his major league seasons, something that doesn’t happen all that often.

Spring training stats don’t really matter, but Syndergaard made those games look like what they were: practice. He had a 1.35 ERA, didn’t allow any home runs, threw plenty of triple-digit and high-90s fastballs, and had 23 strikeouts and six walks in 20 innings of work.

The popular projection systems have Syndergaard pitching plenty of innings, for the most part, with ZiPS an exception at approximately 142. All of them project a good year, with an ERA hovering around 3.00. There would be nothing wrong with that, especially if the offensive environment from last year still exists this year, and projections are meant to give a middle-of-the-road kind of picture of what a player will do. So don’t be surprised even a little bit if Syndergaard ends up finishing the year with a much, much better ERA than that—and perhaps a piece of hardware for his performance.