Since making his debut with the Mets in 2015, Noah Syndergaard coming into this season had always been an electrifying presence on the mound. Not only did he dominate opposing batters with his overpowering arsenal of pitches, as his career stats coming into the year—a 2.93 ERA and 573 strikeouts in 518.1 innings pitched—clearly demonstrate, but he did so while simulataneously entertaining the fanbase with his bombastic personality. His willingness to both embrace the Thor moniker that the Mets and the media placed upon him and to express himself freely on social media made him a refreshing presence in a sport that all too often shuts down any player who tries to deviate from the cookie-cutter persona that is expected from most athletes.
While staying healthy had been something of an issue for him—he was out for a month in the middle of the 2018 season after missing the majority of 2017 due to a torn lat muscle—and he had been overshadowed slightly by his Cy Young award-winning teammate, he nevertheless remained one of the most exciting players on the Mets’ roster.
All of these factors made it very confusing when trade rumors about Syndergaard started circulating almost the second Brodie Van Wagenen was brought on as the new general manager. While it’s fine to at least be open-minded in seeing what kind of return a certain player will bring back, it never seemed as though there was any reasonable chance that the Mets would be able to improve themselves by dealing one of their best pitchers. Of course, a deal did not end up happening, and Syndergaard remained with the organization heading into spring training.
But the media attention surrounding him did not end there, as he publicly challenged the front office numerous times in March, first when they forced the team to take a detour to Syracuse before their return to New York to start the season and then when the front office was stalling on signing Jacob deGrom to a long-term contract. Between these incidents and the trade rumors over the winter, Syndergaard entered the season with a noticeable tension between him and the front office.
His actual season got off to a very shaky start. In six March/April starts, he put up an ugly 6.35 ERA, which was easily the worst monthly ERA total he’s ever had in the big leagues. Some of that may have been the result of some bad luck. Opposing hitters had a BABIP of .379 against him during that month, and his strikeout and walk numbers during that stretch were fine. But he also gave up five home runs during the 34 innings he pitched in those starts, which made for an alarmingly high 1.32 HR/9 rate. We wrote at the time how there wasn’t really anything to worry about with him, which proved to be partially right and partially wrong.
In his first May start against the Cincinnati Reds, Syndergaard bounced back from his rough first month with what may have been the best performance of his major league career. Not only did he throw a complete four-hit shutout in which he struck out ten batters and only walked one, but he also mashed a solo home run to boot to score the only run of the game, putting him in rare historical company. This stellar start was the beginning of a much more successful streak for Syndergaard, as his stat line in his next 19 starts looked more like the pitcher he’d been up to this point in his career: 8-3 with a 3.00 ERA over 126 innings. During one impressive stretch in this period, he went at least seven innings in six straight starts.
His strikeout and walk rates remained solid at 8.36 and 2.29 per nine innings, respectively, and his HR/9 rate was at a much more respectable 0.71. While that rough stretch in the beginning of the season still dragged his overall numbers down—his ERA stood at 3.71 after 25 starts—the pitcher we saw during this period of the season was much closer to the guy the Mets expected Syndergaard to be coming into the season.
And yet, the Mets themselves were struggling during this period, which meant there was talk of the team being sellers at the deadline. And Syndergaard once again found himself the subject of rumors, as a number of different potential deals and destinations were publicly discussed. Syndergaard wasn’t shy about commenting on the rumors on Twitter during this period, which—amusement aside—was likely indicative of some genuine frustration over the continued instability of his place within the organization.
Eventually, however, the front office decided to make a run for the playoffs and pulled him off the trade market, news which seemed to be as welcome to Syndergaard as it was to the fans. Still, after dealing with these same sorts of rumors over the winter, one could not help but feel that the front office was operating under the mindset that the guy who had been one of the best pitchers in the league over the past few seasons was ultimately expendable.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, his season once again took a turn for the worst towards the end of the summer. On August 28 against the Cubs, Syndergaard endured the worst start of his professional career, giving up a whopping ten runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs, in just three innings of work. Following the game, Syndergaard commented that he was “sick and tired of not being super comfortable, and kind of unathletic, on the mound.” It was a somewhat surprising statement, given that he had seemingly been on such a positive roll in the weeks leading up to that start, but it indicated that things weren’t perfect.
He bounced back from the start against the Cubs with a great start—seven shutout innings with ten strikeouts and no walks—against the Nationals, but followed that performance with four straight mediocre starts in which he gave up four runs and did not make it through the sixth inning in any of them. After overcoming his bad start to the season with three-and-a-half months of solid pitching, reverting back to the same struggles which haunted him earlier—a high opposing BABIP and the home run ball overshadowing stellar K/BB numbers—to close the season was disappointing. His line during his last seven starts—a 6.69 ERA in 37.2 innings pitched—combined with his line in his first six starts to sink his overall 2019 numbers.
Controversy once again rose for Syndergaard during this period towards the end of the season, as there was a leak about a discussion he’d had with the front office about his preference to have either Rene Rivera or Tomas Nido behind the plates for his starts over Wilson Ramos. In discussing the issue with the media later, he gave decidedly measured answers regarding his relationship with the organization. One cannot blame Syndergaard for being annoyed at both the front office, who were likely responsible for leaking the details of the meeting after having already frustrated him by dangling him on the trade market two separate times, and the media, who took this story and ran with it, with several reporters criticizing him for expressing a preference about which catcher he wanted to throw to.
It seemed as though both parties were determined to paint a picture of Syndergaard as some kind of clubhouse cancer, much like they once did with Matt Harvey, as we pointed out. His performance during this final stretch of the season already meant his year ended on a down note, but this incident and the mini-frenzy it caused just cast an even larger shadow over him as 2019 came to a close.
Syndergaard’s final line on the season—10-8 with a 4.28 ERA/3.60 FIP, 202 strikeouts, and 50 walks over 197.2 innings in 32 starts, and a 2.3 bWAR—is not outright bad, but it easily marks the worst numbers that he has put up in any season of his major league career, in spite of the career highs in starts and innings pitched. In trying to identify the potential reasons for this underperformance, we could certainly point to the juiced baseballs which caused so many pitchers a ton of problems and which were certainly a factor in his HR/9 rate being the highest it’s been since his rookie season. We theorized earlier in the season that Syndergaard might be particularly impacted by the conditions of the balls due to his propensity to throw the Dan Warthen slider—and indeed, Syndergaard did comment numerous times about his discomfort with the new balls. It certainly goes without saying that this factor provided him with one more challenge to deal with in an already difficult season, and it may have played an oversized role in his season.
Of course, it would be a cop-out to completely blame his performance on conditions that every single other pitcher had to deal with as well and which many of the game’s other best pitchers were able to overcome. We can and should look at other potential factors which may have played a role. His comments about feeling unathletic, for instance, may suggest that there was an issue with his mechanics that he struggled to reconcile throughout the season. The issue may also partially come down to dumb luck, as he did significantly underperform his FIP/xFIP numbers.
In all likelihood, these and other unknown factors combined to play a role in his numbers being what they were. Whatever the reasons, those numbers certainly do not live up to the promise that Syndergaard has shown throughout the entirety of his major league career. For a pitcher of his ability, any year in which he is not at least a well above-average pitcher, if not among the very best pitchers in the game, marks a year in which he did not live up to this full potential, and such was the case in 2019.
So where do things stand with Syndergaard heading into the offseason? It’d be reasonable for fans to be concerned about the possibility that the team would once again attempt to trade him, a move which would be unlikely to make the major league team tangibly better in 2020. A report yesterday suggested that this would not be the case, but it’s hard to have too much confidence in the front office to do right by Syndergaard after the way they’ve treated him in recent times.
All we can do is hope that they have indeed come to their senses and realized that the 2020 Mets will have a better chance of winning with him on the team. Even in this mediocre year by his standards, Syndergaard still largely provided stability to the rotation by being a roughly league average pitcher. And his underlying peripherals still demonstrated a pitcher who is capable of standing alongside deGrom in competing for the Cy Young. If the Mets want to build on the potential they showed in 2019, they should stop muddying the waters with one of their top players and should instead seek to help him revert back to his pre-2019 levels of performance and beyond.