Baseball often has a way of rendering our theories and ideas obsolete if we do not put them out into the world for consideration soon enough. Recently, I began thinking about what could possibly be wrong with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, as both were struggling mightily and quite uncharacteristically early on this season. Of course, as soon as I gathered my evidence and thoughts sufficiently as to finally sit down and write this piece, deGrom and Syndergaard each began to turn things around. Hopefully this is a sign of brighter days ahead for them both. However, the fact remains that both of them had by far the worst Aprils of the their major league careers and Syndergaard’s start last night left a lot to be desired, despite his recent complete game shutout. For Syndergaard, April was the worst single month he has ever had in his career. The only month that was worse for deGrom was May of 2017, the only other time he experienced a rough patch like this.
deGrom and Syndergaard aren’t alone either. Across the league, aces are struggling, and just like deGrom and Syndergaard, for many of these pitchers, it’s the worst they’ve ever looked over very illustrious careers. So what gives? It seems highly unlikely that Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola, Madison Bumgarner, and so many others all suddenly forgot how to pitch. As we’ve seen from deGrom and Syndergaard of late, the stuff is still there and the talent is still there.
Could it be the baseball? While studies looking into the actual physical attributes of the ball—like the one Dr. Meredith Wills did in 2018 that identified a difference in the thickness of the laces of pre-2015 baseballs versus 2016-2017 baseballs—have yet to be done for the 2019 balls, we have enough circumstantial evidence to say there is probably something different about them. Home run rates are way up again. But even more compelling than that, the drag coefficient of the baseball is down again—even lower than in 2017. The increase in home runs can be due to a whole host of factors, but when it comes to a reduction in air resistance of the baseball, it’s hard to point a finger at any other culprit besides a physical difference about the baseball itself.
Besides the ball flying further, what’s the consequence of a more aerodynamic baseball? If the ball is flying further because it is more slippery—and again, we won’t know for certain what’s physically different about the baseball until we have the data on its attributes—it also becomes harder for pitchers to grip. Justin Verlander commented on this during the 2017 postseason, calling the balls used in the World Series “slick.” Many pitchers attribute the rise in pitcher blisters to this phenomenon.
Now Syndergaard is voicing similar concerns. “You felt those baseballs, they felt like ice cubes,” Noah Syndergaard said after his start in Philadelphia. “Watch a video of a dog trying to pick up an ice cube, that’s what it was like.” As a result, he said he felt next to no confidence in his off-speed pitches because he had no feel for them. League-wide data provides some evidence that this phenomenon may be real. Pitchers are having control issues across the league. Walks are up. Hit by pitches are up as well. We’ve seen plenty of instances during Mets games where either the Mets or their opposition can’t seem to throw the ball over the plate to save their lives, even with the game on the line. During the month of April, Pitch/100 values on sliders and curveballs were the lowest they had been in years. Of course, this all comes with the massive caveat that we are only working with a month’s worth of data for 2019 and this could all normalize over the course of the full season. But right now the data certainly lend some credence the notion that pitchers are having issues throwing their off-speed stuff.
But if it’s the baseball, I can hear you saying, shouldn’t it be affecting everyone’s pitching line, not just deGrom and Syndergaard’s? Yes, but not necessarily proportionally. Having no feel for one’s off-speed stuff, particularly the slider, will have more of an effect on some pitchers than others. And deGrom and Syndergaard have exactly the type of profile that would be impacted by this the most. They are both heavily reliant on hard sliders with nasty movement, from the Dan Warthen school of pitching. Someone like Josh Hader, who the Mets have seen a lot of recently, blows hitters away with an elite fastball he throws over 80% of the time and is therefore relatively unaffected by any sort of reduction in feel for off-speed pitches. Similarly, while Edwin Diaz throws a dirty slider, his grip on it is more like a fastball grip. Starting pitchers have to mix in a wider array of off-speed pitches than relievers in order to keep hitters off balance over the course of a multi-inning outing and would therefore be the primary victims of a slippery baseball. Add in the fact that deGrom and Syndergaard throw the Warthen slider and you have a recipe for disaster if the slippery ball renders that pitch less effective.
Both deGrom and Syndergaard saw the whiff rates decline on their sliders in the month of April. While hitters whiffed 18.8% of the time on deGrom’s slider during his Cy Young campaign last season, they whiffed 15.15% of the time in April of this year. This difference is far more pronounced for Syndergaard. In 2018, he had a 25.84% whiff rate on his slider. In April, that number was just 13.59%. Not only that, but the velocity is markedly down on Syndergaard’s slider as well and he is often missing the location on his curveball, leaving it out in the middle of the plate. As a result, both of those pitches are getting hit hard often this season.
The other interesting wrinkle that adds some heft to this theory is the fact that Steven Matz has been arguably the Mets’ most consistently effective starting pitcher this season. He had one horrific start in Philadelphia where he did not retire a batter, but outside of that outing, he has been very solid. Matz has also considerably cut down on his slider usage to protect his elbow, as he has been prone to injury over the course of his career. Matz has made other adjustments as well, namely shifting to the other side of the rubber, but throwing the slider less often would render him far less affected by any loss in feel for the pitch. Meanwhile, Jeurys Familia has also struggled mightily this season and he is another pitcher highly reliant on his hard slider, profiling similarly to Syndergaard in that regard. That said, given Familia’s emergent shoulder issues, it’s hard to disentangle any effect pain or injury may have had on his pitching from any effect the baseball may have had.
With only a month’s worth of data to work with that may ultimately be a blip on the radar—and as Mets fans, we certainly hope that’s the case—this remains simply a theory, albeit a compelling one, at least in my view. There are so many reasons why pitchers can struggle: mechanical issues, underlying injuries, pitch sequencing, psychological battles, and a host of other factors. Even if the juiced balls played a role, they certainly wouldn’t be the sole culprit. It may very well be that deGrom, Syndergaard, and other pitchers across the league will begin to move past this as the weather warms—and early indicators look good on that front for the Mets’ two aces. Cold April weather would only compound any issues with gripping an unusually slick baseball. But of course, as the heat of summer begins to settle in, even if grip on the baseball improves, the juiced balls will only fly further, leaving pitchers even more susceptible to the long ball. All we can do is hope that blistered fingers don’t accompany blistered egos once they do.