Brodie Van Wagenen and the New York Mets must lock-up Noah Syndergaard now that Zack Wheeler has officially bolted town.
They need pitchers. And while there are all sorts of options the Mets should look at, they should start close to home by signing Noah Syndergaard to a contract extension.
Yes, Syndergaard had a down year in 2019, and yes, he hasn’t been completely dominant for extended stretches since 2016. But his numbers in 2019 don’t reflect Syndergaard’s true pitching ability. He’s a good pitcher, close to great, and in 2020 he’ll only be 27. The Mets should make every effort to keep him in Queens well into his 30s.
Syndergaard’s career-high 4.28 E.R.A. last season, to be sure, was unimpressive. Through his first four MLB seasons, his E.R.A. was 2.93, and 2019 was a setback in a year that could have been another step forward. But behind his E.R.A., there are signs that Syndergaard’s year may not have been as bad as it seemed.
From 2018 to 2019, Syndergaard’s walk rate did not increase at all: in both seasons, he walked 2.3 batters per nine innings. His strikeout rate actually increased, from 9.0 per nine innings in 2018 to 9.2 in 2019. The problem was Syndergaard’s home-run rate, which jumped from 0.5 home runs per nine innings to 1.1.
And that increased home-run rate may well be fixable. For one, of course, there’s the issue of the ball. Home-run rates soared all-around baseball in 2019, and one analysis after another has found that changes to the baseball played a major role.
It’s not just that the ball is flying farther off the bat: there’s also evidence that changes to the ball disproportionately hurt pitchers who rely on curveballs and sliders, as Syndergaard used to. As ESNY’s Thomas Hall reported in September:
“The 27-year-old on average used his slider 20.6% of the time from 2016-2018. Through this season, Syndergaard has needed to throw fewer sliders because of its ineffectiveness. Currently, Syndergaard is throwing his breaking ball 14.9% during his starts this season. Along with giving up five home runs off his slider this season, Syndergaard has also recorded a career-worst .357 OPP SLG and a 3.8% walk rate with it as well.”
Syndergaard himself seemed to agree.
“If I were doctoring up the baseballs, I wouldn’t be throwing 86 mph sliders,” he told Mike Puma of the New York Post in May.
“You felt those baseballs, they felt like ice cubes.”
The ball hurt Syndergaard badly in 2019. If, for one reason or another, the changes to the ball are undone for the 2020 season, or Syndergaard can adjust to them, he’ll be poised to rebound.
There’s also another elephant in the room: in 2019, Syndergaard pitched mostly to Wilson Ramos, one of the worst pitch-framers in baseball. According to Statcast data, Ramos’s strike rate on pitches in the “shadow zone,” the blurred line between ball and strike, was a below-average 46.8%. Ramos ranked 49th in baseball. Tomás Nido, by contrast, ranked 18th with a 50.7% strike rate (league average was 48.4%).
Syndergaard made 16 starts with Ramos behind the plate, and 12 with Nido. Pitching to Ramos, he pitched to a 5.20 E.R.A.; pitching to Nido, his E.R.A. sunk to 2.88.
The real solution to this problem was to sign Yasmani Grandal, a superb offensive catcher and, with a 51.1% strike rate, an even better framer than Nido. But Nido is a fine option to catch when Syndergaard pitches. If he lowers Syndergaard’s E.R.A. by almost two and a half points, the offensive drop-off will be worth it. Even if pitching to Nido doesn’t result in quite so drastic an improvement, it’s undeniable that Syndergaard will be much-improved pitching to a catcher who is, at the very least, a league-average framer.
If he can adjust to the baseball and pitch to the right catcher, Syndergaard is poised for a stellar 2020 season. His average fastball velocity in 2019 was 97.7 miles per hour, and as Mets fans have seen over his five years with the club, when he’s on his game, he’s absolutely dominant.
In fact, his down year in 2019 is an advantage the Mets should exploit. Following a disappointing season, his value right now is the lowest it’s ever likely to be. If he’ll agree to a contract similar to what Wheeler got from the Phillies, or perhaps even slightly lower — say five years, around $20 million per year, which would make him a Met through his age-31 season — the Mets should make him an offer in a heartbeat.
Especially now that Wheeler has left town, the Mets desperately need pitchers. Right now, they have exclusive access to a 27-year-old Norse God who hits 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. They’d be crazy not to take advantage.