Noah Syndergaard seems to relish second chances.
Pitching for his second organization, Syndergaard made his major league debut in Wrigley Field on May 12. He didn’t embarrass himself that day – allowing three runs in 5 1/3 innings with six strikeouts – but was overmatched in a 6-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs and Jake Arrieta. The second time he faced Arrieta and the Cubs – in Game Two of the National League Championship Series – Syndergaard outdueled the eventual NL Cy Young Award winner, and the Mets went on to sweep the series.
Come to think of it, the second time he faced anybody during his rookie campaign, Syndergaard dominated. He went 4-0 with a 1.77 ERA the five times he saw a team for the second time in the regular season. In those games, he struck out 46 batters and issued just three walks in 35 2/3 innings. There was one team he saw a third time – the Washington Nationals, and he allowed two hits and one run in seven innings, striking out 10 and walking one in that game.
Entering his second major league season entrenched in the Mets rotation, “Thor” is poised for greatness.
By all accounts, Syndergaard’s rookie year was a success. He went 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA and 166 strikeouts in 150 innings. In fact, among NL pitchers with at least 150 innings, only Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer averaged more strikeouts per nine innings than Syndergaard’s 9.96.
In most years, a performance like that would warrant serious consideration for Rookie of the Year honors. Syndergaard instead finished a distant fourth in 2015, behind unanimous winner Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy and Jung Ho Kang.
This relative under-the-radar stuff could come to an end soon if the way Syndergaard pitched down the stretch last season carries over to 2016.
Soon after turning 23 on August 29, Syndergaard began his emergence as one of the game’s most formidable starters. He posted a WHIP of 0.65 from the beginning of September through the end of the regular season. Only Arrieta’s 0.57 was better in the majors over that time. “Thor” also ranked fourth in the majors with 12.04 strikeouts per nine innings in that span before fanning 26 in 19 postseason innings.
Perhaps most impressive was how impeccable his control became as the season progressed. In his final 27 2/3 regular-season innings, Syndergaard walked just two batters. He had issued at least two free passes in all but four of his first 11 major league starts. Among only a handful of starters to reach triple digits with his fastball in 2015, Syndergaard appears well ahead of schedule in terms of harnessing the immense power of his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame.
While natural acclimation to life in the big leagues and increased familiarity with the game’s best hitters offer some explanation to Syndergaard flipping the switch down the stretch, perhaps another key factor was developing a better rapport with catcher Travis d’Arnaud.
Syndergaard and d’Arnaud were both supplemental first-round picks heisted from the Blue Jays in the deal that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto in December of 2012. Despite that link, the two players’ playing paths did not cross until 2014, when d’Arnaud was sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas for a couple weeks in June.
In their first two cracks as battery mates, the results weren’t pretty. Syndergaard allowed nine earned runs and 13 hits in 10 2/3 innings. That trend continued the first five times d’Arnaud caught Syndergaard at the major league level in 2015, with the big righty making it past five innings just once and sporting a 5.76 ERA.
Syndergaard seemed to click with d’Arnaud’s by September, however. He pitched at least seven innings in each of his final three starts with d’Arnaud, allowing just four runs and nine hits while striking out 29. His lone sub-par outing in the regular-season’s final month came with Kevin Plawecki catching.
Looking ahead to 2016, the projections provided on FanGraphs with the most optimism for Syndergaard come from Fans. That crystal ball view has the Texas native going 14-8 with a 2.92 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 195 innings. Given the rapid advancement witnessed late in 2015, there’s an excellent chance those predictions will seem conservative in nine months when Syndergaard’s second act is complete.