Last year Noah Syndergaard was 13-4 with a 3.03 ERA but it seemed like there was more complaining about his year than celebration over his numbers. Depending upon who you were talking to, he gave up too many steals, or too many hits, or he took too many pitches to put guys away, or he didn’t pitch up in the zone. It seemed that no matter what he did, it wasn’t enough.
His last eight starts of the year, it seemed he had silenced all of the complainers. In this stretch of 53.2 IP, he was 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .219 off him and while he was giving up multiple stolen bases per game prior to this stretch, he allowed just seven steals in this closing run. It seemed like a springboard to a dominating 2019.
Syndergaard enters Sunday with a 5.14 ERA and that’s with a complete game shutout among his eight appearances. In his other seven games, he’s allowed 28 ER in 40 IP for a 6.30 ERA. In all of his appearances, Syndergaard has a .354 BABIP, which has led to a .279 AVG and a .771 OPS against. The stolen bases are at the same rate as last year’s closing stretch – seven in eight games – so that clearly hasn’t been the issue.
Last year’s kick had him throwing strikes 68% of the time, with a 15% called strike percentage and a 12% swinging strike percentage. This year those numbers are 68%, 19% and 12% – or virtually identical, with a few more called strikes. He has a 26.2 K% and a 5.8 BB% this year, compared to rates of 23.1 and 8.3 in last year’s final eight games.
Syndergaard is getting more called strikes, he’s striking out more batters and is allowing fewer walks. And the running game is identical to what it was down the stretch last year. So, what the heck is the problem?
As alluded to earlier, the problem is that when batters do make contact, too often it’s for a hit. And it’s not only unlucky singles finding a hole. His HR/9 has jumped from 0.52 a year ago to 1.29 this year, which goes a long way to explain how his ISO has leapt from .098 in 2018 to .168 this season.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the batters who are doing the damage to him are RHB. Righties have an .815 OPS against Syndergaard this season, with a .204 ISO. Previously, the highest mark against him in a season was the .656 mark they tallied against him in the injury-shortened 2017. And in that year RHB had just a .034 ISO.
Currently, 12 of the 32 hits RHB have off Sydnergaard have gone for extra bases, including five homers.
Let’s check the pitch distribution to see if things have changed from a season ago. According to Brooks Baseball, Syndergaard threw the following pitches to RHB in 2018:
And here are the totals so far this year:
We see that in 2018, Syndergaard attacked RHB with sinkers and sliders primarily. His third option was his four seam fastball, which batters had the worst BABIP against, but when they did make contact, they had the highest ISO. This year, the righties have a SLG mark over .500 against both his sinker and slider so Syndergaard is responding by throwing more fastballs. The results have been better with his heater, although the best results of all have come from his change.
Typically, pitchers prefer using the change as a weapon against batters that enjoy the platoon advantage, as usually the pitch moves away from those hitters. Is it simply the element of surprise, that righties aren’t expecting the change from Syndergaard, which accounts for his results with this pitch? That’s certainly a possibility but at this point it might be worth finding out for sure by throwing it more often.
Syndergaard struggling against RHB is a pretty big surprise, at least to me. But what’s equally alarming is that his troubles crop up most often his second time through the order. Batters have a .687 OPS against Syndergaard the first time they see him but that jumps up to a .921 mark in their second look of the game. In 72 PA the second time through the lineup, opposing batters have 8 XBH, including 5 HR. Third time through, his OPS against falls back to .702, with most of that damage coming against the Twins when he went out for the eighth inning, faced three batters and allowed a single, double and triple before being removed from the game.
My opinion is that the pitch calling may be part of the problem. Syndergaard has had six games caught by Wilson Ramos and two by Travis d’Arnaud. The ones with Ramos have been mediocre, as with Ramos behind the plate, Syndergaard has a 4.38 ERA. But compare that to the two games caught by d’Arnaud, where he allowed 9 ER in 10 IP for an 8.10 ERA.
There will be no more starts with d’Arnaud behind the dish. But it’s hard to imagine why they haven’t paired Syndergaard with Tomas Nido yet this year, especially since Mickey Callaway made sure that Nido caught him last year as much as possible. In 11 starts with Nido in 2018, Syndergaard had a 1.97 ERA. But Callaway has seemingly made Nido the personal catcher for Jacob deGrom here in 2019. Nido has caught deGrom three times now, including Saturday night, and deGrom has allowed just 1 ER in 21 IP with 4 BB and 28 Ks.
Those are outstanding numbers and it’s hard to imagine not continuing to use Nido with deGrom. But it’s a fair question to ask if Callaway should use Nido with Syndergaard, too. It’s unlikely to happen today, with it being a day game after a night game. And with the weak-hitting Marlins as the opponent, it’s a good chance for Syndergaard to get back on track, regardless of who the catcher is. But another poor outing by Syndergaard with Ramos and Callaway won’t have much choice but to go back to the pairing that worked so well in 2018.