Maybe because it’s an example of the Best Shape of His Life story taken to its inevitable conclusion or maybe because it’s the only news that’s occurred other than pitchers and catchers saying “here” in a spring-training facility somewhere. In either case, it seems relevant to discuss how Noah Syndergaard showed up to camp with a reported extra 17 pounds of muscle.
To understand the implications of that weight gain, we’d ideally examine big weight gainers of the past and use that data to discuss the situation. Unfortunately, that’s not really an option: listed weights are notoriously incorrect and also don’t change on a yearly basis.
What we can do is look at the best available research on strength training and pitching. We can also look at the pitcher himself and put this newest change in the context of the individual. Once you do, it doesn’t seem so drastic. Then the weight change is just another in a line of ambitious adjustments Syndergaard has already tackled.
Thor’s always had that hammer, but the changeup was the question mark when he was traded to the Mets from Toronto. He was promoted into Las Vegas, a terrible park for pitchers for a few reasons, and found that his breaking ball wasn’t as good. “Right now it’s pretty hard to throw a breaking ball in Vegas,” he told me in 2014. “It’s pretty dry and the ball doesn’t break as much, so I’ve moved toward the changeup.”
We only have two points of data from that year, two changeups thrown in the Futures Game, but it looks like Syndergaard added about two inches of fade and an inch or two of drop on the changeup while he was pitching in the Pacific Coast League. Now his version of the pitch has more fade, drop, and velocity gap than the average change and is 48% better than league average by whiffs and 22% better by grounders. He took a major leap forward, in other words.
The next big change that the righty implemented involved the Warthen Slider. The Mets’ pitching coach espouses a hard breaker that feature a bit less movement than a typical slider, but a bit more than a cutter. When I first talked to Syndergaard about it, he was only fiddling with the pitch. Then, in 2015, he started throwing it regularly.
Last year, no starter threw the slider 200 times and recorded a better whiff rate than Syndergaard did. PITCHf/x says he got whiffs on 28% of the sliders he threw. From the fan’s perspective, that hard slider ranks among the best pitches in the game. Another huge leap forward.
Less obvious was a mechanical change that Syndergaard underwent from 2015 to 2016. He didn’t make the most drastic change in arm slot over that time frame, but it was among the league leaders.
|Pitcher||2016 Vert Release||2015 Vert Release||Abs (Diff)|
Abs(Diff) = absolute value of the difference between 2015 and 2016 release
We know how much the arm-slot change meant for James Paxton. “It just feels natural coming out of that slot” he said last year of his new arm angle. A few other pitchers on this list took big leaps forward last year, too.
There’s Syndergaard on the list, too. Only 10 pitchers who threw 500 pitches in both 2015 and 2016 changed their arm slot to a more over-the-top orientation than Syndergaard. When you go over the top more, you sacrifice horizontal for vertical movement. Thor’s hammer gained an inch of drop on average, and his four-seam gained a quarter inch of ride. His sinker and change, meanwhile, lost around an inch of fade. His curve lost over two inches of cut.
Normally, that sort of thing would cost you in terms of ground balls, as horizontal movement is a benefit to ground-ball rate. However, velocity is also a great way to induce grounders. Between Syndergaard’s 98 mph fastball and his 91 mph slider, he has that in spades. Adding more drop to his curve and ride to his fastball helped him improve the whiff rate on both pitches. The swinging-strike rate on his curve went up 25% even.
So Syndergaard has already made two big changes to his pitching mix over the course of a brief career — and a major change to his mechanics, as well. In light of that, he seems well situated to make the most of the mass he’s added. While bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better among major-league pitchers, those numbers are muddied by the errors in their reporting we discussed above.
There’s plenty of evidence that targeted strength gain can help pitchers, especially when it comes to velocity. Studies have found:
- A .89 correlation between lower body strength and velocity;
- that higher pelvic velocity leads to throwing harder;
- that wrist flexion and strength are major contributors to velocity;
- that upper body resistance-training led to higher velocity;
- that the strength of the scapular muscle could play a vital role in injury.
It’s not immediately clear what sort of weight Syndergaard put on exactly, but these studies have been out for more than a decade, so he was probably aware (if only in secondhand fashion) of their findings when he went into the weight room. Considering he also told the Daily News that “pitching is not just max effort, it’s about being fluid and having flexibility out there,” let’s give him some benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not coming to camp with 17 pounds of extra pecs and calves.
The scariest thought is that we may see an even better version of the Mets’ righty this year. He already led the league in wins above replacement last year, so it’s time to get the popcorn out and see what he can really do, now armed with a nasty changeup, perhaps the league’s best slider, a new arm slot, and more muscle.
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