Thor Is Bigger, Stronger… and Riskier?

As spring-training camps open this week, as pitchers and catchers report to complexes across sunny Arizona and Florida, we are about to be inundated with stories suggesting a number of players are in the best shape of their careers. These are often players coming off down years, or veteran players who’ve dedicated the offseason to better diet and exercise with a view to lengthening their careers, or maturing players who’ve become more serious about their training and conditioning. Such claims are less often associated with 24-year-old pitchers who’ve just led the majors in WAR (6.5) and fastball velocity (98 mph) the previous season.

But Noah Syndergaard arrived bigger and stronger to Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florda, claiming to have added 15 pounds of muscle.

Syndergaard told the the New York Post and other outlets about one of his favorite dishes, which he used to add the lean mass and perhaps fight against deer overpopulation:

“My go-to is the Bowl of Doom,” Syndergaard said. “It’s sweet potato and hash with bacon, and you have buffalo in it and venison sausage, avocado and scrambled eggs, and that is plenty. That’s primarily what my diet consisted of this offseason.”

Resident pitching guru Eno Sarris already wrote this afternoon that the weight gain and other potential improvements could mean even better things for Syndergaard.

That we might not have seen the best of Syndergaard is a frightening prospect for opposing batters and a delightful one for the Mets, their fans, and admirers of dominant pitching. As good as Syndergaard was last season, he was also unlucky. It’s a point Corinne Landrey considered in December while suggesting that we haven’t seen the best of Syndergaard, noting the .334 BABIP he conceded last year despite weak average exit velocity.

And the starting pitcher with the fastest fastball velocity, and added strength, made a bold goal for 2017. Said Syndergaard to the Post: “I always want to throw harder and continue to make the game easier.”

Wait, harder?

As exciting as all this sounds, perhaps someone should pump the breaks. For a pitcher who threw harder than any other starter, who threw a variant of a fastball on 60% of his offerings, more velocity might not be such a great development. While we don’t have a full understanding of why so many pitchers are breaking down, perhaps the body is being pushed beyond its physical limits with the strength and velocity increases in the game.

No one, among starter pitchers, is pushing limits like Syndergaard.

I’m thinking about how many hard-throwing, young starting pitchers we’ve seen undergo Tommy John surgery in recent years from the late Jose Fernandez to Stephen Strasburg to Mets teammate Matt Harvey.

Last spring, a Henry Ford Hospital study found a correlation between fastball usage and risk for Tommy John surgery.

“When the percentage of pitches thrown was evaluated, UCL reconstructed pitchers pitch significantly more fastballs than controls (46.7% vs. 39.4%, P?=?.035). This correlated to a 2% increase in risk for UCL injury for every 1% increase in fastballs thrown. Pitching more than 48% fastballs was a significant predictor of UCL injury, because pitchers over this threshold required reconstruction (P?=?.006).”

For years, it was thought that breaking pitches, like sliders, caused the most stress on the elbow. Perhaps it’s the fastball.

In a 2014 position paper authored by Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig, young pitchers were urged to follow a number of guidelines including this:

“Do not always pitch with 100% effort. The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.”

It seems to make sense that there would be benefits to not always maxing out as a pitcher. And according to a study of fastball velocity variation by Harry Pavlidis that was included in a USA Today piece, pitchers who had a greater separation between average fastball velocity and top velocity enjoyed better health.

According to Pavlidis’ data, 61 starting pitchers in 2013-14, feature more than a 4 mph difference between average fastball velocity and top fastball velocity. Last season, Syndergaard’s top fastball velocity was 101.4 mph, according to PITCHf/x. That’s only 2.5 mph greater than his average fastball.

Perhaps Syndergaard is too often throwing too hard, placing too much stress on his right ulnar collateral ligament, which is typically about 2 cm long and 1 cm wide. How much added stress should be placed upon the small ligament? On the first day of spring training, though, Syndergaard didn’t sound like a guy ready to take his foot and right elbow off the gas.

But Syndergaard is already so talented he would perhaps be better served by not always pitching at, or so close, to his top gear. A bigger, stronger, harder-throwing Syndergaard is difficult to comprehend, but it’s a profile that also comes with more risk. Godspeed, Thor. The Mets, and baseball, need you.



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