Noah Syndergaard Is an Elite Contact Pitcher, Too

One of the first things taught in any newswriting class is how to craft a compelling lede. You learn about the inverted pyramid, writing concisely, and the importance of employing strong verbs. No professor of mine ever said anything about .gifs, but hey, what’s more compelling than watching Noah Syndergaard pitch? If that doesn’t grab and hold your interest, you’re probably here on accident anyway.

These are the final pitches of the first three batters Syndergaard faced against the Brewers in New York on Sunday, his most recent start of the season:

1

2

3

Ignore the result of batter No. 2. That one is on David Wright. Just focus on what Syndergaard did. He got a ground ball, a ground ball, and then another ground ball. That’s three ground balls.

You know about Noah Syndergaard because of the 100 mph fastball and all the strikeouts. Or at least those would be among the most likely immediate reactions if presented with a silhouette of Syndergaard’s head while being administered a Rorschach inkblot test. And those responses would be justified. It’s less likely that “ground balls” would spring to mind, unless, that is, you’d been paying close attention to Syndergaard’s development as a pitcher, or had recently read this article.

Starting pitchers, this year and last. Largest improvement in ground-ball rate:

  1. Hector Santiago, +11.0%
  2. Noah Syndergaard, +9.8%
  3. Corey Kluber, +9.8%

Another way of framing that is: last year, Syndergaard was a strikeout pitcher with a league-average ground-ball rate. This year, Syndergaard is an improved strikeout pitcher with a top-10 ground-ball rate. Sure, it’s still technically early in the season. But we’re well past the stabilization point for ground balls, there’s adjustments Syndergaard’s made in the way he’s pitched that help explain the change, and the fact of the matter is, nobody else is doing quite what he’s doing when it comes to strikeouts and grounders:

Syndergaard_GBvsK

Hopefully it’s obvious which dot represents Syndergaard’s place on this plot. The dot closest to Syndergaard’s represents Clayton Kershaw. The dot on the far bottom-left is Jered Weaver. Pitchers want to be where Syndergaard is.

It’s great for a pitcher to be an elite ground-ball getter. It’s great to be a strikeout artist. It’s otherworldly to be both. I really don’t mean to perpetuate and extend this comparison too far, because Kershaw is truly on another plane of existence right now and there’s plenty more to his greatness than just strikeouts and grounders, but that particular combination of abilities is a big reason why he’s separated himself from literally every other pitcher on the planet in recent years, and Syndergaard is forging ahead down that same path.

So, why? That’s the only one of the Five Ws I didn’t address in my lede. Why is this happening?

The easy, boring explanation is this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 11.01.09 AM

Syndergaard’s simply swapped his four-seamers for sinkers. It’s not like the sinker doesn’t still go 98, and it’s not like Syndergaard will be hurting for whiffs without as much of the four-seam, so it’s a sensible trade to make in order to acquire more ground balls.

But it’s not just the sinker. If you were paying close attention to the video clips at the beginning of this post, you might’ve noticed something about how Syndergaard went about getting those ground balls. The first came on the aforementioned sinker, spotted low-and-away at 99. The second came on an outside four-seamer, caught off the end of the bat at 99. The third came on a breaking ball, again spotted low-and-away, this one at 84. Three ground balls on three different pitches. Somehow, that’s not out of the ordinary for Syndergaard:

Starters with Three or More Plus Pitches
Player Team Pitch1 Pitch2 Pitch3 Pitch4
Noah Syndergaard NYM Sinker Four-seam Slider Changeup
Cole Hamels TEX Cutter Changeup Sinker Curveball
Corey Kluber CLE Four-seam Cutter Slider Changeup
Aaron Sanchez TOR Sinker Four-seam Curveball
Chris Bassitt OAK Sinker Four-seam Curveball
Clayton Kershaw LAD Four-seam Slider Curveball
Danny Salazar CLE Four-seam Sinker Splitter
James Shields SD Four-seam Changeup Curveball
Tanner Roark WAS Sinker Slider Curveball
SOURCE: BaseballProspectus PITCHf/x leaderboard
-“Plus” defined as: above-average whiff/swing% + above-average GB/BIP%
-Min. 100 fastballs thrown
-Min. 50 offspeed/breaking pitches thrown

Syndergaard’s sinker, four-seam, slider and changeup have all been above-average this year at getting whiffs. His sinker, four-seam, slider and changeup have also all been above-average at getting grounders. Only eight other pitchers have at least three offerings with such characteristics. Only Corey Kluber and Cole Hamels match the depth of Syndergaard’s repertoire with four. The only pitch in Syndergaard’s arsenal that’s generated a below-average rate of grounders is the curve, of which he’s cut the usage in half since last season. What’s the point in throwing it when he’s got the rest of what he’s got? One single flaw in a pitch is enough for it to be outranked and kicked to the curb in Noah Syndergaard’s repertoire.

And as if excelling at strikeouts and ground balls like no one else wasn’t enough, Syndergaard’s quality of contact on fly balls is nearly unmatched as well. In the rare instance a batter has put the ball in the air against Syndergaard this year, it’s come off the bat at an average of 87 mph, the fourth-lowest figure in baseball.

I think that, from the first time we all saw Noah Syndergaard pitch, we understood that he had the stuff to be an elite strikeout pitcher. What he’s become is far greater than that. We originally knew him for the fastball, which has since been swapped with an even-better sinker and now simply mingles with one of the deepest repertoires in the game. He’s combining strikeouts and grounders at a Kershaw-ian level, and gives batters a false sense of hope when they’re lucky enough to get it in the air. You hear about “throwers becoming pitchers.” Well, Syndergaard skipped that step and went straight to a freak. There truly isn’t a flaw to be found. He’s the quarterback, the lead in the school play, and the president of the math club all at once. With great hair.

We hoped you liked reading Noah Syndergaard Is an Elite Contact Pitcher, Too by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Natenanimous
Member
Natenanimous

As a Mets fan I’ve really enjoyed watching him. He’s an amazing pitcher and I hope he keeps it up. Also I’ve finally been able to heal the scars from the crippling Dodgers envy borne of never getting to watch Kershaw games.

Now if only Harvey can right his ship so we can harness the full rotational power. Just think, if he were 6-3 instead of 3-6, the Mets’ record would be up there with the Cubs’.

the wiener
Member
the wiener

as a jays fan, this is somewhat heartbreaking, should’ve been a core of thor, sanchez, stroman, osuna for the next 5 years in toronto