Noah Syndergaard Is Aroldis Chapman Now

Aroldis Chapman was supposed to be a starter. Maybe supposed is a strong word, but when he debuted in professional baseball as a 22-year-old out of Cuba in Triple-A, he did so as a starting pitcher, and if not for injuries to then-Reds closer Ryan Madson and a handful of other Cincinnati relief pitchers, the club seemed prepared to have Chapman open the 2012 season in the starting rotation.

But those injuries happened, and Chapman instead returned to the bullpen, where he’d pitched for the previous season and a half. He returned to the bullpen, he was handed the keys to the ninth inning, and he hasn’t given them back since. Watching Chapman on the baseball field in the ninth inning has been a treat all these years, but it’s always felt like something of a missed opportunity. Sure, we see the 104 mph fastball and the strikeout rates over 50%, but it’s almost felt like cheating, in a sense. It’s all still remarkable, yeah, but this is a guy who could start, throwing just one inning at a time.

Don’t we all want to see what he could do if he came out in the first and pitched as deep as he could every game? Aren’t we curious how much of the stuff would carry over during the transition? Wouldn’t it be fun if Chapman didn’t lose anything, and routinely threw six or seven innings with the same caliber stuff he throws in the ninth? At some point over the last couple years, we’ve all accepted the fact that we’d probably never get to see it in action, Aroldis Chapman the starter.

And then Noah Syndergaard made his first start of the 2016 season.

I presume you’ve heard tell of Syndergaard’s season debut against the Royals. I presume, at the very least, that you’ve seen a couple .gifs or memes. He got 16 swings and misses in six innings against the best contact team in baseball; only once all last year did the Royals exceed that number. Syndergaard’s numbers were great, and the Mets won, but something bigger than that happened. I don’t think much more than this needs to be said: Syndergaard threw 25 sinkers, and those 25 sinkers averaged 98.5 mph, per Brooks Baseball. Sinkers.

Do you even know what a sinker at 99 looks like? If you’ve ever seen Kelvin Herrera pitch, then yeah, I guess you do, but do you even know what a sinker at 99 looks like from a guy who’s already thrown 75 pitches? I didn’t, either. It looks like this:

The 10 hardest sinkers in baseball last year, on average, were these:

  1. Kelvin Herrera, 98.4
  2. Jumbo Diaz, 98.0
  3. Jeurys Familia, 97.8
  4. Noah Syndergaard, 97.7
  5. Jake Diekman, 97.6
  6. Zach Britton, 97.1
  7. Blake Treinen, 97.1
  8. Tommy Hunter, 97.0
  9. Hector Rondon, 96.9
  10. Trevor Gott, 96.7

One thing you might notice about that group is that there’s nine relief pitchers. There should be 10 relief pitchers, because relief pitchers who throw an inning at a time and can always pitch with maximum intent should always inhabit the top spots on a velocity leaderboard. Except, Noah Syndergaard went and got in the way.

Already, Syndergaard was one of baseball’s hardest throwers. He entered the league that way. He entered the league a hard-thrower, and a good pitcher, and a young pitcher, and we wondered where he might go from there. A logical line of thinking is that Syndergaard might improve his command. He might learn how to sequence his pitches better. He might focus on improving an offspeed pitch. And while all of that might also be true, the most obvious step forward that Syndergaard appears to have taken is that he’s throwing even harder. He went and added a full tick to a sinker that was already the fourth-hardest sinker in baseball. It didn’t seem possible that he was doing what he was doing last year. How do you describe the improbability of something when impossible no longer cuts it?

Let’s say everyone who pitched last year carries over their 2015 velocity, and Syndergaard maintains last night’s velocity. His sinker would be the hardest-thrown sinker in baseball, relievers included. His slider would be the hardest-thrown slider in baseball, relievers included. His changeup would be the hardest-thrown changeup in baseball, relievers included.

We haven’t even gotten to the craziest part of the night. A moment of silence, for Kendrys Morales:

Those were Syndergaard’s final three pitches of the night. Those were sliders, at 95, 93, and 93. Those were sliders that Morales swung at and missed, not because he chased, like most batters do when they swing and miss at a slider, but because he couldn’t catch up to them. Noah Syndergaard is throwing sliders past people.

PITCHf/x called the first one at 95 a fastball, and you can’t blame it. It’s not used to sliders at 95. But looking at the movement with both my eyes and in the data, I’m fairly certain it was a slider, too, and after the game, David Wright confirmed:

“I looked up on the scoreboard and see 94, 95. I go ask [catcher] Travis d’Arnaud what those pitches were, and he’s talking about sliders. That’s unheard of.”

He’s absolutely right. It is unheard of. Even Chapman’s slider averages 88. Last year, Syndergaard’s own slider averaged 88. Now, it’s sitting 92, and somehow touching 95. Syndergaard has taken things to a new level.

Eno talked to a bunch of Met pitchers last July about the slider taught to them by pitching coach Dan Warthen. At the time, Syndergaard was just fiddling around with it. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Syndergaard was flashing it as a weapon. Yesterday, it was his second-most thrown pitch, and it was coming in four miles per hour faster than we last saw it. Think of how ridiculous that sounds, especially given our subject. Syndergaard used the slider for eight swinging strikes yesterday. Syndergaard used the slider for eight swinging strikes all of last year. The movement is different, too, with less vertical drop now than last season, and maybe a bit more cut. It looks less like a curveball, and more like its own pitch. One that nobody else in baseball can throw.

Look at the last .gif of the Morales at-bat, the 93 mph slider that got Syndergaard out of a bases-loaded jam. It’s not a particularly well-located pitch, and it’s got less movement than the first two. Morales swung through it anyway. Even Syndergaard stands to benefit from more velocity. It makes the hitter more uncomfortable. It gives the pitcher more room for error. Syndergaard throws that same 0-2 slider at 88, like last year, and maybe it gets crushed, and we’ve got a whole different game. But Syndergaard didn’t throw it 88. He threw it 93, like he threw the rest of his sliders, and they were untouchable.

It took a couple years to get used to Aroldis Chapman doing what he does. It was such a jarring shock to the system. Then, more and more relievers started touching 100, and it took some time to get used to that, too. Now, the starters are catching up. One, in particular, moreso than the rest. It shouldn’t be possible for a pitcher to throw like Aroldis Chapman for six innings or more. Looks like we might have to get used to that, too.

We hoped you liked reading Noah Syndergaard Is Aroldis Chapman Now 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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SteveM
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SteveM

As baseball fans, regardless of religious beliefs, we need to collectively pray for Syndergaard’s continued good health. We may be witnessing the beginning of one of the greatest careers in the history of the game, on the order of Mr. Trout in Anaheim. Or LA. Or wherever we’re supposed to say they play.

Johnston
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Johnston

Amen.

Randy
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Randy

It’s funny that you say that, because, speaking as a lifelong Met fan, this is wonderful and almost surreal to watch, but the neurotic, ‘we can’t have nice things’ part of me is waiting for his right arm to fall off.

Matt Mosher
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Matt Mosher

I am right where you are. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Life of a Mets fan!

MetsOptimist
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MetsOptimist

Not this Mets fan. ;)

Ghostofmeek
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Ghostofmeek

So, like Clayton Kershaw?

Jackie T.
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Member
Jackie T.

Sure, if that’s how you want to frame it. Aren’t you glad we’ve gotten Clayton Kershaw? At this point in his career, as fans of baseball in general, we should have been hoping for the same thing as we hope for Syndergaard now.

Ghostofmeek
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Member
Ghostofmeek

I am glad that we have Kershaw. And it is exciting to watch a player like Thor and wonder about his potential. As a baseball fan, I want to see exciting players have great careers and reach their potential. This is true for Thor even though I am a phillies fan. A high 90s sinker from a starter is crazy stuff. So is a low to mid 90s slider that somehow seems more slider-y than cutter-y. Still, is his upside more than Harvey’s was a few years’ back? What about Strasburg? Fernandez? DeGrom? I’m just a bit hesitant to anoint someone as the next pitching Mike Trout (the next Kershaw). I do join your prayer for health.

Bip
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Member
Bip

That’s a good question actually. How many pitchers around today might we say have Clayton Kershaw upside, and how many have better-than-Kershaw upside? In this case, I am defining upside as “at least a 5% chance of reaching it.”

Here are pitchers who I think probably have a real upside to be better than Kershaw is right now:

-Thor
-Jose Fernandez
-Sale
-Giolito (may have the stuff to do it but less than a 5% chance of making it happen)

I mean, anyone else? Even that might be too generous, because honestly, Maddux, Johnson, and Pedro are the only pitchers I would definitely say have pitched at a distinctly higher level than Kershaw is right now.

cornflake5000
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cornflake5000

I know it’s a few years off, but what about Espinoza?

Ghostofmeek
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Ghostofmeek

I would add deGrom. Not sure I agree with the “distinctly higher level” comment for any of the three all-time greats you named. But, if you think that Johnson, Maddux and Pedro’s peak was truly inarguably better than Kershaw’s, I think you should probably include Koufax in that list.

Bip
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Member
Bip

@Ghostofmeek

deGrom I think has a small shot at Kershaw-upside, but I can’t imagine him possibly being *better* than Kershaw is now.

* Johnson – Arguable, but he twice had a FIP- in the mid-40’s, and I give him more credit for durability because he pitched in the 2000’s
* Pedro – his 1999-2000 was, IMO, the best any pitcher has ever pitched, so, yeah.
* Maddux – I give him full credit for those incredible ERA’s during 1994-1995, and for averaging 8 IP a start, I don’t think Kershaw has ever pitched at that level.
* Koufax – Kershaw has twice topped his career-best ERA- and twice blown away his career-best FIP-. Koufax’s main advantage comes from counting stats, and that comes from pitching in 60’s when pitchers threw forever. I consider Kershaw now, in terms of effectiveness, a little better than Koufax was.

Ghostofmeek
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Ghostofmeek

@Bip

I think I agree with all of this, especially if the conversation is just about peak. (Which it probably should be since we don’t know Kershaw’s longevity). Also, just checked Johnson’s career out again and my goodness those 4 straight (deserved) Cys from ages 35-38 where his lowest SO total was 334

Devizier
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Devizier

Ghostofmeek —

Last year’s Kershaw was pretty amazing. But 99-00 Pedro was putting up those numbers in a profoundly more favorable hitting environment. That’s probably the best two season run of the modern era, if not all time.

From 99-01, Randy Johnson *averaged* ~12 1/2 strikeouts per nine. And had achieved great control in the bargain. If it weren’t for Pedro, we’d be talking about *that* run as the greatest ever.

I could see Kershaw, with a long and durable career, displacing Maddux from his spot on the list. But that’s something that remains to be seen.

Not mentioned is Roger Clemens… I get it, but still…

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

@Devizier excluding Clemens wasn’t actually commentary, I actually just think that he never sustained a performance level better than Kershaw’s current level. The thing that makes Clemens so special is that he maintained that level for so freaking long. He basically pitched like an ace for 20 straight years.

duncanmorrow
Member
duncanmorrow

I don’t really believe anyone has better-than-kershaw upside. He’s by farrrr the best pitcher the MLB has had since Martinez retired. Better-than-Kershaw would be an absolute generational talent.

Maybe these guys can put together a season that equals Kershaw’s best years, but in terms of the astounding combination of consistency, health, and dominance, I don’t think it’s really possible to have a better modern pitcher than Kershaw.

That said, of all the pitchers in the MLB right now, Syndegaard’s the only one of those guys I can see being on that level. No one else has the ridiculous, never-before-seen stuff, health, and youth. JoFer has his injury problems, Giolito is just not as good, Sale’s on the tail end of his prime. I wouldn’t be surprised for him to put together a Kershaw-like run of dominance. Anything more than that is wayy too unrealistic.

Bip
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Member
Bip

@duncanmorrow

Sale’s on the tail end of his prime

I don’t know that I agree with this, but the rest of your comment I think is quite possibly true.

duncanmorrow
Member
duncanmorrow

@Bip

Eh, he’s 27 and he hasn’t really put up a Kershaw season yet. He’s put up some real fuckin’ elite seasons, but he’s running out of time to be “better than Kershaw” and he hasn’t even been as good as Kershaw.

Devizier
Member
Devizier

He’s like the love child of Jeff Weaver and Pedro Martinez!