There’s a vestigial anchor from my baseball past that I drag around — it’s called Red Sox fandom, and it’s attached to a barely seaworthy vessel whose form is an email group of mainly older Boston fans. Most of the debates that happen on the email chain are really just individual manifestations of the argument surrounding process vs. outcome. Like a lot of traditionally-minded baseball fans, most of the members of the group are outcomes people, as baseball fans have been taught to be for the past 100-plus years — focusing on ERA, batting average, etc. I tend to find myself more on the process end of the spectrum, and lately I’ve been thinking about this debate as it relates to pitching — and especially as it relates to Noah Syndergaard.
You could argue that no one’s process is better than Syndergaard’s right now — and, most recently, Jeff Sullivan actually has argued that. If the goal of pitching is to limit base-runners — and thus limit runs — the right-hander is about as good as it gets. I like quick ERA estimators like strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%) partly because I’m lazy and partly because I think they’re nifty, and currently Syndergaard is second in K-BB%, which is the best quick ERA estimator we have. Strikeouts? Elite. Walks? Elite. Velocity? Arsenal? Unparalleled. The processes he’s taking to influence positive outcomes are second really only to Clayton Kershaw this season, and for the most part, he’s been rewarded for them. But there is one glaring issue he still has — laid bare in his past two starts — which we’ll get a lot of chances to see below.
All of that said, the main question we’re going to be answering today is: how does a team score runs off of Syndergaard? Every pitcher has to give up runs at some point, no matter how impressive their talent. Today, we engage in a fun exercise to examine those runs. So let’s go through a month’s worth of starts!
A primer for what we’re about to discuss: looking at Statcast data through Baseball Savant, Syndergaard has the lowest average exit velocity among pitchers with a minimum of 60 batted-ball events. Those events include both hits and outs, and it’s testament to the type of contact against him — and the frame for a lot of what we’ll be looking at today. Here’s a reminder of what exit velocity generally means for outcomes. Now let’s jump in, with the understanding that we’re going to skip over his first start of the season, as he didn’t give up any runs. Onward!
Start #2, 4/12/16, 1 ER: Derek Dietrich single. Exit velocity: 74 mph.
Derek Dietrich! This two-out, softly-hit single capped an inning that included three ground outs — one of which (which led off the inning) was overturned by review. Justin Bour singled on a 99 mph sinker with two outs to put men at first and second, and then Dietrich dumped a changeup into right field. Want to score a run off Syndergaard? Get a ground out overturned and then single him to death.
Start #3, 4/18/16, 1 ER: Odubel Herrera single. Exit velocity: 61 mph.
An exit velocity of 61 mph? This is where we mention Syndergaard’s 14th-highest BABIP among qualified starters, even if he could be a bit more prone to an elevated level due to his high ground-ball/low infield-fly rates so far this season. And, to be fair, Freddy Galvis hit a ringing double and stole third right before this at-bat. So let’s just forget about the weakly-hit single to score the run and focus on the stolen base — because as we’ll see, that’s the important takeaway from all this. Take a look:
The first few seconds are the telling ones: Galvis moves a few steps back toward second during Syndergaard’s brief check over the shoulder, then basically gets a running start to third, even before Syndergaard picks his leg up. From this example, it’s both a lack of attention and the relatively slow delivery that allows the stolen base — and subsequently the run. This would be the fourth and most meaningful stolen base of the year for Syndergaard up until that point, and it wouldn’t be his last — not by a long shot.
Start #4, 4/25/16, 3 ER, 5 Stolen Bases
It doesn’t take long for the book on someone to make the rounds, and by Syndergaard’s fourth start, the league had found what was really their only angle of attack against the young righty: steal, steal some more, and then hope someone can drive them in. And, against the Reds on April 25th, it almost worked! Here’s Billy Hamilton, after a bunt single to second base:
At the very start of the video, we can see Syndergaard check for a brief moment (he had already thrown over once), then it’s all eyes on the man at the plate. It’s an easy steal for a guy like Hamilton, and he doesn’t even wait for another pitch before he does this:
To be fair to Syndergaard, he had already faked back to second twice before this happened. But again, you can see the attention is more or less completely gone from the runner, and looking at it from this angle we can possibly make the argument that Hamilton could’ve gotten an even better jump than he did: he dances back toward second right before he takes off, possibly thinking Syndergaard might take a final look over his shoulder. The throw almost gets Hamilton but doesn’t, and Zack Cozart drives him in with a sac fly to center field.
Fast forward to the seventh inning, after the Reds had already stolen five bases in the preceding innings. On a 1-2 count, Tyler Holt somehow manages a single out of this swing he puts on this ball:
That ball left the bat at 70.6 mph, and, after one successful check on the runner, disaster struck:
In effect, Holt turned a ball he hit with a soggy newspaper into two bases. After Hamilton flew out, Cozart singled to drive in the run. A walk to Eugenio Suarez and another single by good baseball player Joey Votto later, and the game was tied. Though the Mets would go on to win 5-3, the Reds scored two runs off of Syndergaard in the seventh by simply making him uncomfortable with runners on base — by rattling him. Sure, any pitcher can make a throwing error on an attempted pickoff, but a guy who has already had five bases stolen against him during the game is probably more likely to do so.
Start #5, 5/1/16, 4 ER, 4 Stolen Bases
In Syndergaard’s fifth start, it was pretty clear what the Giants were going to do from the outset. Brandon Crawford swiped a bag in the third inning. Matt Duffy was taking preliminary leads this long in the fourth:
As you might imagine, that lead drew a throw that almost picked Duffy off, but the young third baseman was undeterred. He took a slightly longer lead, didn’t draw a throw, and went on first move — stealing the base easily. Posey was fortunate to single on the next pitch, given much he got jammed:
At this point in our video journey, I started noticing that a lot of the hits Syndergaard has given up this year have been, well, pretty poorly hit. Posey is a fantastic hitter, but what we see above is a cue shot, leaving the bat at just 81.1 mph. With that in mind, I calculated the average batted-ball exit velocity on hits given up by Syndergaard this season. It’s only 86.5 mph. Hitters batted .227 on balls hit between 85-89 mph last season, and 11 of the 28 hits against him in 2016 have been under 80 mph — where we see an almost total lack of extra-base potential.
For reference, the average exit velocity for all of Jake Arrieta’s batted balls against (including outs) is 86.7 mph. There’s more than just exit velocity to hitting, of course, and we’ve mentioned Syndergaard’s inflated BABIP already. But it’s good to remind ourselves that the Mets’ righty has given up the softest contact in baseball this season, and that extends into many of the rather unfortunate hits he’s given up.
Finally, there are a couple words to be said about the only home run Syndergaard has conceded this season. Following the Posey single above, Brandon Belt drove in a run on a ground out, bringing up Hunter Pence. On an 0-1 count, Pence did this:
If they gave out a yearly award for the most Hunter Penceish home run, this might win for 2016. A 98 mph four-seamer on the outside corner? Pence casually takes it out to right field. That got me thinking: when was the last time a right-handed hitter hit a pitch traveling at least 98 mph in that location out to right field? Using Baseball Savant, I found out there weren’t any in 2015, but Adam Jones did it in 2014, and Ryan Raburn did it in 2013. Before that, you have to go back to 2008, when Manny Ramirez accomplished the feat. We’re obviously narrowing our sample of pitchers down to a small subset by the velocity readings, but still: this is what homering off of Noah Syndergaard can take. We can say he could’ve been frazzled by the Giants running wild on the bases during this game (and the inning in question), but it still takes the extraordinary to do what Pence did.
Bringing everything together, most of what we’ve considered today is about one thing: base-runners. It seems like there’s dangerous territory for Syndergaard if he starts worrying too much about the running game. He doesn’t have a slide-step delivery, and adding one now seems like a risky play mechanics-wise just to hold a few more runners on base. Does Syndergaard need to improve with runners on base? Probably. In truth, for a lesser pitcher, this would be a much bigger deal. But Syndergaard strikes 30% of batters out; he could go the route of simply not caring too much about this issue. There’s a long and storied history of successful power pitchers allowing lots of stolen bases, and Syndergaard’s advantages are so great that they almost totally gloss over this weakness.
However, as we’ve seen above, sometimes it doesn’t matter how good most of your processes are — weaknesses invite exploitation, especially ones that so effectively turn one base into two, or three. Bloops and seeing-eye grounders happen to everyone. Broken-bat singles happen. Syndergaard needs to improve on controlling the running game, or teams will inevitably score runs through that weakness, regardless of how dominant he is otherwise.
We’ve answered our question, though, after all of this. How do you score runs off of Noah Syndergaard? Run for your life, and pray the guy behind you can put the bat on the ball.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.