In One-Year Deal for Syndergaard, Angels Acquire Upside and Risk

The Angels made their first splash of the offseason on Tuesday by signing Noah Syndergaard to a one-year, $21 million deal, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan. He was no. 15 on our top 50 free agent rankings despite missing all of 2020 because of Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, and though he was expected back early in 2021, a large setback in his recovery cost him just almost the entirety of that season as well. Two innings out of the bullpen in late September is all we’ve seen out of him in the last two years.

Syndergaard’s Career Before Elbow Surgery (2015–19)
Stat Ranking Among Starters
ERA 3.31 20th
ERA- 84 28th
FIP 2.93 5th
FIP- 72 7th
WAR 18.7 10th
K% 26.3% 24th
BB% 5.7% 23rd
Fastball Velo 98.1 1st

A one-year deal this winter makes a lot of sense for Syndergaard, who can rebuild his value in hopes of getting a long-term contract next offseason. It’s less of a no-brainer for the Angels, as there is no opportunity to cash in on future years in case of a bounce-back, and it’s hard to imagine Syndergaard will be in top form in 2022, given the thick layer of rust that surely needs to be knocked off of him. Most teams probably viewed signing him as a two-year project. Look no further than his 2018 season, though, to see the outcome the Angels envision. Coming off a torn lat muscle that cost him most of his 2017 campaign, he proceeded to put up a 3.03 ERA/2.80 FIP over 154.1 innings despite diminished velocity.

The Angels weren’t alone in their pursuit. As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote yesterday, “other teams were believed to be interested in him at a comparable salary level.” And that was despite the presence of a qualifying offer (valued at $18.4 million for one season) that the Mets made to Syndergaard earlier this month. Signing him means the Angels will lose their second-highest pick in the upcoming draft, further raising the cost of this deal.

This is hardly a cheap transaction for Los Angeles, but GM Perry Minasian has said that he’s adamant about improving the team’s pitching and about contending while Mike Trout is still in his prime. The franchise has struggled mightily to produce consistent starting pitching during the Trout era: Over that time period, there have been only three seasons where a qualified Angels pitcher posted an ERA- of 85 — Syndergaard’s career mark — or better. The only team worse? The Orioles, who have just two.

Team Starting Pitcher Rankings (Since 2012)
MLB Rank
IP 27th
ERA- 24th
FIP- 26th

Shohei Ohtani was a breath of fresh air for the pitching staff last year, with a 73 ERA-, but he only threw 130 innings. Patrick Sandoval is 25 and has a devastating changeup, but he comes with durability concerns of his own after missing the final two months of last season with a back injury. A similar injury cost Griffin Canning most of the year; that and long stretches of ineffectiveness make it tough to pencil him in for a quality 2022 season. And top pitching prospect Reid Detmers, Los Angeles’ first-round pick in 2020, had a rough debut after reaching the majors quickly, giving up five homers in 20.2 innings.

That is the messy staff that Syndergaard joins, and he brings plenty of question marks of his own. Throwing two innings in the last two seasons isn’t exactly a precursor to him being a workhorse in 2022, and he’s only qualified for the ERA title twice in his career. Per The Athletic’s Sam Blum, part of the Angels’ plan for managing his workload — and the workload of his rotation mates — will be to use a six-man rotation. They used a six-man rotation last season, in part because of the need to give Ohtani some extra rest, so it’s easy to see why this plan would be enticing for Syndergaard as well.

Workload aside, it’s not yet clear that Syndergaard is fully ready to go. During his outings last season, he didn’t throw any breaking balls; his doctors told him to hold off on those, as they were thought to be the reason for his early-season setback. He needs those back: His low-90s slider is his best pitch, per our pitch value metric, and was one of the best among all starters in baseball from 2015 to ’19.

Beyond the lack of breaking balls, Syndergaard’s once vaunted fastball was conspicuously absent in his brief return. No starter had a harder fastball than he did from 2015 to ’19, averaging over 98 mph and routinely hitting triple digits, but during his two ’21 outings, he was sitting around 94 mph. It’s possible that he can’t live in the high-90s any more; he never quite gained back the velocity he lost after his torn lat muscle. But the development of his changeup over the years gives him four above-average pitches and makes him better equipped to thrive with lower velocity. Not to mention this concern is based on just two innings; he could very well show up to spring training sitting 97.

It helps that aside from those red flags, Syndergaard looked surprisingly sharp. His characteristically great command was present, as he pounded the strike zone with his fastball and changeup. I half expected that he would show up with some sort of a tweak to his mechanics, but for the most part he looked like the same old Syndergaard: compact windup, slightly bent arm when separating, and high-three-quarters arm slot. Take a look for yourself:

For someone who has had multiple serious arm injuries, it makes you wonder whether a mechanical adjustment could keep that from happening as often. Perhaps the Angels will have some tweaks to suggest or ways to bring back the velocity, but on a one-year contract, neither party may be too interested in making risky changes.

As for what is next for the Angels, the addition of Syndergaard brings their estimated payroll for next season to $151 million, leaving them about $30 million under last year’s mark. That leaves them with room to add more pitching, although a good chunk of that would be eaten up if Raisel Iglesias accepts his qualifying offer. Regardless of how much money they have left for future moves, acquiring Syndergaard secured the Angels one of the best pitchers on the market, leaving other teams with one less option.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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CC AFCmember
2 years ago

Alternate headline: “Norse god Thor rescued by intervention of angels”