Noah Syndergaard Has a Major Problem

I don’t remember hearing much about controlling the running game until the whole Jon Lester episode. I mean, it’s always been important, but it was one of those baseball subtleties until it became public knowledge that Lester went a whole season without attempting a single pickoff. That opened up the gates, and, last year, Lester allowed more stolen bases than anybody else. He yielded 44 out of 55 attempts, and the next-worst steal total was seven behind. Lester knew it was something he had to work on. The Cubs knew it, too. To Lester’s credit, this year he’s allowed just 19 steals. That’s still a lot, relatively speaking, but it’s not astronomical.

Lester is no longer the obvious guy to run against. It does help that he’s left-handed. Steven Matz has allowed 20 stolen bases. That’s third-most. Jimmy Nelson has allowed 22 stolen bases. That’s second-most. Noah Syndergaard has allowed 40 stolen bases. That’s first-most. That’s more than the Indians. That’s more than the Royals. Runners have been unsuccessful just four times in 44 attempts. Noah Syndergaard does a lot of things right, but when it comes to controlling his baserunners, he’s got a real problem.

This isn’t anything new, necessarily. A year ago, would-be base-stealers went 15-for-16. This was a media issue at the beginning of May. When you let runners run wild, people notice, and Syndergaard has tried to work on this. Through his first five starts this year, he allowed a dozen successful steals. There have been a few brief slow-down periods, but over his last three starts, he’s allowed 10 successful steals. The steals are back, and the issue probably never disappeared. Against Syndergaard, it’s difficult to reach. But against Syndergaard, it’s not so difficult to advance.

This isn’t quite like the Lester problem. Syndergaard is comfortable attempting pickoffs. He throws over a few times a game. But he doesn’t have, say, Johnny Cueto’s move. He’s proven easy to read, and the running comes down to more of a timing issue. This year, runners have tried to steal against Matz in 14% of their opportunities. That’s the third-highest rate in the league. Up next, they’ve tried to steal against Lester in 17% of their opportunities. Against Syndergaard, the rate is all the way up at 23%. It’s the league’s highest percentage, by far. You can pretend like Syndergaard will negate the steals with strikeouts if you want, but that’s not the reality. Bases matter, and Syndergaard has given too many of them up.

There’s a useful way to examine this. If you look at our pitcher-fielding leaderboards, you’ll see a column for stolen bases. That shows runs above or below average when it comes to preventing runners from advancing successfully. We have that data going back to 2003, so here’s a table covering 14 years. I looked at every single pitcher-season with at least 100 innings thrown, and then I calculated stolen-base value per 200. Here’s the bottom 10:

Bottom 10 Pitchers In SB Value
Pitcher Year rSB/200 IP
Noah Syndergaard 2016 -8.6 140.0
Chris Young 2007 -8.1 173.0
Chris Young 2006 -6.7 179.3
Tim Wakefield 2007 -6.3 189.0
John Lackey 2011 -6.3 160.0
Tommy Hanson 2011 -6.2 130.0
A.J. Burnett 2007 -6.0 165.7
Gerrit Cole 2016 -5.9 102.3
Freddy Garcia 2006 -5.5 216.3
Scott Feldman 2014 -5.5 180.3
2003 – 2016.

Syndergaard presently ranks dead last. He shows up at almost -9 runs per 200 frames, which is nearly the equivalent of a full win. To say nothing of any potential psychological effects, or other runner benefits from taking aggressive leads. For what it’s worth, between those two years, Chris Young allowed 85 steals out of 89 attempts. I didn’t think we’d see someone get that bad again. Now here’s a phenom, great at most of his job but awful at this one particular thing.

Very clearly, this doesn’t prevent a healthy Syndergaard from being dominant and effective. At the end of the day, the hitter is most important, and Syndergaard knows how to deal with hitters. You just can’t keep letting runners advance like this, because it will hurt. It will make an ERA worse than the peripherals. Syndergaard has worked on the side to try to address this, but any major changes haven’t quite stuck.

Video time. Here are some grabs from Syndergaard’s season-opening start. I know this is just three clips, but I don’t want to overload you. For all three clips, there’s a running threat on first.

They probably all look similar to you. They should! They are. In each case, Syndergaard comes set for two and a half or three seconds. Then he begins his delivery, and I have those timed between 1.6 – 1.7 seconds. That is very slow. The math about stolen bases comes down to matters of tenths of a second, and pitchers want to be closer to 1.3. Syndergaard’s leg kick appears to slow him down, which everybody recognizes.

Now here are clips from Syndergaard’s most recent start. Again, for each, there’s a running threat on first. Do we find any signs of change?

There is one thing. At least based on these clips, Syndergaard has started changing up his timing. That can be one effective technique, and in one of the clips above, Syndergaard comes set for almost five seconds. In other clips, he comes set for less than one second. That definitely helps to make Syndergaard less predictable, less easy to read. But his pickoff still isn’t a threat, and I still have him timed at around 1.6 – 1.7 seconds to the plate. His actual delivery doesn’t look faster. If anything, the leg comes even higher now than it used to.

It would probably be helpful to compare Syndergaard side-by-side with a pitcher who keeps his runners where they are. I’m a big fan of the way Chris Tillman controls the running game, so here is another clip:

I know that things happen fast, so here, as an alternative, are some screenshots. This really goes to show just how much quicker Tillman is to the plate. This difference makes the difference. It’s not the only thing Tillman does better, but it’s the biggest factor.

tillmansyndergaardcomp

When Tillman is at almost full reach-back, Syndergaard is just getting the ball out of his glove. When Tillman is at his release point, Syndergaard has the ball behind his back. And when Syndergaard is at his release point, Tillman’s pitch is over the plate. It’s worth noting Tillman isn’t even throwing a fastball. The difference between them is a whole pitch’s flight time. You might not think that a Noah Syndergaard fastball really spends that much time in the air, but that’s the difference between a pitcher who controls his runners, and a pitcher who doesn’t. Runners cover a lot of ground in a half-second.

This might seem complicated. It shouldn’t. And don’t confuse me for being super insightful, because this is all just fundamentals. This is about Baserunner Control 101, and Syndergaard isn’t struggling because of anything weird. He’s struggling because he’s slow to the plate, and the Mets have known that for at least several months. The issue is making him quicker. That’s what’s complicated, because making him faster means changing his mechanics, and that can be risky business. There aren’t many alternatives here. Syndergaard needs a slide-step, or he needs a lower leg kick. Or he can just accept that he’s going to give up a lot of stolen bases. It’s not easy to get used to a different delivery, and it can cause a pitcher to speed everything up and lose command. That’s not what anyone wants. That would be worse than giving up steals.

For now, Noah Syndergaard is giving up steals. He’s giving them up way more than anyone else. It’s plain to see why it’s happening, and every opponent is aware. It doesn’t take away from how dominant a pitcher Syndergaard is when he’s focused on the plate. But there’s a vulnerability here, if someone with even modest speed can get on. Until or unless Syndergaard figures out a way to address this, he’s going to remain incomplete. It’s not a good look to be worse than Jon Lester.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

39 Comments
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WalterBishopmember
6 years ago

Or you know, he could just not have a 1.60 WHIP. What an “ace”. Guy needs to learn how to pitch.

Bubbamember
6 years ago
Reply to  WalterBishop

His WHIP is not 1.60?

Bodowned
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

Not for the entire season, but he has been struggling to keep men off base. He’s got a 1.48 WHIP and is averaging less than 6 innings a start over his last 8 starts dating back to the beginning of July. It’s not too unfair to speculate that the alleged bone spur might be playing a factor since it was first acknowledged/reported near the end of June. Prior to July, 30.7 K% & 4 BB% w/ a .237 BAA. Since then, he’s rocking a 27.7 K% & 7.4 BB% w/ a .284 BAA.

jcocanower
6 years ago
Reply to  Bodowned

He has a .398 BABIP against since the All Star break (its .353 for the full season). Have you seen how horrendous the Mets defense is? They seem to save their absolute worst for Syndergaard. Rivera committed two errors in one INNING during Noah’s last start, driving him from the game when he’d basically gotten like 5 outs worth of groundballs in the 6th inning. It is true that his last few starts he has labored a bit more (could be the bone spur), but that may also be a combination of insane frustration over all of these steals plus all of the terrible defense.

Bodowned
6 years ago
Reply to  jcocanower

I won’t pretend to have watched more than a handful of his starts this year, and I don’t doubt that he’s been the victim of some bad defense to a reasonable extent. However, the other three Mets’ starters (Colon, Matz, deGrom) who have qualified in IP for the leaderboard average a .303 BABIP on the season compared to Noah’s .353. So either Thor has been absurdly unlucky relative to the rest of the staff or he’s at least partially responsible for the hits he’s been giving up.

WalterBishopmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Bubba

Sorry, should have clarified, last 30 day, his WHIP is over 1.57. Kind of important in a H2H league

Brians Sticky Sock
6 years ago
Reply to  WalterBishop

Noah’s got 99 problems, but your H2H league ain’t one.

ChippersJonesing
6 years ago

Ugh, now I understand why some comments get down votes don’t deserve them, I meant to give this a thumbs up but hit the wrong one on the old tablet, and now it’s a thumbs down for eternity. For this I apologize.

radivel
6 years ago
Reply to  WalterBishop

The first rule of talking about sports on the internet is that nobody, and I do mean NOBODY gives a shit about your fantasy league or team.

Johnston
6 years ago
Reply to  radivel

Amen to that. The second rule is never, ever, under any circumstances, bring it up.

Bread n Mustard
6 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

To be fair I don’t think he was talking about his team, he was talking about H2H leagues in general. Does the “fan” in fangraphs stand for fantasy or is it baseball fans?

oldmanduggan
6 years ago
Reply to  WalterBishop

First step to determining whether an “ace” knows how to pitch: pay attention to a stat that matters.