Baseball news is coming in drips and drabs these days, which makes sense — we’ve all got bigger things to deal with at the moment than contract extensions and teams with unsettled rotations. Unfortunately, that means that when there is baseball news, it’s likely to be bad, and yesterday was no exception: per Jeff Passan, Noah Syndergaard has been diagnosed with a torn UCL and will undergo Tommy John surgery tomorrow.
Regardless of when or if the season starts, this is obviously terrible news for the Mets. The NL East is nasty and brutish, and the 2020 season, should it happen, will be short. Every win is — well, baseball is never a matter of life and death, and that’s never been more clear than in recent weeks. But every win is monumentally important. Over a full season, replacing Syndergaard’s 4.6 WAR projection with Michael Wacha’s 0.6 WAR projection would be a tough blow, and that’s before considering which minor leaguer will be picking up Wacha’s innings.
Those four wins hurt; over the full year, they drop the Mets from roughly even with Atlanta and Washington to roughly even with the Phillies, turning the division into a two-tiered race. In fact, now that the Mets are without Thor’s services, they’d prefer a shorter season, because they’re decidedly underdogs at this point. As Dan Szymborski recently illustrated, a half-season gives underdogs a fighting chance.
Whatever your feelings towards the Mets, this is a disastrous stroke of bad luck. The team is built to win in 2020; Marcus Stroman will hit free agency after this year, Syndergaard will follow him the year after, and many of the team’s veterans are most useful in 2020. Robinson Canó isn’t getting any younger, Rick Porcello and Wacha are only in the fold this season, and Jacob deGrom is only invulnerable to decline until he isn’t. Without a stacked farm system, this might be the team’s best chance for another World Series berth in the near future.
There’s a natural inclination to downplay how devastating this is. The Mets have missed winning their division by 11, 13, and 27 games the past three years. Every player lost to injury hurts, but a team averaging 17 games out of the postseason losing its second-best pitcher doesn’t conjure up violins and teardrops in the same way that, say, the Rays or A’s losing an ace would.
But looking at the Mets as also-rans focuses too much on results and not enough on ex-ante expectations. Teams under- and over-perform all the time; all we can say beforehand is what we expect of them. Last year’s Mets team looked like a contender before the season, and indeed, only finished three games out of the second Wild Card slot. In 2016, they made the playoffs by a single game. They’ll likely be right in that mix again this year. Make no mistake: this is a team at the steep part of the win curve, where every additional edge matters most.
And saying that Syndergaard is the team’s second starter, while true, undersells his talent. Jacob deGrom is unquestionably better; no one doubts that. But Syndergaard was projected for the seventh-highest WAR total among all starters before his injury. Last year, he was the 17th-best pitcher in baseball by fWAR, 12th-best over the past two years. Since his debut in 2015, he’s been the 10th-best pitcher in baseball, and that includes a lost 2017 when he pitched only 30.1 innings.
There’s a hard-to-shake feeling that Syndergaard never quite worked out as promised. He was supposed to be a new breed of starter, a behemoth with otherworldly velocity who made previous starting pitchers look like black-and-white TV in comparison. He didn’t reach those heights; but really, the expectations weren’t rational in the first place.
Former FanGraphs writer Chris Mitchell’s KATOH system was in love with Syndergaard before his debut. Its output was WAR before age 28, and by that metric, Syndergaard placed second among all pitching prospects, behind only Julio Urías. Urías was 19 at the time, and his age gave him an edge. But realistically, Syndergaard was seen as the best pitching prospect in baseball on a per-year basis.
How aggressive was KATOH’s forecast for Syndergaard? It gave him a median outcome of 11.5 WAR through age 28. He’s blown past that; he’s notched 18.8 WAR already in his career, which means that he’ll nearly have doubled the guess of a projection system that thought he was the best pitching prospect in baseball despite missing most of two years due to injury.
The point of this hindsight isn’t to emphasize that Syndergaard is a good pitcher; the career 3.31 ERA, 2.92 FIP, and 26.4% strikeout rate do that well enough on their own. The point, instead, is that you should ignore the narrative that this injury will inevitably create. Syndergaard isn’t a disappointment. He isn’t a constant reminder of what could have been. He’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s started a World Series game and a Wild Card game, and the Mets were thrilled to have him there both times. He’s the kind of pitcher you hope the number one pitching prospect in baseball turns into.
Why am I so focused on the arc of Syndergaard’s Mets tenure? He’s not retiring, after all. Given the uncertain state of the season, there could easily not be a playoff race for him to miss. Assuming a full recovery, he’ll be throwing upper-90s cheese again next year, and he’s still only 27.
But depending on his recovery and what becomes of 2020 service time, he might have very few starts left in blue and orange. As mentioned above, he’ll reach free agency after 2021. If he completes recovery and rehab in 15 months, that puts him on pace to rejoin the team around halfway through next season.
It’s hardly news that Syndergaard will one day leave the team; he’s featured heavily in trade rumors over the past few years. There was always a chance that one day he’d simply be gone from the Mets, replaced by some unsatisfying sampler platter of prospects and salary relief. But it’s still jarring that with one frayed ligament, the situation can change from Syndergaard being a key part of the Mets’ future, whether in person or via trade return, to an afterthought, a guy who might make only 10 more starts with the team.
It’s enough to make you a little melancholy. Baseball might feel far away right now, but at some point, it will come back, and Syndergaard, formerly a New York stalwart, will be a few months away from free agency.
In some ways, the sharp pain of a lost pitcher feels familiar in this strange time. We won’t get to see one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball this year — same as every year, because injuries are an unfortunate part of the fabric of the game.
But it’s frustrating that the parts of baseball that we still do get are the bad ones. There aren’t any pennant chases or exciting starts going on right now. There are no fun early-season teams. There isn’t even any fantasy baseball to follow. And yet we still get injuries.
That’s what’s on my mind when I think about Syndergaard’s injury. In another time, it might be a chance to chuckle wryly at yet another Mets setback. Assemble a dominant pitching staff and get right back into the playoff hunt, only to give back an entire offseason of gains with one barking elbow? That’s so Mets!
But that just feels lazy in the best of times, and it feels particularly lazy to me right now. To some extent, Syndergaard’s injury is a story about the Mets, sure. But right now, it just feels like taunting. We don’t have baseball, and we won’t for a while. But lest you forget, injuries still exist. It’s a cruel reminder that baseball isn’t a universally joyous sport. There are clouds even in the best of times. But now, with no silver linings anywhere to be seen? It feels particularly unfair.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.