Noah Syndergaard’s Comeback Season Is Complicated

Noah Syndergaard
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Faced with a middling rotation on a middling roster, the Angels took a risk this winter when they made Noah Syndergaard their big free-agent pitcher signing over any of the marquee names available. Syndergaard was once one of those dazzling names, but injuries haven taken away three of his most recent seasons (most of 2017, all of 2020, and all but two innings in 2021) and, eventually, the final gear of a fastball and sinker that both tangled with triple digits on the radar gun. It’s difficult for a one-year deal to end too badly, but at $21 million for 2022, the Angels clearly thought of this as more than a pillow contract or a lottery ticket. So has it worked? Sort of.

To get one thing out of the way: Syndergaard is not the pitcher he once was. As Jay Jaffe wrote earlier this month, he’s lost about four miles per hour on his fastball, forcing him to reconfigure his pitch mix. He’s not exactly Jered Weaver or Zack Greinke, let alone Frank Schwindel throwing 35-mph rainbows to the Yankees, but throwing 93 or 94 mph is quite different than throwing 99 or 100. That said, he’s still gotten decent results, at least in bottom-line numbers, and his ERA stands at 3.69, with his FIP barely behind at 3.81. His strikeout rate has plummeted to just 15.4%, or 5.83 K/9, numbers that barely match up to his 26.4% and 9.74 through 2019. But the lack of strikeouts is partially mitigated by the fact that his control remains excellent, and he’s still effective at preventing hitters from making good contact.

Pitchers have been successful with meager strikeout rates, even in today’s game. However, it leaves little margin for error, and when pitchers like Kirk Rueter or Chien-Ming Wang finally hit a bump, they didn’t just get a flat; the wheels fell completely off. Even with more reason to hope for his health than before the season and after some perfectly respectable performances, ZiPS is actually less confident about Syndergaard’s future than before:

ZiPS Projection – Noah Syndergaard
2023 9 8 0 4.08 24 24 132.3 134 60 16 33 110 106 2.0
2024 8 7 0 4.09 23 23 123.3 125 56 15 30 101 106 1.9
2025 8 7 0 4.18 22 22 118.3 121 55 15 29 97 103 1.7
2026 7 6 0 4.19 20 20 109.7 112 51 14 27 90 103 1.5
2027 7 6 0 4.30 19 19 102.7 106 49 13 26 84 101 1.3

While we can be a little more confident now about playing time, we should also be less bullish about the chances of Syndergaard recapturing his pre-injury form. Even with more innings now projected than at the start of 2022, ZiPS has knocked his rest-of-career mean projection from 19.1 WAR to 13.7. Every game of a decidedly mortal Syndergaard takes us a little farther from the thunder god.

Syndergaard’s inability to finish off batters is probably the most concerning part of his profile in 2022. Hitters are making frequent contact, and what’s more, they’re getting steadily better at it as the year has gone on:

After only allowing a 71% contact rate against the Astros in his season debut and 74% against the Rangers, that number has steadily ballooned. It’s been a month since he’s had a game with it below 80%, and it peaked at 94% in a disastrous short outing against the Yankees, in which they made contact with every single out-of-zone pitch he threw.

Two-strike counts have been particularly problematic. Syndergaard’s strikeout rates for his fastball and sinker are actually unchanged from his more explosive days, but neither the slider nor changeup actually finish off batters anymore. Before 2022, 28% of sliders and changeups thrown with two strikes resulted in a strikeout; this year, that number is only 9%. Almost a quarter of his non-fastball strikeouts have been on curves, and he rarely tries to use that as an out pitcher, throwing only 12 all season in two-strike counts. It’s not that those pitches are drastically different than in the past — the movement data are similar — but for whatever reason, he can no longer punch out batters with two of his formerly most-potent swing-and-miss tools.

The biggest change seems to be how he’s actually using these pitches. In 2015 and 2016, at the height of his abilities, Syndergaard would dangle these pitches just out of reach like one of those fishing pole cat toys:

In 2022 so far, he almost throws them as if he hopes that they don’t swing at them for strike three:

Whether it’s an actual plan or not, it’s not working. On 109 two-strike pitches, Syndergaard has allowed 14 hits, half for extra bases, against just 10 strikeouts. All told, his sliders and changeups on strike two have resulted in a .326 batting average and a .535 slugging percentage. To contextualize this, the league in 2022 has hit .168 with two strikes and slugged .263. Is it a lack of command? A lack of confidence? That’s out of my jurisdiction, but whatever the root cause for these issues, something’s not working.

Other pitchers have gotten their careers back on track after losing their fastball. One of the most successful examples is another former Angel, Frank Tanana. For those like me who came into age watching baseball in the 1980s, the first time you learn that Tanana was one of the hardest throwing pitchers in baseball was a shocking moment. His fastball in his early 20s casually hit the upper-90s, and this at a time where that was considerably more of a novelty. The Angels used him as hard as he threw, giving him just under 260 innings a year from ages 20 to 24. Then his shoulder started giving him problems, and he had to reinvent himself, developing a changeup and adding a forkball to his repertoire. And while Tanana didn’t put up elite strikeout numbers, he at least maintained an average strikeout rate and sometimes even better.

Velocity isn’t the be-all, end-all here. Nestor Cortes, Aaron Nola, Pablo López, and Shane Bieber are all in the top 20 in strikeout rate with slower fastballs than Syndergaard’s. Thor’s strikeouts never were just about the radar gun, so there’s still hope. But it may require him becoming less like Thor and more like Loki. When lightning fails, there’s always deception.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Jon L.member
3 months ago

I’m not betting against Syndergaard making these adjustments. Thanks for the article and a pretty great pair of closing lines!