Any half-decent statistical analysis will tell you that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. This is just about inarguable. Kershaw has pitched at an unbelievable level, and he’s been able to do it for an unbelievable amount of time. He has the peak and the track record, so while there have been other great pitchers, there aren’t any Kershaws, by the numbers. This is why Kershaw gets the best projections. Projections are our statistical measures of true talent, and Kershaw’s talent is alone by itself.
I know, I know, Jake Arrieta. And, yeah, I know, Chris Sale, and Jacob deGrom, and so on. I mean no disrespect to anyone else. Kershaw has just had the strongest argument, so I’m using him here as the point of comparison. Because, you see, we have a new potential contender. We’ve all noticed Noah Syndergaard, and people are starting to ask questions. I see it on Twitter. I saw it in Dave’s most recent FanGraphs chat. I heard it on the Effectively Wild podcast. The big question, which seems absurd but improbably isn’t: is Syndergaard now better than Kershaw? Is Syndergaard suddenly the best?
Let me be straight with you: I haven’t decided. Part of me thinks it’s stupid to even consider. The rest of me thinks we could be on to something. At least, Syndergaard does have a real argument. I’m going to lay it out below as I try to talk myself through the issue.
The argument against Syndergaard boils down to: sample size. Statistically, 2016 isn’t yet enough of a sample. As you go further backward to increase the sample, Kershaw has a clear advantage. Kershaw was the better pitcher in 2015. He was the better pitcher in all seasons before that — Syndergaard wasn’t even in the majors. So it would be too soon to anoint Syndergaard as anything, because the track record just isn’t there. There’s nothing wrong with this side of things. This is always a smart position, even when it’s a boring position.
So to argue for Syndergaard, we have to try something else. We have to argue with points that don’t require big giant sample sizes of information. I can think of one. Here’s a recent and very ordinary second-inning fastball:
Look at how smooth; look at how easy. It makes this image all the more terrifying:
We definitely do not need a large sample of data to be able to say that Noah Syndergaard can throw his fastball 100 miles per hour. He can do it seemingly with ease, and he can do it seemingly more often than he could do it a season ago. So Syndergaard has a crazy fastball, and it blows every other heater away. Using Baseball Savant, I ran a search for pitchers with pitches thrown with a perceived velocity of at least 100. Syndergaard has thrown 44 of those. The rest of baseball combined has thrown 12. I forgot to mention that Syndergaard gets a lot of extension as he throws to his catcher. His pitches, then, appear even faster. All right, big velocity, you know this. It’s great, but it’s not everything.
It gets more frightening still. Syndergaard has huge velocity. He’s thrown more than two-thirds of his pitches for strikes. And he has a broad five-pitch repertoire. Brooks Baseball gives Syndergaard a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a changeup, a curveball, and a slider. Syndergaard throws all of them more than 10% of the time. Despite all the velocity, just about half his pitches are heaters, which tells you how much he trusts the other stuff. It’s insane, and the new pitch you know about is the low-90s slider. Maybe it’s a cutter. It doesn’t matter. It’s reached the mid-90s, and Syndergaard has used it a quarter of the time. If it sounds like it’s unfair, no hitter would disagree with you. Syndergaard has power, control, and diversity.
Obviously, I can’t not cite the numbers. This is where small sample sizes are a factor, but the early returns suggest that Syndergaard has leveled up, just like you’d think. He leads baseball in pitcher WAR. He leads baseball in fastball velocity. He leads baseball in swinging-strike rate. He leads baseball in out-of-zone swing rate. Three of his five pitches have allowed contact on less than half of all swing attempts. Syndergaard has yet to allow a home run. Of the limited balls in play, 61% have been grounders, and he’s yielded more soft contact than hard.
The current profile of Syndergaard makes him seem like an actual god. He’s human, like the rest of us, but if he were a divine being, it stands to reason he’d have numbers much like the numbers he presently has. It’s too soon to pretend like the numbers have stabilized, but they have most assuredly backed up the impression you get from watching Syndergaard with your eyes. The numbers say he’s been as unfair as he looks.
Here’s a quick little cluttered glimpse, comparing Syndergaard and Kershaw. Right now, in 2016, Syndergaard has a 23 ERA- and a 22 FIP-, through three starts. This shows how Kershaw has done over successive three-start runs since breaking in (regular season only):
Believe it or not, Kershaw has 37 three-start stretches with an ERA- no higher than 23. He has just seven three-start stretches with an FIP- no higher than 22. What Syndergaard is doing, Kershaw has done several times. But it’s not like this is Kershaw’s resting level. And Syndergaard is just as much about the scouting as he is about the stats.
This might be the simplest way to put it — coming into the year, Kershaw looked like the best pitcher in baseball, maybe a couple wins in front of Syndergaard. Kershaw, to this point, has looked a lot like himself, so nothing weird is happening there. But Syndergaard sure seems to have gotten a lot better. He’s throwing harder, and more importantly, now he has this cutter or slider at 92 he likes so much he throws it once every four pitches. Syndergaard has seemingly made himself virtually unhittable. So while the projections will take their time to catch on to this, as is their nature, this could be one of those times where we’ve just had a break in reality. Noah Syndergaard’s true-talent level might resemble a step function, and there’s reason to believe he’s stepped in front of everybody else.
Of course things could turn. Of course, down the road, this post could look like an overreaction. A week ago, Vincent Velasquez looked totally unhittable. Then he gave up five runs in 4.1 innings against the Mets. I’m not saying that Syndergaard is definitely anything, but you wouldn’t have been wrong if you thought Corey Kluber was breaking out in 2014. You wouldn’t have been wrong if you thought Jake Arrieta was breaking out in 2014. Arrieta rode a hard cutter to Cy Young contention. Syndergaard has a harder cutter. Syndergaard has a harder everything, and he seems to know where they’re going.
From a scouting perspective, there’s a real argument that Noah Syndergaard is now baseball’s best pitcher. It’s not an argument you can’t argue against, and it’s not an argument that’ll convince everybody, but, think about what it means for the argument to even be able to exist. Noah Syndergaard is just something unreal.
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.