Thor Is Bigger, Stronger… and Riskier?

As spring-training camps open this week, as pitchers and catchers report to complexes across sunny Arizona and Florida, we are about to be inundated with stories suggesting a number of players are in the best shape of their careers. These are often players coming off down years, or veteran players who’ve dedicated the offseason to better diet and exercise with a view to lengthening their careers, or maturing players who’ve become more serious about their training and conditioning. Such claims are less often associated with 24-year-old pitchers who’ve just led the majors in WAR (6.5) and fastball velocity (98 mph) the previous season.

But Noah Syndergaard arrived bigger and stronger to Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Florda, claiming to have added 15 pounds of muscle.

Syndergaard told the the New York Post and other outlets about one of his favorite dishes, which he used to add the lean mass and perhaps fight against deer overpopulation:

“My go-to is the Bowl of Doom,” Syndergaard said. “It’s sweet potato and hash with bacon, and you have buffalo in it and venison sausage, avocado and scrambled eggs, and that is plenty. That’s primarily what my diet consisted of this offseason.”

Resident pitching guru Eno Sarris already wrote this afternoon that the weight gain and other potential improvements could mean even better things for Syndergaard.

That we might not have seen the best of Syndergaard is a frightening prospect for opposing batters and a delightful one for the Mets, their fans, and admirers of dominant pitching. As good as Syndergaard was last season, he was also unlucky. It’s a point Corinne Landrey considered in December while suggesting that we haven’t seen the best of Syndergaard, noting the .334 BABIP he conceded last year despite weak average exit velocity.

And the starting pitcher with the fastest fastball velocity, and added strength, made a bold goal for 2017. Said Syndergaard to the Post: “I always want to throw harder and continue to make the game easier.”

Wait, harder?

As exciting as all this sounds, perhaps someone should pump the breaks. For a pitcher who threw harder than any other starter, who threw a variant of a fastball on 60% of his offerings, more velocity might not be such a great development. While we don’t have a full understanding of why so many pitchers are breaking down, perhaps the body is being pushed beyond its physical limits with the strength and velocity increases in the game.

No one, among starter pitchers, is pushing limits like Syndergaard.

I’m thinking about how many hard-throwing, young starting pitchers we’ve seen undergo Tommy John surgery in recent years from the late Jose Fernandez to Stephen Strasburg to Mets teammate Matt Harvey.

Last spring, a Henry Ford Hospital study found a correlation between fastball usage and risk for Tommy John surgery.

“When the percentage of pitches thrown was evaluated, UCL reconstructed pitchers pitch significantly more fastballs than controls (46.7% vs. 39.4%, P?=?.035). This correlated to a 2% increase in risk for UCL injury for every 1% increase in fastballs thrown. Pitching more than 48% fastballs was a significant predictor of UCL injury, because pitchers over this threshold required reconstruction (P?=?.006).”

For years, it was thought that breaking pitches, like sliders, caused the most stress on the elbow. Perhaps it’s the fastball.

In a 2014 position paper authored by Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig, young pitchers were urged to follow a number of guidelines including this:

“Do not always pitch with 100% effort. The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.”

It seems to make sense that there would be benefits to not always maxing out as a pitcher. And according to a study of fastball velocity variation by Harry Pavlidis that was included in a USA Today piece, pitchers who had a greater separation between average fastball velocity and top velocity enjoyed better health.

According to Pavlidis’ data, 61 starting pitchers in 2013-14, feature more than a 4 mph difference between average fastball velocity and top fastball velocity. Last season, Syndergaard’s top fastball velocity was 101.4 mph, according to PITCHf/x. That’s only 2.5 mph greater than his average fastball.

Perhaps Syndergaard is too often throwing too hard, placing too much stress on his right ulnar collateral ligament, which is typically about 2 cm long and 1 cm wide. How much added stress should be placed upon the small ligament? On the first day of spring training, though, Syndergaard didn’t sound like a guy ready to take his foot and right elbow off the gas.

But Syndergaard is already so talented he would perhaps be better served by not always pitching at, or so close, to his top gear. A bigger, stronger, harder-throwing Syndergaard is difficult to comprehend, but it’s a profile that also comes with more risk. Godspeed, Thor. The Mets, and baseball, need you.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Graham Singer
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Graham Singer

If Thor is adding strength and weight, could it be possible it just allows him to throw as hard as he did last year, but with lower risk?

Joe
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Joe

No, you cannot add strength to your ligaments. The bigger and stronger your muscles are, the more stress you can put on your ligaments, thus increasing the risk of Tommy John. I feel like this was fairly well explained in the article…

JUICEMANE
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JUICEMANE

I might be getting terms confused between “ligaments” and “tendons” but I think you can strengthen those parts of your body. If i’m not mistaken I think gymnasts focus on strengthening these parts of their body.

tkim057
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tkim057

Yeah tendons are different cuz they connect to your muscles. Ligaments are like rubber bands that keep you your bones together. You can’t strengthen those.

JUICEMANE
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JUICEMANE

I just googled it and found different results…

wubbie075
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wubbie075

Joe, I am pretty sure you misunderstood Graham’s question. The article said “pitchers who had a greater separation between average fastball velocity and top velocity enjoyed better health.”

Graham was asking if raising his top velocity via the added muscle but chosing to only maintain the average velocity he posted last year rather than stepping it up as well would reduce his injury risk by increasing the difference between his top and average velocity.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Yeah it makes perfect sense to ask, when we’re hearing the recommendations made in terms of “percent”. But it might actually be “throw as slow as you can and still be good”, not in % of top gear but in absolute terms — not clear mechanically how reserve muscle is going to shield your UCL.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Here’s how throwing lower % might help: by not getting as tired. So this wouldn’t help the risk on an individual pitch, but it would help the risk of the 100th pitch of the game. The 95% starter might push it up to 98% to maintain the same velocity through the game, the 100% starter has to push 105%.

London Yank
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London Yank

Bone, ligaments, and tendons all get stronger with exercise.

jruby
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Member
jruby

I think the issue isn’t so much “you can’t strengthen ligaments/tendons” as “it’s relatively easy to strengthen muscle compared to ligaments/tendons, so if you’re not very careful you could end up with a situation where your muscles are exerting more force than your ligaments/tendons are prepared to keep up with.”

London Yank
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London Yank

Yeah, agreed. I was just commenting on the strangely persistent myth that ligaments do not heal or strengthen.

Graves
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Graves

You can’t ask a firecracker to tone it down. Just sit back and enjoy the show for as long as it lasts.