Thor’s Hammer: A First Look at Noah Syndergaard

Dillon Gee will miss at least the next couple of weeks with a torn groin, but the Mets aren’t likely to suffer too much in his absence. That’s because they have uber-prospect Noah Syndergaard in the fold, who will step in and replace Gee in the rotation. Syndergaard, 22, will make his major-league debut tonight against the Cubs and figures to hold down a spot in the Mets rotation for the foreseeable future. And if you believe the Steamer projections, Syndergaard might actually provide the Mets with a sizable upgrade over Gee.

Before his call up, Syndergaard was one of the very best pitching prospects in the minors. He placed 19th in our preseason top-200 list and was easily the highest rated prospect on the Mets. Other outlets gave him even higher praise, with Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America ranking him 9th, 10th and 11th, respectively.

Given his stuff, it’s not hard to see why he rated so highly. Syndergaard has a sizzling fastball that sits in the mid-to-high 90’s. He complements it with a curveball and changeup that are both average pitches right now, according to Kiley McDaniel, who anticipates both ticking up to above-average (55) in the near future.

Unsurprisingly, Syndergaard checks all of the boxes statistically, as well. My KATOH system, which considers his 2014 stats, absolutely adored the 6-foot-5 righty heading into the year. His projection of 11.5 WAR through age-28 was the 6th highest of any prospect. He ranked second among pitchers, trailing only Julio Urias.

Before I dive into Syndergaard’s numbers, I’m first going to note the importance of context. If you’re reading this article, you probably already know that a player’s league and home ballpark play a role in shaping his numbers; but I feel it’s worth reiterating since Syndergaard’s recent performance has been heavily influenced by his surroundings.

Both this year and last, Syndergaard’s pitched in the Pacific Coast League, which happens to be an environment that’s extremely conducive to scoring runs. The PCL averaged 5.03 runs per game in 2014, compared to 4.07 in the majors. The PCL’s league-wide strikeout and walk rates aren’t much different than the ones you’ll find in the majors or in other minor league levels — last year’s marks of 20% and 9%, respectively, are about average for affiliiated baseball. However, the PCL generates more homers than any other league, and its league-average BABIP trails only the Rookie-level Pioneer League. These phenomena conspire to make the PCL one of the most hitter-friendly (and pitcher-unfriendly) leagues in all of the minors.

As if the PCL wasn’t enough for Syndergaard to deal with, he’s also had the misfortune of pitching for the Las Vegas 51s, who play half of their games in the bandbox known as Cashman Field. The Las Vegas 51s scored a whopping 6.11 runs per game in 2014 and have plated 6.45 this year — both tops in the PCL. Even in a hitter-friendly league, Las Vegas stands above the rest in terms of run scoring, and this is due in no small part to the team’s home ballpark.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look Syndergaard’s Triple-A performance, which represents his entire body of work over the past 13 months. In 32 starts between this year and last, he’s pitched to a 4.32 ERA with Triple-A Las Vegas. While that number looks pretty mediocre in nominal terms, it’s actually fairly solid when held against last year’s league average of 4.64. Furthermore, his performance is downright good when you focus on his 3.68 FIP. The culprit for his ERA-FIP differential? An inflated .361 BABIP, which is likely due in part to the high BABIPiness of the PCL. Aside from that BABIP, there’s not much to dislike about Syndergaard’s Triple-A performance. It’s probably safe to say his 3.68 FIP is the more accurate representation of his true talent.

Let’s get a little more granular. Syndergaard’s strikeout rate, walk rate and home-run rate have all been better than the PCL average, but it’s the strikeouts that stand out most. His 25% strikeout rate from 2014 was third-highest in Triple-A last year. He’s followed it up by whiffing a level-leading 30% of batters faced in his five 2015 starts. According to my KATOH research, strikeouts tend to be strong predictors of future success for pitchers, so Syndergaard’s ability to miss Triple-A bats certainly bodes well for his future in the big leagues.

Syndergaard’s excellent strikeout numbers haven’t merely been a recent phenomenon, either. He also struck out more than his fair share of batters in Double-A (32% K%), High-A (25%), Low-A (29%) and even short-season ball (26%). He’s been striking guys out since he was a 17-year-old fresh out of high school, so his exceptional Triple-A strikeout numbers are no single-season fluke.

Syndergaard’s strikeouts are his most exciting feature from a statistical point of view, but there’s more to him than his whiffs. While slightly less predictive of big-league success, his walk numbers are also encouraging. A 7% walk rate is nothing to sneeze at, especially when paired with strikeout numbers as good as Syndergaard’s. And this skill set is even more impressive coming from a pitcher who’s still just 22.

Unsurprisingly, pitchers who have had minor league track records similar to Syndergaard’s have had a good amount of success in the big leagues. Using his league-adjusted stats between this year and last, along with his age, I calculated the Mahalanobis distance between Syndergaard’s performance, and every Triple-A season since 1991 in which a pitcher faced at least 350 batters. Below, you’ll find the historical players who were nearest and dearest to Syndergaard by this methodology, ranked from most to least similar.

Pitcher IP thru 28 WAR thru 28 WAR as a Rookie
Matt Garza 1,027 16.1 0.6
Jason Windsor 13 0.0 0.0
Ryan Madson 516 5.9 1.3
Tyler Skaggs* 181 1.7 0.0
Jason Hammel 732 8.0 0.6
Juan Pena 13 0.7 0.7
Ted Lilly 628 7.9 0.8
Rodrigo Lopez 539 7.1 3.0
Travis Miller 263 2.3 0.0
Sonny Gray* 332 6.0 1.5
Jon Niese* 928 12.3 2.3
Frank Rodriguez 654 4.7 0.7
Drew Pomeranz* 237 2.1 1.3
Jason Young 29 0.0 0.0
Heath Murray 146 0.0 0.0
Sean Douglass 207 0.0 0.0
Chris Tillman* 712 5.8 0.0
Glendon Rusch 1,033 14.3 1.3
Jeff Niemann 506 5.9 2.9
Kyle Gibson* 266 2.1 0.0

*Pitchers who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

Virtually all 20 of these guys went on to have some sort of big-league career, and several of them turned into good, reliable pitchers. While they never quite achieved ace status, Matt Garza, Glendon Rusch and even Jon Niese put together solid careers. And most importantly, they did so after achieving results similar to Syndergaard’s from his year-plus in Triple-A. We also see a few others, like Jason Hammel, Rodrigo Lopez and even Jeff Niemann, who provided moderate amounts of value in the big-league portion of their careers. Several of these pitchers had immediate big-league impacts. Seven of the twenty earned more than 1.0 WAR in their rookie campaigns.

Considering the high attrition rate of pitching prospects, this list of comps looks pretty darn encouraging for Syndergaard. It’s even more encouraging once you consider that it doesn’t even account for Syndergaard’s unfavorable Triple-A ballpark (although it does adjust for league), which certainly serves to underrate his performance in terms of BABIP and home runs allowed.

Pretty much any way you slice it, Syndergaard’s future looks bright. His 6-5 frame and excellent stuff are enough to get scouts on board, and he has the minor-league track record to back up his physical gifts. Plus, based on his utter dominance in his five Triple-A starts this year — he’s pitched to a 1.82 ERA with a 30% strikeout rate — he looks more than ready to contribute right now. Steamer anticipates a 3.50 ERA for Syndergaard for the remainder of the season, which is a better forecast than every Mets starter not named Matt Harvey. Based on his minor-league performance, Syndergaard will almost certainly help the Mets in 2015; and barring injury, he stands a good chance of holding down a spot in their rotation for years to come.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

newest oldest most voted
Alex Anthopoulos
Alex Anthopoulos

Pftt! Give me a 40 year old knuckleballer and useless catcher any day of the week!