When Noah Syndergaard Frightened the Dodgers

Over the course of big-league history, there have been a few hundred no-hitters. There have been 66 occasions of a pitcher hitting multiple homers in one game. Scarcity doesn’t automatically mean a superior accomplishment, but what Noah Syndergaard just did against the Dodgers was extraordinary. His first time up, he hit a home run. His second time up, he hit a home run. The last pitcher to pull this off was Micah Owings in 2007, and Owings was more of a hitter, anyway. Here are the MLB.com highlights. This would be no fun without the highlights.

Not that there’s any such thing as a bad home run, but those were big-boy dingers. Syndergaard jumped on a first pitch, and then he jumped on a two-strike pitch. He gets points for diversity, and he also gets points for dumb luck, since the second homer followed four consecutive shown bunts. Instead of moving the runners a little bit over, he moved them all the way over. Syndergaard drove home all the Mets’ runs. He genuinely pitched and hit them to victory. It was one of the better all-around single-game performances in history, I’m sure.

Kenta Maeda was taken by surprise. Who wouldn’t have been? Maeda studied all the hitters but Syndergaard, because Syndergaard simply hadn’t been good enough to worry about. He’s a pitcher. You know how it goes. Here’s Vin Scully as Syndergaard came up the first time. I don’t post this to make fun of Scully — he wasn’t wrong about anything. It’s just, his words mirror the Dodgers’ own lack of concern, and then, immediately, ka-pow!

Something you’d notice if you actually bothered to look: Over the past year, Syndergaard ranks last among pitchers as hitters in contact rate. He also has the lowest groundball rate among them. Last season, he had a home run and a double. It’s pretty well suggested right there that Syndergaard goes up looking to beat the crap out of something. The Dodgers didn’t worry about it at first, and they didn’t really worry about it at second. Syndergaard would bat a third time.

That third time, something changed. In the first at-bat, Syndergaard got his arms extended and blasted a meatball heater. In the second at-bat, Maeda tried to stay down and away, and Syndergaard got his arms extended again. He actually drove out a low-away slider, which is no small feat. After the second homer, the Dodgers took notice. Noah Syndergaard officially spooked them.

Let’s walk through the third at-bat, you and I. It was the top of the sixth, and the score was 4-2 Mets, mostly because of Syndergaard himself. Chris Hatcher had replaced Maeda, and the bases were loaded with one out. Ordinarily, given the circumstances, you’d be thrilled for the next hitter up to be the opposing pitcher. But the opposing pitcher here was already slugging 4.000 on the evening, and here’s our first sign that the Dodgers were concerned: Yasmani Grandal went out for a mound meeting.

Hatcher had just walked someone. Nearly uncorked a wild pitch. So, okay, maybe this was just intended to give Hatcher a breather. But based on what followed, I think they were talking strategy. The pitcher was up, and the other pitcher and catcher had to have a conversation to figure out how to get him out.

Here’s the first pitch of the showdown. Not at all surprising, but indicative of a change.

The Dodgers didn’t want to risk Syndergaard getting his arms extended again, so they tried to bust him inside with a fastball. That was an adjustment from earlier staying away. In a sense, it definitely worked — Hatcher got ahead of Syndergaard 0-and-1, following a harmless foul ball. But Syndergaard was up there hacking. He made excellent, albeit foul, contact. This was a pitch that would’ve been almost impossible to pull fair and with authority, and the Dodgers knew that, but a loud foul is still scarier than a quiet foul, or a whiff.

The Dodgers doubled down. Pitch No. 2 was roughly the same.

Swing mode, but another loud foul. A little less foul than the previous one. Credit to Syndergaard here — he was stinging the inside fastballs, even if they didn’t count for anything but strikes. Hatcher by now was ahead 0-and-2. In theory, he could come back with the same pitch again, but Grandal had other ideas. He didn’t want Syndergaard to drop the barrel on one of these, so he signaled for a heater up and in.

That’s a bad pitch. That was supposed to be a good pitch, but Hatcher missed out over the plate. Syndergaard was already looking to swing, and he took a good cut at an 0-and-2 fastball over the plate, at the belt. Yes, he fouled the pitch back, so there was no harm done. But, we’ll come back to this. Even though that’s the pitcher up there in the box, this pitch could’ve easily been turned around. It nearly was.

Syndergaard had the timing on Hatcher’s fastball. That much was clear, so it was time to try something different. The fourth pitch:

Offspeed, and Syndergaard read it. It wasn’t even a bad pitch, but after this take, you couldn’t blame the Dodgers for thinking Syndergaard was just seeing everything perfectly. Most pitchers in baseball whiff at this. Many hitters in baseball whiff at this. Syndergaard was on to the plan from the start. And now for the amazing: A second mound conference, with the opposing pitcher up to bat.

Two. Two mound conferences. So much concern. It was a pretty high-leverage situation, with the bases packed, but the Dodger battery had to hold two separate conversations. In the first, they discussed how to get the other pitcher out. In the second, they discussed how else to get the other pitcher out. Ultimately, they settled on something effective — pitch No. 5 got the job done.

There are two things to notice, though. One, compare this to pitch No. 3. Pitch No. 3 was also supposed to be a high and tight fastball, but Grandal called for it mostly while squatting. Here, Grandal took care to partially stand up, signaling that he wanted the pitch even higher. He didn’t trust Hatcher to work at the belt, and he didn’t like the idea of Syndergaard swinging at the belt. And, two, keep watching Grandal. Watch him after Syndergaard strikes out. You see that gesture toward Hatcher with his glove? That’s the catcher sign for “yeah, good job.” That’s an acknowledgment of good execution. Catchers don’t usually bother with pitchers at the plate. Hatcher was sufficiently worried, so Grandal was there for support. It’s not condescending if it’s genuine.

After Syndergaard homered his first two times up, the Dodgers treated him like a real hitter the third time. And, by the way, Syndergaard batted a fourth time, against Joe Blanton. The bases weren’t loaded, but the Dodgers kept on taking care. They’d seen more than enough.

syndergaard-blanton

No more fastballs. No more pitches over the outer third. All of these were supposed to be down and in, and one of them missed, with Syndergaard fouling it off. Pitchers make mistakes all the time, and hitters miss mistakes all the time, but I’m sure, as that pitch left Joe Blanton’s hand, he momentarily held his breath. Because he knew what he’d just done, and because he recognized what Syndergaard could do. The Dodgers didn’t really recognize that at the start, but they learned quick. Not quick enough, but they won’t forget this lesson.

Noah Syndergaard gave the Dodgers a fright. In the span of two at-bats, they went from overlooking him to showing deep concern about his ability. As the game began, both sides had eight hitters and a pitcher, but by the end the Dodgers might’ve felt they were in the other league.





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.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
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Guess I better expect less fastballs too.