Officially, Noah Syndergaard went on the injured list on Thursday due to a blister on his right index finger. Unofficially, it might be said that he’s been blistered by opposing hitters, and sidelined by a wounded psyche. The once-mighty 30-year-old righty doesn’t have the velocity, stuff, or confidence of his early heyday, and he’s been frank about the mental toll of his struggles, which have turned him into one of the majors’ least effective starting pitchers. It’s time for a reset.
Signed to a one-year, $13 million deal under the expectation that with another year of distance from his 2020 Tommy John surgery, he could reclaim some of his lost velocity and stabilize the back of the Dodgers rotation, Syndergaard has been a shadow of his former self. In 12 starts totaling 55.1 innings, he’s been hit for a 7.16 ERA, which ranks as the highest among the 63 NL starters with at least 40 innings. His 5.54 FIP is the fifth-worst out of that group, and his 5.55 xERA is tied for seventh-worst. Both his 15.4% strikeout rate and 1.95 homers per nine are among the league’s seven worst as well.
Syndergaard has managed just three quality starts out of 12, but the last of those came on April 19, in his fourth start of the season; since that point, he’s allowed 32 runs in 33.1 innings. He’s allowed six or more runs four times, which is tied with the Reds’ Graham Ashcraft and the A’s Kyle Muller for the major league lead. He’s remained in the rotation only because of a slew of injuries that has affected every other member of the Dodgers’ projected starting five besides Clayton Kershaw. Tony Gonsolin started the season on the sidelines due to a left ankle sprain and didn’t debut until April 18. Dustin May landed on the IL on May 18 with a flexor pronator strain and has since been transferred to the 60-day IL, while Julio Urías wound up on the IL on May 20 due to a left hamstring strain. Among their potential reinforcements, Michael Grove just made his first start Sunday after missing over six weeks due to a groin strain, but Ryan Pepiot is out until mid-July due to a strained oblique.
Syndergaard appeared as though he might be bound for the injured list himself upon leaving his May 9 start after only one inning when a blister on his right finger burst, causing bleeding that Dermabond ointment couldn’t stop. He had been dealing with the issue for “a couple weeks” even at that point, explaining, “I just think my finger catches a seam or the opposing thumbnail might be causing an issue.”
The blister has apparently recurred, this time with a broken fingernail, and with Urías’ return to the rotation looming (but not happening on Sunday as initially hoped), the Dodgers figured it was the right time to give him a break that’s as much for mental reasons as physical ones. “It really sucks,” he told reporters after his May 31 start against the Nationals, during which he allowed five runs in five innings. “Right now I just feel like I’m the weakest link on this team. I want to go out there and compete and be successful for the other guys in this clubhouse, but it’s just not working out.”
“I would give my hypothetical firstborn to be the old me again,” he added. “I’ll do anything possible to get back to that.”
The old Syndergaard — which is to say the younger Syndergaard — posted a 2.66 FIP and 2.93 ERA from 2015–18, his ages 22–5 seasons. In that span, only Kershaw had a lower FIP. Only Kershaw, then teammate Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer had a lower ERA, and only eight starters had a higher strikeout-to-walk differential than his 21.6% (27.1% strikeout rate, 5.5% walk rate). And the way Syndergaard did it was emphatic. Already imposing at 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, with his shoulder length blond hair flying everywhere, “Thor” threw harder than any starter. For that stretch, his four-seamer averaged 97.6 mph, his slider 91.3 mph, and his changeup 81.5 mph, all tops in the majors among qualifiers.
Though Syndergaard maintained that elite velocity through 2019, his performance took a step back, and then he missed all of ’20 and most of ’21 due to Tommy John surgery, post-surgical inflammation, and a bout of COVID-19; he made two one-inning relief appearances at the tail end of the season. Instead of accepting the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer after the 2021 season, he signed a one-year, $21 million deal with the Angels, embracing the idea of pitching in a six-man rotation so as to limit his innings total after so much missed time.
Syndergaard pitched respectably in 2022, both before and after being traded to the Phillies for outfielder Mickey Moniak and prospect Jadiel Sanchez on August 2. He threw 134.2 innings, and his 3.93 ERA and 3.83 FIP were both a bit better than league average (98 ERA-, 94 FIP-). Even so, he was nowhere near the dominant pitcher of old. With his four-seamer velocity down to an average of 94.1 mph, he relied more on a sinker, throwing it about twice as often as the heater (31.9% to 14.8%), where his usage prior had been about even. That pitch was quite effective, holding hitters to a .235 batting average and .310 slugging percentage; Statcast valued it at 11 runs prevented, tied for fifth in the majors. However, he struck out just 16.8% of all hitters, and so even with respectable contact stats — an average exit velocity in the 80th percentile, a hard-hit rate in the 79th percentile, and a barrel rate in the 39th percentile — his xERA was subpar:
Noah Syndergaard Statcast Profile
As you can see, Syndergaard’s contact profile has gotten worse, with his exit velo down to the 67th percentile and his hard-hit rate in the 46th, the same as his barrel rate. Combine that with his lower strikeout rate and that xERA, which matches his FIP, illustrates that he’s in replacement-level territory.
For as good as Syndergaard’s sinker was last year, the rest of his arsenal wasn’t as effective, and as you’d suspect, it’s trending in the wrong direction:
Noah Syndergaard 2022-23 Pitch Types
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Syndergaard has swapped out the slider for a cutter whose average velocity is about 4.5 mph higher, but the results with the new pitch have been brutal. Meanwhile, he’s lost another 1.3 mph off the sinker, which has been getting hit harder. The curve has been much less effective, both at generating whiffs and when getting hit.
Syndergaard’s velocity decline doesn’t even tell the whole story; his pitches lack the spin (20th percentile for the fastball, 15th percent for the curveball) and movement that make them exceptional, though to be fair, spin rate was never his strong suit; at his peak, his fastball spin rate placed in the 39th percentile in 2015. Via the Stuff+ model, he currently doesn’t have a single above-average pitch, and his scores on all of his offerings are down relative to last year:
Noah Syndergaard Stuff+, 2022-23
|Season||Stf+ FA||Stf+ SI||Stf+ FC||Stf+ SL||Stf+ CU||Stf+ CH||Stuff+||Location+||Pitching+|
It’s probably for the best that we don’t have data for his pre-surgery days in our system, as the story told by the numbers above is sad enough. “It’s just hard going out there with the weapons you used to have kind of being taken away from you,” he said after allowing six runs in six innings against the Rays on May 26. “And throwing what I’m possessing right now is not enough to successfully battle a team like that.”
Syndergaard has already acknowledged that he’s been working with a mental skills coach, using meditation and hypnosis in an attempt to overcome subconscious issues that he believes are keeping him from recapturing his velocity. He’s said that he feels like he’s “still throwing at 80 to 90%” and added, “I try to throw it as hard as I used to… It just doesn’t come out the same.”
More recently, he told reporters, “I think it’s not necessarily chasing the stuff or the old self. I’m chasing being free and easy… It’s like there’s another guy in the lineup (when I’m pitching). Sometimes I add another guy to the lineup and that person is just me competing against myself.”
Syndergaard’s candor is admirable, and it’s not hard to empathize with his plight. The Dodgers have praised the work that he’s done, from his conditioning to his willingness to rework his mechanics and reshape his arsenal, to his accountability and presence in the clubhouse. The results haven’t been there, and while it would be easy to declare him a sunk cost and move on, the Dodgers know that even last year’s edition of Syndergaard would be helpful for a team scrambling for innings amid so many injuries. Assuming there’s nothing physical standing in the way, it makes sense to see if giving him time to regroup helps, because sending him to the mound to get knocked around every fifth or sixth day isn’t doing it. Even if he can’t wield the hammer like the Thor of yore, he’s flashed the ability to be a competent major league starter, and for the Dodgers, that might be enough.