|Prized pitching prospect RHP Noah Syndergaard makes his major league debut against the Chicago Cubs tonight.|
A few minutes after 8:00 PM and under the bright lights of Wrigley Field, prized pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard makes his major league debut. Had Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant not been the most hyped prospect to make his debut since Bryce Harper, Noah Syndergaard would be the prospect debut of the year.
What do we know about Syndergaard? What should we expect?
Depending on the publication, Syndergaard ranked between #8 and #25 out of all prospects and regularly ranked within the top few pitching prospects. The expert consensus has Syndergaard as a true #2 starter who generates a lot of strikeouts and ground balls. A high-90s fastball sets everything else up and at 6'6" and 240 pounds, scouts think he should be able to handle a lot of innings through the course of a season. Following the high-90s fastball, Syndergaard (who has been nicknamed "Thor" by fans due to his Nordic-sounding name, imposing figure, and appearance) also throws a curve and a change. The curve, which manager Terry Collins dubbed "The hook from hell" last spring, grades out slightly ahead of his change but both lag behind his fastball.
From my time watching him, I disagree a bit with the expert consensus on his off-speed pitches. I think the curve is a special pitch and it plays up even more after a fastball that comes in 15-20 MPH faster and from the same arm angle. The change is still a bit of a "show me" pitch but it's a true third pitch that Syndergaard has worked on a lot this year.
Another fun note about Syndergaard is that he can really swing the bat. He is hitting 8th tonight in Terry's lineup. His career line in the minors is .270/.357/.405/.763 with a homer and two doubles in 98 at bats. I would not be surprised if Syndergaard hits a homer in Wrigley if the wind is blowing out and he can get one in the air. He has more than a clue at the plate and, like deGrom, should be a pinch-hitting option for Collins in extra inning games if needed.
We know Syndergaard throws very hard. We know he is a big guy and is making his debut at 22 years old which is younger than both Harvey and Wheeler. We know he's a hyped prospect who has stayed in the organization despite trade rumors. I think fans probably also heard that he did not have a great 2014 in Las Vegas. That is not exactly true. Let's take a look at some of "Thor's" numbers:
In 2014, Syndergaard pitched to a 4.60 ERA in 133.0 innings for Las Vegas. However, Las Vegas is one of the easiest parks to hit in the entire minor leagues and the PCL is easier on hitters than any other league in minor league baseball. Thin air + small parks = bad time for pitchers. Furthermore, Syndergaard got really unlucky. If you have read my former posts, you should have an idea what BABIP is. Syndergaard's was nearly 100 points above league average at a ridiculous .382 for a season and his defense did not help him out either. Despite the 4.60 ERA, his FIP was 3.18--a very strong mark for the PCL.
In 2015, the luck turned, the defense has been good and Syndergaard took a step forward and starting striking out batters at a ridiculous rate which led to a 1.82 ERA in 29.2 innings this spring.
Syndergaard finishes his minor league career (hopefully for good. Wishful thinking here.) with 10.2 strikeouts per nine and 2.6 walks per nine inning. The strikeout rate is outstanding and one of the best marks in the minors over the same seasons. The walk rate is a very respectable number, especially for a young pitcher relative to his league and for one who throws so hard and strikes out so many.
Take a look at his strikeout percentage (there is a distinction here between K/9 and strikeout percentage because we're looking at strikeouts relative to batters faced and not just innings completed):
Major league average last year was 20.4%. Syndergaard's career mark in the minors was 27.5%. Only four pitchers in 2014 struck out a percentage higher than Syndergaard's 27.5% average: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer.
Matt Harvey's career strikeout percentage was an identical 27.5%.
Similarly, Syndergaard's walk rate is very low for a pitcher with his profile. His career minor league mark was 7.0% which would have ranked 40th in major league baseball last year but his K%-BB% would have been 9th, behind the same quartet above plus David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez and Madison Bumgarner. Certainly not bad company.
In short, Syndergaard strikes out a veritable ton of hitters and does not issue many walks. That, already, is a great combination.
What about his batted ball profile?
Syndergaard profiles as a slight ground ball pitcher. In his 443.0 innings in the minors, 47.5% of his outs came via the ground ball and, in interviews, Syndergaard has claimed that he actively tries to induce soft contact on the ground and finds it just as satisfying as a strikeout when he can do so. Find me another 22-year-old flamethrower who says the same thing. The major league average last year was 44.8% putting him on the ground ball side of things but within a standard deviation. Pitching the best baseball of his career in 2015, his ground ball rate was 50.7% which is more around where I suspect he will be as a major leaguer.
Side note: I am surprised that Wilmer Flores is in the lineup today knowing that Syndergaard induces a good number of ground balls. While offense is a premium for the Mets these days, I hope this decision does not come back to haunt the Mets and Syndergaard in his debut. Personally, I think Ruben Tejada has to be the shortstop in tonight's game.
Syndergaard also limits hard contact very well. His career line drive rate in the minors was 16.5%. Major league average is 20.8%. However, Syndergaard's BABIP was a whopping .330 in the minors while major league average is .295. This tells me he probably had some poor defenders behind him throughout his time in the minors and/or that he got unlucky. The "bad defense" theory is propped up by an FIP well under his ERA (2.68 to 3.17).
Syndergaard has a slight platoon split. He is expectedly tough on righties and gets hit by lefties at a higher rate. He strikes righties out at a higher rate and walks them less often. Strangely enough, though, he allows the same line drive rate to hitters from both sides. While the platoon is not extreme, the data does show that lefties will have an easier time, which is expected.
All in all, everything about Syndergaard's time in the minors should excite any baseball fan that likes watching good pitching. The scouting reports, expert consensus, sabermetric profile, basis stats and eye test all point to Noah Syndergaard being a very good major league pitcher for a long time.
Considering the Chicago Cubs strike out at an alarming rate, have never seen Noah Syndergaard in the past and that Syndergaard is very much a strikeout pitcher, I am expecting a pretty solid night from Thor this evening.
Mets fans have to be getting spoiled. It seems like not even a couple months go by before another hyped prospect makes his major league debut. While I cannot claim that tonight marks the beginning of an era, I do think it in many ways caps off the beginning of an era. It started with Harvey in 2012 when the pitching machine started turning. Syndergaard is, in my mind, the last piece of the dynamic pitching machine that should keep New York in contention for a lot of years. Tonight should be special no matter the outcome of the game.