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The Model of a Modern Pitcher

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

In the 2012 offseason, the Mets made a controversial deal, sending knuckleball artist and fan favorite R.A. Dickey [2] to the Blue Jays for a return built around a minor-leaguer who was seen as a can’t-miss prospect.

It’s easy to forget that minor-leaguer was Travis d’Arnaud [3], billed as a tough catcher with a sweet stroke that generated opposite-field power. D’Arnaud never fulfilled his promise in New York, ground down by a drumbeat of injuries that bordered on Biblical and finally exiled after a Jeff Wilpon hissy fit. The other prospects in the deal were an outfielder named Wuilmer Becerra [4] and a right-handed pitcher named Noah Syndergaard [5]. Both were regarded as lottery tickets —  Becerra had power and speed, while Syndergaard had a flamethrower for an arm — but were very much unknown quantities.

Eight years later, Syndergaard is still something of an unknown quantity, if we’re being honest about it. But it’s a different kind of unknown, that comes with a raft of questions. The immediate one is whether Syndergaard’s elbow ligament will reknit the way he and we would like, which isn’t the gamble it once was but is still uncertain. Beyond that, the questions are the same ones that have dogged Michael Conforto [6]: Will Syndergaard ever be great, or do Mets fans need to settle for his merely being really good?

They’re the kind of questions you hope to get to wrestle with — just as Syndergaard is a fascinating pitcher to try to sum up. From his career stats to his potential to his manner on the mound and the workings of his brain, he’s the model of a modern pitcher.

It starts with the arsenal, of course — something that always brings me back to when I was first getting to know Syndergaard. The fastball was nearly 100, with that hard sink that makes hitters feel like they’re trying to connect with a shotput. But we’d known that was coming. We hadn’t known about the evil changeup, the sharp curve, or the slider. Oh God, that slider — on Opening Day 2016 it was coming out of Syndergaard’s hand at 95. Sample scouting report: That shit’s fucking unhittable.

Which gets us to the modern part. If you were a baseball-mad kid in the late Seventies and early Eighties, you could name every pitcher in the big leagues who threw 95. Ninety-five demanded memorization. It was elite bordering on superhuman. Today, I couldn’t name all the pitchers on the Mets roster who throw 95. A fastball hitting 100? Just another day at the office. Meanwhile, the number of pitchers who threw a 95 MPH slider in the early Reagan administration? It was zero. That pitch didn’t exist.

Noah Syndergaard pitching [7]

Hammer of the gods, coming at you.

That’s what 35 years of nutrition, travel teams, increased attention to mechanics and specialized roles have wrought: secondary pitches with the velocity once reserved for fastballs, and once-legendary fastball velocities become routine. But a lot of today’s pitchers have that raw material. To it, Syndergaard added command, feel and brains. In the fall of 2015, more than one awed observer compared him to a videogame player who’d found the cheat codes. Four plus pitches and a brain that knew what to do with them? How did that even happen?

It helped that he arrived with his own myth, sporting flowing blond locks and the nickname Thor. He hadn’t exactly run away from that persona, either — images of him working out in Thor gear had gone viral while he was still a minor-leaguer. But you know what? The real name was pretty good too. Noah Syndergaard? Really? Old Testament patriarch meets Viking warrior? Who names a kid that, particularly if they don’t have a friendly Norn to drop by the delivery room and say, “Psst, your little bundle of joy’s going to be a baseball-hurling demigod?” (If you’re curious [8], the name in Denmark was Sondergaard. That slight shift of vowels to something more fiery should also count as a wise mechanical tweak.)

Thor was divine from the get-go, but Noah needed some work [9]. At 14, Syndergaard was just shy of six feet, but encased in baby fat and so clumsy that his family good-naturedly called him Bumpy. His early-teen photos look a lot more like yours or mine than you’d expect — he’s burdened by a terrible haircut, unfortunate glasses, and a palpable sense of dismay about it all. Syndergaard always loved sports, and was on his Texas high school’s freshman baseball team, but he rarely got into a game and was made fun of by his teammates. But oh, how things were about to change. He kept growing — all the way to six-foot-six — decided to remake his diet and his body, and saw his right arm turn into Mjolnir. As origin stories go, that one’s up there with Steve Rogers agreeing to the U.S. Army’s experiment or Peter Parker encountering a radioactive spider.

But Syndergaard, endearingly, has never stopped sounding a bit like his old geeky duckling self even after turning into a fiery, terrifying swan. “My arm is like a trebuchet,” he told reporters during the 2015 playoffs. “It’s got to be loose and whiplike, and you have to use the force of your body to deliver the pitch.” When I read that, I needed a minute. Trebuchet? Really? Who was this kid?

A smart pitcher, for one thing. After his 2015 call-up, Syndergaard leaned heavily on his fastball and was more thrower than pitcher. He soon discovered the limits of that approach, falling into predictable patterns and getting hurt. It’s an adjustment every pitcher has to make, and one many never do. Syndergaard put it behind him at near-record speed, working with Dan Warthen [10] on refining his mechanics and varying his arsenal. He muzzled the Dodgers for a critical inning behind Jacob deGrom [11] in the NLDS clincher, beat the Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS beatdown, and won Game 3 of the World Series against the Royals. The next year he looked stratosphere-bound, authoring an All-Star campaign that included 14 wins, 200+ Ks and a 2.60 ERA, on the way to his wild-card staredown with Madison Bumgarner [12].

And he had fun doing it. Syndergaard was an interesting contrast with Matt Harvey [13]. Both enjoyed the spotlight and embraced their highly marketable nicknames, but those nicknames came to seem all too apt: The Dark Knight was tortured and ill at ease, while Thor was sunny and goofy. Both had to deal with the weirdness of being famous for throwing a baseball, but Syndergaard handled it with seeming nonchalance while Harvey twisted himself into a knot. If Harvey went out on the town or flashed a middle finger before surgery, somehow it became a thing for talk radio to fuss over; Syndergaard could roll into Port St. Lucie on a horse he didn’t really know how to ride or call Bryce Harper [14] a douche on Instagram and people would just laugh. Not that he was a lightweight — like Harvey, he brought a necessary meanness to the mound, understanding the psychological value of 100 MPH inside. When the Royals took exception to that, Syndergaard coolly suggested anyone who didn’t like it could meet him on the mound. (He later claimed he’d meant he’d be waiting there to explain his side of the issue, which wasn’t convincing; he also said while he’d never been in a fight, he liked his chances, which was.)

That was Noah Syndergaard going into 2017. What would he do next? To me, the answer seemed clear: He was going to become the best pitcher the Mets had ever had. Yes, better than Tom Seaver [15] or Dwight Gooden [16] or deGrom. It was a big claim, but said it and I meant it. Because I’d never seen an arsenal like that, attached to the body of a god and powered by a brain and a psyche that could deliver on those physical possibilities. Syndergaard made me ask the same question once asked of Bret Saberhagen [17]: How could a pitcher with all that ever lose?

And then, well, things got complicated. Maybe that invocation of Saberhagen should have been a warning.

Things went physically wrong — in 2017 a bulked-up Syndergaard refused to get an MRI for a sore bicep, then wound up tearing a lat and missing most of the year. But things went wrong in other ways, too. That otherworldly slider got a lot more mortal, losing velocity and proving far more hittable. Syndergaard sometimes looked like the work in the progress he’d been as a rookie, cruising along, then blowing up and departing games in frustration. It also didn’t help that he was pitching in front of a chronically shoddy Mets defense — a sinker that produces ground balls isn’t much good without gloves that convert enough of them into outs. And he was competing against his own potential, of course. In 2018 — the year he represents in A Met for All Seasons — he won 13 games with an ERA a hair above three, a campaign that’s only a disappointment if measured against what you figured he was capable of. Which is the yardstick we all used. 2019 was a head scratcher: a 4.28 ERA, fewer strikeouts, more walks, less thunder.

And then, the inevitable arrived at last: a torn UCL and a lost 2020.

Pitchers break — that’s intrinsic to the profession. Every time Syndergaard threw one of those lightning-bolt fastballs or cosmic-prankster sliders, I held my breath a little. I was afraid I’d see him spin on the mound, clutch his elbow, and shake his arm. I hoped for him to cheat the odds, to be Seaver or Bob Gibson [18] or Nolan Ryan [19] or one of the other fireballing aces whose genetics and luck we habitually confuse with character and grit. I hoped for that, even as I waited for the word that he was like nearly everybody else. Cruelly, that news came when no one was looking, a couple of weeks after the coronavirus had shut down spring training. Syndergaard had Tommy John [20] surgery on what was supposed to be Opening Day.

His future? You tell me. There are too many unknowns — his elbow, the state of the Mets, what happens with baseball labor relations, and a whole lot else. Maybe he’ll return and still be Thor. Maybe our next comic-book journey involves new ownership, a revitalized team and a golden-locked hero who’s set his mind on vengeance. Or maybe the Syndergaard of late 2015 and 2016 was the pinnacle of what he could be. Maybe those were the days to savor, and I spent them looking impatiently to a future I should have remembered wasn’t guaranteed.

I don’t know. Anyone who says they do is kidding you. But whatever the case, late at night I go back in time, to the same fork in the road I know I should stop revisiting. It’s Game 5, only this time Lucas Duda [21] makes the throw and Eric Hosmer [22] is out at the plate and the Mets have escaped. That means Game 6 will be in Kansas City. DeGrom’s going to the mound looking to even the Series, eager to avenge his Game 2 misstep. And if he wins, Syndergaard’s waiting in the wings for Game 7. He’s studied that Royals lineup anew. He’s confident in the fastball, and the wipeout change, and the PlayStation slider. He’s even tweeted out a photo or two involving hammers and winged helmets, because this stuff is fun. Is he ready? Ready is for lesser things, for running errands or a night on the town. He’s only been waiting his whole life for this — the moment in which he becomes what he’s always been destined to be.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [23]: Richie Ashburn
1963 [24]: Ron Hunt
1964 [25]: Rod Kanehl
1965 [26]: Ron Swoboda
1966 [27]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967 [28]: Al Schmelz
1968 [29]: Cleon Jones
1969 [30]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [31]: Tommie Agee
1971 [32]: Tom Seaver
1972 [33]: Gary Gentry
1973 [34]: Willie Mays
1974 [35]: Tug McGraw
1975 [36]: Mike Vail
1976 [37]: Mike Phillips
1977 [38]: Lenny Randle
1978 [39]: Craig Swan
1980: [40] Lee Mazzilli
1981 [41]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [42]: Rusty Staub
1983 [43]: Darryl Strawberry
1985 [44]: Dwight Gooden
1986 [45]: Keith Hernandez
1987 [46]: Lenny Dykstra
1988 [47]: Gary Carter
1990 [48]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [49]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [50]: Todd Hundley
1993 [51]: Joe Orsulak
1994 [52]: Rico Brogna
1995 [53]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [54]: Rey Ordoñez
1997 [55]: Edgardo Alfonzo
1998 [56]: Todd Pratt
2000 [57]: Melvin Mora
2001 [58]: Mike Piazza
2002 [59]: Al Leiter
2003 [60]: David Cone
2004 [61]: Joe Hietpas
2005 [62]: Pedro Martinez
2007 [63]: Jose Reyes
2008 [64]: Johan Santana
2009 [65]: Angel Pagan
2010 [66]: Ike Davis
2011 [67]: David Wright
2012 [68]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [69]: Wilmer Flores
2014 [70]: Jacob deGrom
2015 [71]: Michael Conforto
2016 [72]: Matt Harvey
2017 [73]: Paul Sewald
2019 [74]: Dom Smith
2020 [75]: Pete Alonso