Noah Syndergaard’s Reliable Sinker

Noah Syndergaard was absolutely brilliant in his first full season with the Mets in 2015. He logged an ERA of 3.24 and an FIP of 3.25 last season. Identical ERA and FIP generally means the defense that played behind Syndergaard did enough. (Rule of thumb: If a pitcher’s ERA is better than his FIP, the pitcher had a benefit of his defense while he was pitching. It is generally believed that this rule of thumb is more reliable with a larger sample number. On the other hand, if his ERA is worse than his FIP, his teammates were not helping him defensively with balls that were in play.)

I digressed a little bit. Let me get back to Syndergaard. According to his 2016 season FIP, he is even better than last season. His FIP through his first five starts of the season is a stunning 1.39. His 2016 ERA is 2.51, which deviates a lot from his FIP. The Mets do have a below-average defense, but it is way too early to suggest that the Mets defense is so horrible because of a one-run difference between his ERA and FIP. It is still early May. There are many opportunities for the Mets defense to make it up to him throughout the season. After just five starts in this season, Syndergaard’s fWAR of 1.5 is half of what he logged in the 2015 season, which was 3.1. His start has been that good.

He also had great command considering that he is a power pitcher, last year logging a fantastic 1.86 BB/9 in 150 innings. This season, he has a 1.67 BB/9. His K/9 in the 2016 season is 12.25 and that is more than 2 K/9 higher than last season.

Since the beginning of the 2015 season, there are only four pitchers with a BB% less than 5% and who logged at least 94 mph average fastball in that span. (Minimum 170 IP)

Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K% BB% K-BB AVG ERA FIP
Jacob deGrom 9.50 1.69 0.71 26.9% 4.8% 22.1% 0.214 2.49 2.64
Chris Sale 11.16 1.71 0.95 30.9% 4.7% 26.1% 0.221 3.14 2.76
Noah Syndergaard 10.39 1.78 0.97 28.8% 4.9% 23.9% 0.221 3.01 2.88
Max Scherzer 10.61 1.59 1.11 29.7% 4.5% 25.3% 0.210 2.98 2.98

I considered just two parameters to find Syndergaard’s comparables and I think they’re reasonable comps. deGrom, Sale, and Scherzer are all top-tier pitchers that have won Cy Youngs or finished very high in the Cy Young ballot in the past. Here is the takeaway message: Syndergaard only had to pitch 176.2 innings at the MLB level to be in the company of deGrom, Sale, and Scherzer. And this young 2016 season is just his second full year. He can only get better because he is only 23 years old with the best fastball among starters. His fastball velocity in the last two seasons is best among starters (97.2 mph). And you certainly can’t forget his 95 mph slider against the Royals in the opening series. He has a very nasty secondary pitch as well. According to his FanGraphs profile page, he has relied on his fastball and slider about 75% of the time this season. This can make Syndergaard a very predictable pitcher to hit against, but his simple pitch selection did not prevent him from his dominant start to the 2016 season because batters have a hard time hitting it even when they know it’s coming.

Now I want to delve very deep into Noah’s advanced metrics so that I can figure out what he is doing better than last year. For starters, his average fastball velocity (both four-seam and two-seam) increased by about one mile between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, which only make things more complicated for the batters that have to face Syndergaard. Refer to the graph below:

While horizontal movement between the 15’ and 16’ seasons decreased (not shown in this article), I saw increased vertical movement on his fastballs:

Although this is based on a very small sample size, his fastball whiff rate in 2016 has increased by 3.3% compared to the 2015 season whiff rate. It is obvious to see positive change in whiff rate when both velocity and movement of the fastball increase substantially.

His 2016 season sinker whiff rate is down from last season, but the sinker is not a good strikeout pitch anyway; it is more of a groundball-inducing pitch. According to the figure below, he has been relying on his sinker more often this year to improve his groundball rate to 57%, up from 47% last year. (Mind you, you should monitor his GB% throughout this season to see if this is a real thing, but I won’t be surprised if his GB% will be sustained all season long. The combination of heavy usage, good movement, and high velocity can make this quite possible.)

If you see the pitch usage (four-seam and sinker only) above, his sinker usage is at 35% this year, which is 10% up from last season.

Noah Syndergaard is one of the most exciting pitchers to watch this year, so I wrote about him. Not only does he have a rare explosive 80-grade fastball that he can command very well, but he is also heavily relying on a heavy sinker of his to get many batters out with a groundball. That’s why I think he will be even better this year. While I compared him to Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and Jacob deGrom, I think this will be the year for Syndergaard to compete for the NL Cy Young with Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta.

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note about fip vs era discrepancy. I would think his inability to control the running game factors into that.