Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
There are two ways to look at Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard's seasons, heading into what promise to be a pair of highly scrutinized starts for the Mets against Cincinnati: Analytically, which suggests that improvement is coming, and with your eyes, which inspires more concern, particularly for Syndergaard.
A simple glance at the Fangraphs pages for both makes a clear case that neither pitcher has been quite as bad as we think. Most of deGrom's peripherals are in line with career norms. His strikeout rate is 37 percent, which is better than his lifetime number of 29.2 percent. His xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) is 2.91, compared to 3.02 for his career.
Additionally, opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against deGrom is .389, which suggests bad luck that will turn around. Part of that high BABIP could be a result of opponents' hard contact rate of 47.5 percent -- nearly double last year's 26.6 percent. Several analytically-inclined evaluators said this week that it's far too early in the season to draw any conclusions about a number like hard contact; the sample size is too small.
All of that points to near-term improvement, and perhaps that will begin Wednesday night. But evaluators simply watching with their eyes and leaning on their experience see an out-of-whack pitcher who is struggling with his command in a way that he never has before.
They also say that when deGrom throws his slider at 94-95 miles per hour, which he began during his second start of the season in Miami, he does not create enough velocity differential between the fastball and offspeed. We wrote about this recently in detail.
"You can gear up for velocity and you just have to focus on location," says one hitter.
Others around the league have speculated that the faster slider, and the added torque it brings on the elbow, could have led to deGrom's flareup of elbow pain two weeks ago.
For most of the season, folks all over the league have murmured about whether deGrom is tipping his pitches. All we can say to that is that we've reported on it after every bad start, asking many people, and no one has spotted a thing.
At one point, colleague Nelson Figueroa went to the video editing room at the SNY office and scrutinized deGrom's delivery frame-by-frame. He found nothing. During deGrom's start in Atlanta, I spoke to a scout sitting behind home plate, who was discussing with all the other scouts if they saw evidence of tipping. No one did.
Still, the speculation persists, for one simple reason: The hitters look way too comfortable.
"I noticed good takes on change-ups and sliders that were swings and misses in his first couple starts," says one evaluator. "Also, solid contact on the fastball in, or trying to come in but missed over the plate."
By "good takes," the evaluator means that hitters seemed oddly committed to keeping their bats on their shoulders for offspeed pitches. DeGrom's sequences suddenly weren't fooling anyone.
Between the numbers and the scouts, this is a lot to unpack, but one key truth is worth remembering: deGrom has always demonstrated an elite ability to pitch without his best stuff, dating all the way back to Game 5 of the 2015 NLDS against the Dodgers. He is smart and competitive beyond most of his colleagues, and capable at any time of returning to his old self.
Syndergaard's case strikes many evaluators as less hopeful, though his peripherals make the same case as deGrom's.
His K rate is a tick higher than usual, and his walk rate a tick lower. Opponents .376 BABIP suggests unsustainable bad luck. His xFIP is 3.55 -- not great, but nowhere near the 6.35 ERA. Statistically, he hasn't been close to an All-Star, but he hasn't been a disaster, either.
As with deGrom, the case against Syndergaard comes from simply watching him pitch.
"Look at his eyes when he gives up a hit or there's an error behind him," says one evaluator. "He looks scared, like he's lost right now."
To Syndergaard's great credit, he is relatively open about these feelings in his public comments after games. "I'm not pressing the panic button just yet," he said, while using the phrase nonetheless.
"If I'm facing Syndergaard it's a pretty comfortable at-bat right now," said one evaluator who played for many years in the big leagues. "He doesn't really pitch inside, and he should throw the two-seam more. He looks like he's trying to be a strikeout pitcher and he throws a lot of straight fastballs. The slider doesn't look like it has the depth it once did."
One major league executive who has watched both players for years offered this assessment: "I think it's possible we've already seen the best of both of them, because deGrom is 30 and it's hard to do what he did last year, and because Syndergaard still needs to learn how to pitch."
That analysis perhaps sounds more dire than its speaker intended. He meant that, while deGrom has a chance to be excellent for several more years, he might not enjoy another historic season -- because, well, who could?
With Syndergaard, the comments echoed what much of the league has come to believe: That he is highly talented but not as accomplished as it might seem at first glance. This is why the Mets found it more difficult than expected to extract what they considered fair value for him in trade talks last winter.
Both pitchers present fascinating cases, and both are essential to the Mets' hopes of contending for a championship this season. We'll see over the next two days if they can offer anything to ease the team's concerns.