Since arriving in the minor leagues in 2010 as a first-round draft pick by the Blue Jays, the tall right-hander from Texas had overwhelmed the competition. In more that two years in the Jays system and a full season in the Mets chain, his ERA had never been above 3.11. Although that number skyrocketed to 4.60 in 26 starts for the 51s last season, it’s fair to assume the conditions of the Pacific Coast League and advanced hitters at that level had much to do with the poorer performance. Although Syndergaard acknowledges those as factors for his inconsistency, he thinks learning how to pitch and confidence were the overwhelming causes for his troubles.
Still, 145 strikeouts in 133 innings and stretches of dominating pitching scattered throughout the season should give Mets fans and the organization reason to believe the 22-year-old will be just fine. Is his confidence back to where it was prior to 2014? Does he think he's ready to take the next step to the major leagues? He tells us in this week’s Mets Minor Q&A...
Brender: You’ve had several weeks to decompress and think about last season. What are your thought on the way you pitched?
Syndergaard: I think I improved pretty drastically. Not so much physically, although I did a little physically, developing my changeup. Trying to adjust to the PCL climate with breaking pitches. Had to adjust there. But more the mental side of the game. It was my first season I really struggled for a certain span of time. I really had to adapt and really learned a lot.
Brender: Is there one specific thing you still need to improve on to make the jump to the big leagues or do you feel like you’ve overcome the issues from 2014 and you’re ready?
Syndergaard: There’s one game that comes to mind that I think back on. It was a game I pitched against New Orleans. I went out there first inning, almost got out of it with no runs but then I ended up throwing a changeup to Josh Rodriguez and he hits a double down the line, bases-clearing, and I gave up two more base hits after that. Next thing I know, it’s 5-0 in the first and it was snowballing all over again. Previous games, I gave up three runs in the first, two runs, I just couldn’t get out of the first inning, really. And then after that I got a little pissed off. I think I threw three scoreless (innings) and then Wally (Backman) was trying to take me out. I (told him) I had plenty of pitches left, I’ve got some innings to go. I guess I basically kept myself in the game. I went out there for the fifth and my spot was coming up in the order. I thought I would be taken out after that, but they continued to let me go out there and I led off with a base hit and started a five-run rally that inning. So that’s one game that really sticks out to me where I learned a lot. That was later in the season, too.
I feel like if it was earlier in the season, with where my mindset was at, I would have probably been done after three innings. I would have been beaten out there. I would have given up five runs and then probably the next inning I would have given up another three. That’s just the way things were going and I didn’t know how to handle it all that well. Because, like I said, that’s never happened to me before in the minor leagues. So, that’s something I really improved on. When I was in high school, my coach at the time told me the biggest key to winning baseball games was to prevent the big inning. That’s something I need to work on. But if there are times when that does happen, I’ll know when to adjust and keep myself in a ball game, go longer in the game and give the offense a chance to score some runs.
Brender: Do you pitch better when you’re angry?
Syndergaard: I would say, when something happens like that and I get a little angry and I get a little fired up, I feel like I pitch better. I pitch with a certain swagger or a little savvy, like Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan did. They went out there with authority and showed it on the mound.
Brender: When we spoke last July, you told me you know your stuff is good enough and the ability is there but it was frustrating that it wasn’t translating on the field. Is that still frustrating as you look back at the 2014 season?
Syndergaard: Yeah, there was one day I was throwing a bullpen session and Frank (Viola) was right behind me. I asked him, "Are you as frustrated as I am? Because I can throw lights-out bullpen, throwing the curveball, changeup, fastball where ever I want to put it. But then in the game somehow the ball gets put in play softly and it just happens to find a hole." There was a game in Salt Lake, the first game back from the All-Star break. I went out there, my arm was feeling great, it was some of the best stuff I’ve had, but in the first inning I gave up three runs. They had probably two or three broken bat base hits but I look up at the scoreboard and it’s 3-0. I feel like I have the stuff to pitch in the big leagues and have a lot of success in the big leagues and help the Mets go for a pennant race. It’s just being more consistent.
Brender: You mentioned Frank Viola. When I spoke to him recently, he talked about working with you on the mental aspect of the game. Was that what he what he worked on with you the most, even more than the physical mechanics?
Syndergaard: There were little minor tweaks when it came to my mechanics. Sometimes my mechanics in games weren’t as good as they were in previous games. But it was more about putting it all together and the mental side of the game. That’s something he helped me drastically with. Also, how to approach hitters, when to throw certain pitches at certain times. I learned at the beginning of the year that veteran hitters in that league (PCL), the majority of them, can hit fastballs no matter how hard it is. That’s something I really didn’t have to face last year when I was in Binghamton. I felt last year like I was a pitcher but, in reality, I learned this year that I was very much a thrower. I would throw primarily fastballs and mix in a changeup every once in a while, throw a curveball every once in a while. I could just throw fastballs and get away with it. Can’t do that in the big leagues. Can’t do it in Triple-A. Nobody wants to pitch in Triple-A. The ultimate goal is to be in the big leagues.
Brender: So your goal right now is to improve location of your pitches and pitch mix?
Syndergaard: Location is a big part of it. Hitting is timing and pitching is trying to throw off hitters timing. If they’re timing up the fastball, you have to get them off of it with something, changeup, breaking pitch.
Brender: What’s your mindset for Spring Training? I’m assuming it’s to try to make the big league club out of Spring Training?
Syndergaard: Yeah, that’s my goal right there. Last year, I went to Spring Training with a pretty good mindset of no matter how well I was going to pitch I was more than likely going to end up in Triple-A. I still felt like I competed really well, had a lot of success in big league camp. But this year I’m going to try to go in there and fight for a job. Hopefully, I get there. I’m going to give my body the best chance this offseason. I’ve been in the weight room for a month now. I already feel stronger.
Brender: When you see the success Jacob deGrom had last season, does that motivate you?
Syndergaard: Definitely. We started together in High-A last year and next thing you know he’s probably going to be the Rookie of the Year. That was in the course of a year-and-a-half. You can see how fast it can happen and you can see how fast pitchers develop and, once they get the big leagues, how much success they can have. How easy he made it look.
Brender: What’s your plan for the rest of the offseason?
Syndergaard: When I first got home, I took about two weeks off. I went to Aspen for my sister’s wedding. I’ll probably make a trip to California and enjoy my offseason. I’ll probably travel a little bit, see what’s around and take some time off.