Most anybody and everybody who knows pitching, it seems, still believes Noah Syndergaard can be one of the best pitchers in baseball, based on his talent. But what does he need to do to make it happen after 2019, the worst season of his career?
Opinions on that varied among the several people I spoke to about the Mets' righthander, most centering around pitch selection and/or mental approach, something Syndergaard copped to himself in Port St. Lucie last week, saying his struggles last season were at least partly a case of "paralysis by analysis; thinking too much."
However, Bob Ojeda, the former Mets pitcher, who has also worked as a minor-league pitching coach and SNY analyst, delivered a harsher critique that was aimed at Syndergaard's Thor persona, if you will.
Specifically, Ojeda took exception to Syndergaard's now-famous shirtless workouts in Port St. Lucie, believing it was a way to call attention to himself.
"I think he needs to grow up," Ojeda said. "The job is hard enough. Sometimes your personality gets in the way of the talent when you're that talented, and his personality has jammed him up, in my opinion.
"Experience tells me if somebody would help Syndergaard keep his focus on just being a monster athlete, he would thank them later on."
With that in mind, Ojeda said he was happy to see Syndergaard's teammates prank him good-naturedly by going shirtless for a team stretch earlier this week.
"That was cool," Ojeda said. "They made a little joke of it, but there's a lot of truth to be found in humor. I saw it as a team doing some self-policing, which is what you need as a club to be successful, because when somebody jumps out of the pack, you need to throw a rope around him and say, 'get back here with the rest of us.'
"If teammates can do that, it's a great sign because when things go bad, you've got to be able to lean on each other and trust each other. I know he laughed and said he'll do it even more, which is what you'd expect him to say, but maybe deep down inside, he's thinking, 'I should reel it in some.'"
If you think all of this is making too much of a guy going shirtless in informal workouts, well, Ojeda's point is that it's symbolic of an attention-seeking personality, which he believes is a factor in keeping Syndergaard from reaching his potential.
But is that a fair assessment or more of an outside perception? I got different opinions on that when I asked people close to the situation.
Some see the Thor persona, including Syndergaard's high-profile social media presence, as harmless fun and make the point that he works hard behind the scenes.
"I think he's misunderstood," one Mets person said. "I think he's too honest for his own good at times, and he says things after games that he probably shouldn't, just out of frustration, and they sound like excuses. And, yeah, he likes attention, but he's not (Matt) Harvey -- he doesn't separate himself from the team. He may do things for show but he's got his priorities straight."
Others say Ojeda may have a point.
"He's not a bad kid," said another Mets person, "but I wish he'd eliminate the B.S. and just say, 'OK, I'm going to bear the (bleep) down for the next two years and try to make $200 million (as a free agent).' He should be saying, 'Jacob deGrom is the Cy Young? Well, guess what, I'm going to rival his a--, because my stuff's every bit as good.'
"That's the focus, the narrow vision that he should have. Because it's not fake (bleep). His stuff is so good that there's no way he should get hit the way he does."
That's really the root of the matter: Why hasn't Syndergaard blossomed from his near ace-like status of a few years ago, when he punctuated a dominant 2016 season by going pitch-for-pitch with Madison Bumgarner in the NL Wild Card game over seven shutout innings?
Injuries caused setbacks in 2017 and '18, but then last season Syndergaard was simply more hittable than he'd ever been. The 4.28 ERA was more than a run higher than his previous worst, but more tellingly, hitters slugged .410 off him, by far the highest such number in his career, as he gave up 37 doubles and 24 home runs.
Meanwhile, though strikeouts have risen dramatically around the majors since his debut in 2015, Syndergaard's totals have fallen: He averaged 9.2 K's per nine innings last season, down from 10.7 in 2016 and practically pedestrian for someone with his high-90s or 100-mph velocity.
Scouts and executives I spoke to aren't sure what to make of his inability to dominate more consistently. Part of it is they believe hitters see so much more high-90s velocity now than they did even a few years ago that they're not as intimidated or overmatched by Syndergaard's fastball.
And at least a few of them pointed to analytics, noting that Syndergaard doesn't have a high spin rate on his fastball, which is the science behind pitching effectively above the strike zone, as the spin rate allows the ball to defy gravity and create the perception of so-called late life on the pitch.
That became a storyline for Syndergaard in 2019, as he began the season saying he was re-committing to the high fastball, at a time when all the launch-angle swinging in the game has made hitters especially vulnerable to it, but found that he couldn't blow the ball past hitters with regularity and eventually went back to relying more heavily on his sinking two-seamer.
The consensus among scouts I spoke with is that he needs to stick with that approach, using the high fastball only occasionally, while also incorporating more off-speed stuff to keep hitters from constantly gearing up for high velocity.
"His 98 doesn't play up as well some others," said one scout. "He has a very good sinker, he just needs to command it more consistently, and that will allow him to elevate at times when he's ahead in the count.
"The bottom line, for a guy who throws as hard as he does, he shouldn't get whacked on his heater. And he does. That tells me guys are looking for something super-hard at all times, whether it's his fastball or his slider. Even his change-up is 90.
"I'd like to see him throw his curveball more, which is in the low 80s, to create more speed variation. He doesn't have to throw it a ton but more than he does now. He did it when he was younger but I think he's gotten caught up in the velocity."
Another scout added, "I think he's been confused as to why he can't throw the ball by hitters the way he did when he came into the league. He's got the stuff to make the adjustments and be dominant but not if he's in his own head. And that seemed to be a problem last year."
Yes, as Syndergaard essentially admitted last week, he spent last season overthinking his process while lamenting everything from the baseball feeling like an ice cube in his hand to excessive humidity to his lack of comfort pitching to Wilson Ramos.
Some of that too is what Ojeda meant in saying that Syndergaard, who turns 27 in August, needs to show maturity on and off the mound.
It's not a surprise that Ojeda was willing to say it publicly. The '86 Met has always been a straight shooter, which is part of what made him an insightful analyst when he worked for SNY, and he considers it merely tough love.
"It's nothing I wouldn't say to his face," Ojeda said. "Listen, I think 100 percent he can be an amazing pitcher," Ojeda said. "He's got a world of talent but it comes down to the mental side. Part of it is he needs to figure out who he is as a pitcher.
"I'm into the analytics, and the spin rate is a big factor when you're talking about elevating the fastball. But he should be who he is, for his confidence level. It matters what's going on inside his brain, so don't force him to be something just because of analytics.
"I know from experience if I'm in a place where I'm comfortable with what I'm throwing, I'll execute pitches more successfully.
"I would try to get him to where he's confident leaning on his two-seamer, and if his mindset is that he wants to throw the ball by hitters, help him understand he can still do that, as long as he's pitching and not throwing. These hitters today can time a jet airplane, but if you set them up, you can throw it by them at 89, never mind the 99 he throws.
"I still think he'll get there, but it has to start with someone making him understand what's most important. Is he going to be Jeremy Shockey ... or is he going to be like Patrick Mahomes, a kid who's a champion not just because of his talent but because he's mature beyond his years.
"I want to see him be more like Mahomes."