LOS ANGELES — Noah Syndergaard wants to get back to the fireballing pitcher he was with the Mets early in his career, and has enlisted help everywhere he can get it, including from the Dodgers, his new team.
“I feel like everything they touch turns to gold,” Syndergaard said on a Zoom call Monday from his home in Dallas, three days after his one-year, $13-million contract with the Dodgers was finalized.
Los Angeles found success on one-year deals with veteran starting pitchers last year, signing Andrew Heaney for $8.5 million and Tyler Anderson for $8 million. Anderson made the All-Star team and led the Dodgers in innings pitched in 2022, while Heaney set career bests in ERA and strikeout rate. Both cashed in with multi-year contracts this offseason.
“I definitely want to be in that category,” Syndergaard said.
Syndergaard was in a category almost all to himself when he first came up with the Mets. A 6’6 right-hander with a flowing mane, Syndergaard touched 100 mph while averaging between 97-99 mph on both his two-seam and four-seam fastballs. With the Mets from 2015-19, he had a 3.31 ERA and 2.92 FIP, the latter ranking fifth in the majors among pitchers with at least 500 innings. Syndergaard received Cy Young Award votes while making the All-Star team in 2016.
Then Syndergaard had Tommy John surgery in March 2020.
During the COVID-19 pandemic that year, Syndergaard said he didn’t do much except eat, sleep, and rehab. Things were going so well on rehab that the Mets considered not placing him on the 60-day injured list to start 2021, but soon reconsidered. He only pitched two innings for New York at the end of that season before leaving for the Angels in free agency.
Syndergaard was effective in 2022, first with the Angels and then for the Phillies after the trade deadline. He had a 3.93 ERA and 3.84 FIP in 134⅔ innings. His four-seam fastball averaged 94.1 mph last year and his two-seamer was at 93.6 mph, about four ticks down from his Mets years. But he was able to still be a league-average starting pitcher.
“I think coming off Tommy John last year proved that he was healthy,” said Clayton Kershaw of his new teammate in an interview on MLB Network Monday. “You know the Dodgers always see stuff, they always see stuff. So I’m sure he’s got some type of analytical number or some type of something that they feel like he can get his velo back up to where it was and he can do this or that. And on a one-year deal, it’s a real bargain and all this stuff, so we’re excited to have him and we need him, quite frankly.”
Syndergaard explained that while he was effective on the mound in 2022, he often felt like he was fighting himself, and that it wasn’t something he could fix during the season.
“I was throwing 97-98 in bullpens, and then had a little setback. I’m not sure if my body just went into fight-or-flight to protect itself, or if it was just the fact I felt like I’ve been throwing the last three years, like rehab. Over the last three years, I might have only had four months off, so that might have been a factor in the velocity dip.
“I started going down a movement and pitching mechanics kind of rabbit hole, and was getting away from what made me great.”
To that end, already this offseason Syndergaard has been to Tread Athletics in Charlotte, North Carolina and to Driveline Baseball in Arizona, trying to improve velocity and mechanics. He plans to go to Arizona a few days after Christmas to start working with the Dodgers staff at their Camelback Ranch facilities.
Last year with the Angels and Phillies, Syndergaard threw his changeup and slider slightly more often than he ever had before, and also had a curve to go with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs. Despite the velocity dip, he retained his control, with a 5.5-percent walk rate that was his lowest in a full season since 2016. Eno Sarris at The Athletic noted that Syndergaard was one of a rare group of pitchers with above-average command of five pitches last year.
But Syndergaard has different ideas for 2023.
“The pitches I threw last year, I just want to throw those away, because I fully intend on being a different pitcher this year,” Syndergaard said Monday. “I haven’t really planned on working with those pitch shapes, planning on evolving, then working with what I got then.”
That jives with the Baseball Prospectus analysis of Syndergaard’s one-year deal with the Dodgers, with author Brian Menéndez advocating for a substantial mechanical change.
“The thing about velo, from what I’ve studied, is more about movements than anything else, and Syndergaard just doesn’t seem to have those movements back,” Menéndez wrote. “It’s possible that changing his arm slot could unlock something else in his delivery that can add something but not without some other parts being retooled.”
Syndergaard says he has no doubts he can get back to throwing 100 mph, a velocity he hasn’t reached since 2019 (and only ten total pitches after 2017). And he has the “utmost confidence” that the Dodgers can help him get there.
“Whatever I was doing last year was not the best version of me. Really, I see no excuse as to why I can’t get back to 100 mph, and even farther than that. That just doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a baseball player in MLB that does what I do when it comes to recovery, training, and just the attention to detail.”