Angel fans deserve an ace in their rotation and a run to the postseason. Not since the glory days of the mid-2000s, when Vladimir Guerrero and Bartolo Colon were winning MVPs and Cy Youngs have Angel fans been treated to a balanced roster with both All-Star caliber hitters and pitchers. In some ways Angels fans have been spoiled over the past decade, getting to witness the rise of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the modern-day reincarnations of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth.
Despite striking gold with Trout and Ohtani, the Angels have yet to find an ace who can get them over the hump to playoff contention. From struggling to develop pitching, in guys like Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, to bad injury luck with Garrett Richards, to the tragic death of Tyler Skaggs – you would be hard-pressed to find a team that has struggled more to find top-of-the-rotation arms. After all, there’s a reason why Angels GM Perry Minasian used all 20 of the Angels’ draft picks in the 2021 draft on pitchers. Minasian didn’t stop there – he did exactly what he should have done when free agency began this past fall: he signed Noah Syndergaard, the pitcher with the highest upside of any arm in this year’s free-agent class, to a one-year, $21 million contract. Syndergaard signed so early, that most of the baseball community moved on and began focusing on splashier signings and the lockout. Many in the industry are out on Syndergaard due to his injury history and the perception that he never lived up to the hype that surrounded him as a prospect, despite the fact that he has been an extremely effective pitcher when healthy.
Syndergaard barely pitched in 2021, and prior to that he hadn’t pitched since 2019. Because he’s been out for so long and because his 2019 season was relatively underwhelming, we seem to have forgotten as a community that Syndergaard was one of the most electric, must-see arms in baseball for the first four years of his career. Angel fans should be thrilled the club went out and got him, and there is plenty of reason to believe that Syndergaard can still be a top of the rotation arm.
Syndergaard has flashed multiple skills throughout his career that he should continue to benefit from in 2022; most notably, Syndergaard is adept at inducing soft contact, commanding the strike zone, and getting ground-ball outs. He hasn’t been an elite strikeout pitcher throughout his time in the big leagues, but Thor’s chase rates have been respectable, meaning there is reason to believe that he can continue to be an above-average strikeout pitcher going forward.
Before diving head-first into Thor’s ability to induce soft contact, it’s important to understand how much of an impact pitchers have on controlling the quality of contact. There is some debate in the analytics community about whether inducing soft contact is a skill that pitchers can actually possess. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Rob Arthur explained that batters are five times more in control of exit velocity than pitchers. You may be thinking this suggests that pitchers have little to no control over quality of contact, but pitchers can still manage contact by getting hitters behind in the count, throwing pitches that are difficult to square up, and hitting their spots. For example, a pitcher could get a player down in the count 0-2, and throw a fantastic breaking ball below the zone. For many hitters, making hard contact with this pitch would be difficult, but some hitters like Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who possess elite bat-to-ball skills, may be able to get good wood on the ball. This is why many of the best pitchers in baseball tend to have above-average to elite quality-of-contact numbers. Those pitchers tend to get ahead in counts, hit their spots, and possess elite stuff – these factors all make it difficult (although not impossible) for hitters to hit the ball hard. Conversely, pitchers who fall behind in counts, miss their spots, and have below-average stuff are more likely to serve up meatballs that get smashed on a regular basis.
Below are Syndergaard’s quality of contact against numbers from each season he has pitched 150+ innings:
Hitters clearly have a difficult time squaring Syndergaard up. Assuming he’s close to the same pitcher he was before Tommy John, there is no reason to believe that Syndergaard can’t continue to post elite quality of contact against numbers. One reason we can continue to believe in Thor’s ability to induce soft contact is because of his other elite skill, his pitch command.
It’s easy to think that, because Syndergaard is a flamethrower, he must struggle with command. That could not be further from the truth. Below are Syndergaard’s walk rates by year, along with his walk rate percentile in those seasons:
Not once in his career has Syndergaard struggled with the free pass. Being able to sit at 97 MPH and consistently throwing strikes is a fantastic combination that should continue to benefit Thor in Anaheim.
Finally, Syndergaard has been very good throughout his career at getting batters to ground out. Syndergaard has posted a 45+ percent ground-ball rate in every season of his career, which is exceptional. This explains why batters have a difficult time barreling the ball against Syndergaard – clearly, guys struggle to get the ball airborne against him. Thor’s combination of soft contact numbers and ground ball rate is why he’s been so effective throughout his career, despite relatively pedestrian strikeout rates.
Syndergaard has three very important things going in his favor as a starter: batters have a difficult time hitting the ball hard against him, he doesn’t beat himself by putting runners on base, and batters have a difficult time getting the ball in the air when facing him. If he’s able to find these skills again after his recovery from Tommy John, he still has a shot to regain his status as a top-20 arm.
It’s tempting to just drop ten GIFs of guys trying to hit Syndergaard’s 92 MPH slider for this section and move on, but that feels like lazy analysis (even though it would be entertaining). The bottom line is that when he’s on, there are few pitchers who are more fun to watch than Syndergaard, primarily because his pitch arsenal can be borderline unfair at times. Below is Syndergaard’s pitch mix from his last full season in 2019, along with his average velocity for each pitch:
Because of Syndergaard’s pitch mix, there’s a possibility that he can mirror the ball well. Pitch mirroring is the ability of a pitcher to disguise his pitches by making them spin on similar axes. The human eye is capable of perceiving spin on a ball when it comes out of a pitcher’s hand, but it has a difficult time distinguishing which direction the ball is spinning. Additionally, if a pitcher can spin multiple pitches similarly, but the pitches move in different directions at different speeds, it makes the hitter’s life especially difficult.
It will be interesting to see the Statcast data on Spin Based Movement by Pitch Type and his Observed Movement by Pitch Type for Syndergaard. These are those strange-looking little clock graphics with the color coating for different pitches you see at the bottom of a pitcher’s Baseball Savant page. This data is useful for pitchers because it tells us whether a pitcher “mirrors” pitches well. Mike Petriello did an in-depth explanation of how to read and understand the Spin Based Movement by Pitch Type and Observed Movement by Pitch Type charts, and you can find that explanation here.
We don’t have good pitch mirroring data on Syndergaard because Baseball Savant only began tracking and publishing this data last year when Syndergaard pitched a grand total of two innings. Syndergaard could be an interesting case in pitch mirroring because he has two pitches that look similar, but come in at different velocities – the sinker and the changeup – and he has two pitches that break similarly, but in opposite directions – the slider and the changeup.
Here’s the sinker, coming in hot and breaking arm-side:
Here’s the changeup breaking arm side:
Here’s the slider, coming in around the same velocity as the changeup, but breaking glove-side:
And for good measure, here’s the curveball he can flip over the top to keep guys off balance:
Regardless of whether Syndergaard mirrors at an elite level, it’s easy to see why facing Syndergaard isn’t a pleasant experience. The sinker and changeup look similar, but come in at different speeds, while the slider and changeup come in at the same speed, but break in different directions. The real benefit to Syndergaard’s arsenal is that he can keep hitters guessing. Pick your poison: Sit fastball and try hitting the change, curveball, or slider, or sit off-speed and try and catch up to a guy sitting at 97 MPH.
Playing in the AL West in 2022 is likely to be a double-edged sword for starting pitchers. On one hand, pitchers get to play a lot of games at T-Mobile Park and the Oakland Coliseum – two of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball – on the other hand, pitchers have to face an Angels lineup featuring Trout and Ohtani, a loaded Astros lineup, a rapidly improving Mariners lineup, and the new half-a-billion-dollar duo in Texas (as a consolation prize, pitchers also get to face the A’s a bunch, so it could be worse).
Baseball Savant’s Park Factors have T-Mobile Park and the Oakland Coliseum as two of the bottom three stadiums for hitters in baseball (with Busch Stadium splitting the difference between the two). In Houston, Syndergaard will be playing in a completely neutral park, with Minute Maid being the definition of a league-average park for hitters and pitchers. We don’t yet have park factor data on Globe Life Field because those rankings are based on three years of data collection and Globe Life Field has only been open for two years. The commonly held belief is that it doesn’t play particularly hitter-friendly. At home, Syndergaard will be pitching in a park that is a slightly below-average pitcher’s park – Angel Stadium is 2% above league average in terms of being hitter-friendly. Syndergaard’s move away from New York should benefit him, with Nationals Park, Citizens Bank Park, and Truist Park all playing more hitter-friendly than any AL West stadium. This bodes well for Syndergaard in Anaheim, and although the ballparks can’t do all the work for him, pitching in more friendly environments more often can only help.
As far as lineups go, the AL West is a substantially improved offensive division. Despite losing Carlos Correa, the Astros scored the most runs in baseball last year, and should once again be a juggernaut, with improving young players like Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, and veterans like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, and Yuli Gurriel. Up until a few weeks ago, the Mariners lineup was improving, but incomplete. That was before they made the blockbuster deal to acquire Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker from the Reds – two players who will provide some much-needed thump in the heart of the Seattle lineup. With a lineup core that includes Haniger, Winker, and Suárez, the runs should be plentiful in Seattle this year – and that’s before considering the damage Julio Rodríguez and Jarred Kelenic could do if they breakout in 2022. The Rangers lineup is a pretty simple story: they had some underrated bats last year in Nathaniel Lowe and Adolis García, and in the off-season they spent half a billion dollars on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, giving them one of the best offensive middle infield duos in baseball. Then there’s the A’s, who will have a bad offense after dealing away Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. Good pitchers should feast on the A’s, especially in the Coliseum.
The Injury History
Remember that one time Syndergaard missed time because of hand-foot-and-mouth disease? That was weird, but also it’s the Mets so it wasn’t entirely surprising. It’s also a perfect representation of Thor’s injury history throughout his career, having spent a significant time on the injured list already for a 29-year-old. In 2017, Syndergaard suffered a torn lateral muscle and missed nearly the entire season. In 2018, Thor spent time on the IL with a torn ligament in his index finger, as well as for the now-infamous hand-foot-and-mouth infection. Most recently, Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL in May of 2020, missing the rest of that season and pitching in only two innings last year after being shut down multiple times due to setbacks in his rehab. Syndergaard was reportedly unable to throw his slider without feeling pain in his arm throughout his rehab and was told toward the end of last season to avoid throwing it. Thor’s slider is one of his most valuable weapons, and by far his most effective whiff pitch. Being unable to throw it would certainly hamper his ability to rack up strikeouts.
The biggest takeaway from Syndergaard’s spring starts was his velocity, which was down around 94-95 MPH. That’s a significant decrease from his usual 97-98 MPH, but Syndergaard showed in the starts that he was still able to get guys out with the fastball, even with the lower velocity, as you can see below:
— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) March 29, 2022
Syndergaard’s arm health is still a question mark, and no one knows if the velocity is down for good or if he is pain free while throwing his slider. Without the slider, Syndergaard would have to make a big adjustment to how he typically pitches, likely having to rely on the curveball and changeup more, neither of which are nearly as good as the slider. If Syndergaard can throw the slider freely, there is reason to believe he could still be a very effective pitcher, even with decreased velocity. It all goes back to what we discussed earlier – despite his flame-throwing tendencies, Syndergaard has excellent command and a deep arsenal. Without the same velocity, he may be less electric and his stuff might be easier to get the bat on, but as long as Syndergaard’s command is what it was before Tommy John, he still has the ability to be an above average pitcher. If he gets back to his pre-TJ velocity and movement, he still has top of the rotation upside.
There is significant reason for Angel fans and baseball fans alike to question whether Noah Syndergaard will be the same pitcher he was before Tommy John surgery. There is also significant reason for Angel fans to be hopeful about his future. I don’t have inside access to Syndergaard’s bullpen sessions, and I’m certainly not a doctor, so my guess is as good as yours when it comes to knowing if he’s got the same stuff he did before TJ. We’ll have to wait and see if his velocity starts to tick up in his first few regular-season starts and if he’s featuring the slider as often as he used to.
If Syndergaard has lost a tick or two because of Tommy John, he has the skills to still be an effective starter. If the velocity is still there and his arm is pain-free when throwing the slider, Thor could wind up being the ace the Angels have been searching for. Either way, the Angels should be getting a much-needed upgrade in their rotation.
Photos by John McCoy/Icon Sportswire, Anthony & Johannes Plenio/Pexels | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)