I’m worried about Noah Syndergaard.
On it’s face, this probably seems rather ridiculous. After all, through the first three weeks of this season, you’d be hard pressed to find a better pitcher, or for that matter, a better story, than the six-foot-six flamethrower from Mansfield, Texas, by way of Asgard. Yes, the man they call “Thor” has only added to his mythology thus far in 2016, allowing just five earned runs in 26 innings of work thus far, while striking out 38 batters, and posting a fielding independent pitching mark of 0.82.
Of course, if you’re a visual learner, you could just as easily discard the numbers in favor of a glance at backup catcher Kevin Plawecki’s chest, recently branded by a Syndergaard fastball that found its way past the catcher’s mitt. Or, if cultural capital is your measuring stick, you can instead marvel (pun very much intended) at Syndergaard in Times Square, dressed in full Norse God apparel, glad-handing alongside Elmo and the Naked Cowboy in a rather surreal attempt to promote himself, SportsNet New York, and by extension of course, a certain cinematic universe that’s showing no signs of slowing down. (Brace yourself for Thor: The Slider of Odin, coming to theaters sometime in the summer of 2018.)
So, to summarize, Noah Syndergaard is a young, charming, dynamic ace with multiple plus pitches, who has confounded all who face him, while capturing the public’s imagination. What, then, is the problem exactly?
Well, that is exactly the problem. And if that doesn’t make any sense to you, I understand completely.
You just must not be a Mets fan.
To cheer for the Amazins, over the course of the last decade or so, has been an exercise in sports nihilism. The excruciating collapses of the 2007 and 2008 seasons soon gave way to a long malaise, equally painful, but in an entirely different way. A talented franchise that just couldn’t close the deal soon transformed into one that wasn’t capable of competing whatsoever. Egregious money management by the team’s ownership group transformed a high revenue club into a corner-cutting cellar dweller, forfeiting the inherent advantages of baseball in the Big Apple. As if that wasn’t enough, the club soon developed a reputation for pollyannaish assessments of its own future, and being less than candid when it came to injury concerns.
The end result, season after season, was a team that just couldn’t seem to get out of its own way. Call it realism, call it fatalism, call it #LOLMets, call it what you will, but for some time now, the Flushing Faithful have been trained to expect very little from the orange and blue. To plummet, spectacularly, from a position of strength, is one sort of heartbreak. To wonder if a team will ever return to that pinnacle again is something else entirely.
But a funny thing happened last season, in the midst of all the negativity. Namely, the Mets’ rebuilding efforts began to bear fruit. Make no mistake, a “Moneyball” strategy is much more palatable when it is required by small-market realities, rather than forced upon a franchise thanks to a series of greedy, short-sighted money grabs that go catastrophically haywire. Nevertheless, in 2015, General Manager Sandy Alderson’s plan to rebuild the farm system, invest in pitching and defense, and maintain financial flexibility, all started to come together.
Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and the aforementioned Syndergaard emerged as the core of one of the most gifted young rotations in recent memory. Sensible spending on productive players like Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares, and the Lord of the GIF, Bartolo Colon, kept the team in the race. And just when it appeared, midseason, that a lack of offense might doom the team to once again fall from the pennant race, the arrival of highly-touted prospect Michael Conforto, and a fortuitous deal for Yoenis Cespedes, the living embodiment of swag, provided just enough punch to send the Mets on a magical run, all the way back to the October Classic.
And so, naturally, the glory of a World Series return soon gave way to a tragicomedy of errors. Harvey, the enigmatic young hurler criticized all season long for having the nerve to look out for his own health, was brilliant, right up until the moment that he wasn’t. Lucas Duda, that most calm, composed, unflappable of first basemen, suddenly struggled to keep the ball within the outer boroughs in the season’s most crucial moment. And Daniel Murphy, who’d managed a rather passable Babe Ruth impression for most of the postseason, reverted instead to Bill Buckner by month’s end, making a series of costly mistakes that left an entire fanbase, once more, wondering what might have been.
The end result, after a proper period of reflection, was a feeling quite familiar to any Mets fan… A good bit of hope, dashed of course with plenty of paranoia. For the first time in years, the club is objectively, undeniably, built to succeed in the years ahead. Young pitching depth; plenty of offense; versatility across the diamond, and perhaps, miraculously, should the team continue to draw, an eventual end to the budgetary limitations that have so hamstrung the franchise.
And yet, as ever, there is of course the question of whether any of this will ever be enough. They are still the Mets, after all, which is to say they are Don Quixote tilting at the windmill, Wile E. Coyote sitting atop the rocket, and Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, all in equal measure. We, as their fans, are bracing for the failure, always. You may tell us how silly that sounds, in an era of logic and reason and advanced metrics. We may even agree with you.
But until you’ve walked in our shoes, you’re in no position to judge our coping mechanism.
Over the last few weeks, even as he blows away everyone in sight, a certain narrative has begun to take shape around Noah Syndergaard, one that has nothing to do with long hair, comic books, and Mjölnir. No, the topic of conversation is velocity, and the fact that Syndergaard, by a rather healthy margin, now boasts the hardest fastball, and slider, in the game. On its face, the best pure “stuff” in all of baseball should be a cause for celebration. Instead, plenty are wondering if this sort of physical dominance is truly sustainable, or if it’s only a matter of time before problems develop in that immensely valuable right arm.
“Physical freaks come along once a generation,” a rival General Manager explained, in Tom Verducci’s excellent exploration of Syndergaard’s future, “He’s either that or this is not sustainable. The odds tell you that it’s not sustainable… Right now, he stands alone with his stuff. Nobody sits at 99 mph and throws a slider 93… The question is, does he hold up?”
It’s a fair question, and one that’s grounded in plenty of past precedent. This is an era, after all, where pitch counts and innings limits are carefully managed, where Tommy John surgery often seems like a right of passage, where injuries are simply the cost of doing business when asking the human body to perform the decidedly unnatural act of hurling a cowhide sphere past the greatest hitters in the world. Syndergaard’s rotation-mate, Matt Harvey, himself arrived on the scene as one of the most eye-opening fireballers in a generation, only to miss the entire 2014 season after elbow reconstruction. Questions about his own decline in velocity have continued throughout this season.
All of which is to say that yes, there are plenty of reasons to worry about Noah Syndergaard, that have everything to do with the game he plays, and nothing to do with the uniform he wears. Still, one can’t help but be a little more concerned, given his home at Citi Field. Just call it “Mets-phobia”. We fret a little more, we stress a little harder, we watch our team with oh, I’d say about 15% more dread.
Currently these Mets are winners of nine of their last ten games, taking care of business, and closing quickly on the Nationals, a team they are expected to battle for the NL East crown all season long. They are solid, they are strong, they look, at present, like every bit of the contender they were expected to be. And yes, make no mistake, Ya Gotta Believe.
But ya also gotta have your guard up. That’s the blessing, and the curse, of the New York Mets.