Syndergaard: Outside, Rarely Looking In

It took me a while, but I finally built out my PITCHf/x database. Well, to be entirely accurate, I finally took a few minutes to refresh my PITCHf/x database with the current season’s data, and I sit here both proud and ashamed that it only took four months to do so. In truth, with all the available R libraries and how-to resources, it was a breeze to update the data with the 2015 season and perform fairly useful queries in minutes.

Google really is a miracle.

For a test run, I wanted to take a look at a question that’s been bugging me for the last few months. This seems to be the week for answering unresolved questions, so why not test my graphing chops by investigating Noah Syndergaard’s pitch location. More specifically, has Syndergaard changed his pitching strategy since his May 17th start against Milwaukee. If you remember that game, forgive me, but on that Sunday Syndergaard was motoring through the Brewers’ batting order, not allowing his first hit until the fourth inning and allowing only three overall in six. It was in the sixth when Syndergaard lost control of a fastball, hitting Carlos Gomez in the helmet.

It was an unnerving experience to watch, but Syndergaard was visibly shaken by the experience and understandably struggled to regain his composure and get through the inning. Notably, as mentioned repeatedly by the SNY crew, Syndergaard stopped pitching inside, to anyone, and it was a Ryan Braun single on a pitch out over the plate that drove home Milwaukee’s lone run. Up until that time, Syndergaard had been especially dominant. He pitched up and in to both righties and lefties, and the Brewers had little chance against a 98-mph fastball in followed by a changeup or curveball away. There’s no diving in when a guy throws that hard inside. There’s falling backwards, the backside hitting dirt as the brain tries to figure out what happened, but there’s no guessing on pitches over the plate to drive. If this was the future of the Mets rotation, sign me up.

Since that afternoon I’ve been wondering if hitting Gomez messed with Syndergaard a little. You’d be hard pressed to argue such looking at the numbers. Since that start, his second in the major leagues, Syndergaard has thrown six or more innings in eight of his 10 starts while allowing two or fewer earned runs in seven of them. He’s hit double-digits in strikeouts three times with a season high of 13 against Arizona in his last start before the All Star break. For his raw numbers, in those 10 starts, he’s allowed 56 hits in 62 1/3 innings, striking out 67 and walking 10. He’s 5-5 with an ERA of 3.03. Batters are hitting .237/.268/.360 with a .305 average on balls in play.

Those are impressive numbers, admittedly, and the .305 BABIP is only high if you’re surprised that the NL average for starters is .298. Getting hits when putting bat to ball isn’t the problem in the modern game. It’s just, you know, actually hitting the ball.

I don’t want to be greedy. Really I don’t. I’m not expecting Syndergaard to pitch no-hitters and strike out batters at a Craig Kimbrel level. This is a kid two months shy of turning 23, and he’s more than holding his own at the game’s highest level. If he’s not quite dominating big league hitters, he’s at least making their trips to the batter’s box as unpleasant as humanly possible. In his last two starts against the Diamondbacks and the Cardinals (the sixth and seventh best offenses by both fWAR and batting average in the majors) he’s allowed nine hits in 15 innings while striking out 19. That’s a K/9 rate of 11.61, which is approaching that rarefied Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale territory of pitching greatness if carried through a season. Normal guys don’t do things like that. Run-of-the-mill starters luck into a few low hit games. They don’t overpower good offenses.

Still. Something seems different.

When I watch him pitch, Syndergaard definitely seems to stay away from righties a lot more. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it’s selection bias, and I’m seeing only those things that I want to see. Fastball inside? That’s an oddball. See, he just threw that 97-mph fourseamer to the outside black because that’s the only place he THROWS IT!

Easily, this sort of question can be resolved with a density plot. I could have gone to and looked up the answer before my database refresh, but this is about unresolved questions, not questioning unresolved procrastination issues. Anyway, when looking at the density plots for the pitch data in Syndergaard’s two starts (including Milwaukee) before hitting Gomez and the ten starts after, there certainly seems to be a trend.

thorMilwaukeePitch Location Prior to Gomez HBP

The second graph:

thorPostPitch Location Post Gomez HBP

These charts graph all pitches (including offspeed and breaking balls), and admittedly, the sample size for the data before hitting Gomez is rather limited. It’s impossible to call anything a trend after a few hundred big league pitches. If you look at that second chart, there’s a very clear pattern of a young pitcher keeping the ball away from right handers. What I also find pretty fascinating is that dark patch of blue up and in to righties. He’s up and over the plate. He pitches inside. He’s rarely if ever throwing high and tight to make a righty a little uncomfortable.

My question could be flawed. Maybe the real question isn’t whether he pitches inside but whether Syndergaard feels the need to pitch inside. He might believe that his stuff is just that good and he doesn’t need a psychological advantage.

Maybe Jacque Lacan could answer something like that. I can’t. Not with this data. So, at an impasse, I muddle through as best as I can.

Instead of incorporating his offspeed and breaking pitches, how has Syndergaard used his fastball before and after?

thorMilFFFastball Location Prior to Gomez HBP

The second graph:

thorPostFFFastball Location Post Gomez HBP

It’s not surprising the charts are similar. Syndergaard throws his fourseamer about 40% of the time, so we’d expect the graphs to share a resemblance. With lefties Syndergaard seems comfortable pitching inside, but he doesn’t come inside to righties with the heat at all. If anything, compared to the Post Gomez Pitch Location graph above (the second one), it appears that Syndergaard rarely comes inside to righties unless he’s throwing offspeed or breaking balls. Oddly enough, if we go back to the density plots to examine all pitches that are not fastballs split between the two dates, there’s a clear indication that’s exactly what’s happening.

thorPreNFOffspeed / Breaking Ball Location Prior to Gomez HBP

The second graph:

thorPostNFOffspeed / Breaking Ball Location Post Gomez HBP

Syndergaard pitches inside to righties with his offspeed and breaking balls now more than with his fastball. He also throws his change, curve, and slider outside to lefties more.

Is it a mechanical issue, though? Is the way Syndergaard positioned when he releases the ball make it more likely that the end result will be middle-out? Is it by design, something that Syndergaard and pitching coach Dan Warthen are deliberately doing? Perhaps the percentiles here are off, and we should examine these starts in two to three start blocks. Are there changes? Is Syndergaard still pitching outside or was that largely after his Milwaukee start?

Well, let’s be symmetrical here. Since I’m using the first two starts of his big league career as a point of comparison, I’ll take Syndergaard’s last two starts against Arizona and St. Louis and see if he’s been pitching inside with his fastball more.

thorZonaFFFastball Location vs. Arizona and St. Louis

If there’s any indication that he’s throwing his fastball inside more over these last two starts, I’m not seeing it from this graph. This doesn’t provide any clear answer, and we still have questions. I’m not a pitching coach, so I won’t pretend to give an answer. They’re worth asking, however, and thinking there’s an alternate answer other than one wild pitch.

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