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2019 Season in Review: Noah Syndergaard

The 2019 season was very uncharacteristic for Noah Syndergaard. Not only was it the worst overall season of his career, but it was markedly different from his performance just one season previously.

Syndergaard performed well within his career numbers in 2018, going 13-4 with a 3.03 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 24.1% strikeout rate. His record and ERA took a turn for the worse in 2019, as he went just 10-8 with a 4.28 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 24.5% strikeout rate over 197 ⅔ innings pitched.

Thor has always been considered a tier-two fantasy starting pitcher, but his 2019 numbers did not justify that. What happened in 2019 that caused Syndergaard’s lesser performance and should it be something to actually worry about in 2020? Let’s take a deep dive into his 2019 season to find out.

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Thor’s Hammer Not as Strong

The major difference that stands out between Syndergaard’s 2018 and 2019 seasons was the use of his slider. His slider has been his best swing-and-miss pitch historically with an impressive 23.6% career swinging-strike rate. Syndergaard relied on his slider frequently in 2018 (20.9%) and for good reason; he had a career-high 25.1% swinging-strike rate with the pitch, which, while it only had about league-average movement, was thrown at a crazy 92 MPH. 

Syndergaard’s 2019 slider was a different story. First, he threw his slider less (15.2%) in favor of his four-seam fastball (29.3% vs 21.2% in 2018). Secondly, his slider had more movement on it (10% above-average in vertical movement, 20% above-average in horizontal movement), but was thrown with less velocity (89.1 MPH). The overall effect of the pitch was still good (18.1% swinging-strike rate), but was much less effective than it was in 2018.

The reasons for the change in his slider profile are hard to pinpoint. It could have been due to a change in the seams of the baseball. It could also have been a mental block. It has been documented that Syndergaard had lost confidence in the pitch and negatively focused on the pitch’s lack of velocity compared to previous seasons. Whatever the reasons, Syndergaard’s slider simply wasn’t as effective as it has been in his career and the lack of his dangerous weapon showed.

 

But Did Anything Else Change?

We identified Syndergaard’s change in slider as an explanation for his decreased performance, but what else would suggest cause for concern in 2020? After doing a deep dive into his advanced metrics, there really isn’t much there to indicate fundamental changes in his game. 

First, his batted-ball profile (31.2% hard-hit rate, 86.3-MPH average exit velocity, 9.3-degree launch angle), while not as spectacular as his 2018 profile (26.5% hard-hit rate, 84.9-MPH average exit velocity, 6.5-degree launch angle), was still well within his career profile. His hard-hit rate and exit velocity were actually in the 87th and 89th percentiles of baseball, respectively. His 4.02 SIERA also suggests that he was slightly unlucky throughout the season given his batted-ball profile.

Further, all three of Syndergaard’s expected metrics (batting average, slugging average, weighted on-base average) were above the league averages, sitting in the 65th, 78th, and 83rd percentiles, respectively. His strikeout rate and WHIP were in line with his 2018 marks as well as his career averages and his .313 BABIP was in line with his career mark of .314 and was actually lower than his .320 mark in 2018. 

The only other thing that does stand out was his home run-to-fly ball rate; Syndergaard had an outstanding 0.52 HR/FB rate in 2018, but that number doubled to 1.09 in 2019. Still, this wasn’t that far off from his career 0.79 mark, his batted-ball profile was still good, and, while his fly ball rate did go up from 2018 (26.7% to 32.1%) the fact that his HR/FB rate almost doubled seems unlucky given the rest of the evidence.

 

2020 Forecast

Syndergaard had a disappointing 2019 season and there are a few main issues to point to. The first was his less successful (but still strong) slider, which he ended up throwing less frequently. This issue could have been mental, meaning that it could hopefully be rectified relatively easily. The second was his jump in HR/FB rate. While this metric doubled, it was still reasonable and came despite a solid batted-ball profile. With all other underlying metrics in line with his 2018 numbers, it seems reasonable to expect some positive regression for Syndergaard in 2020.

Syndergaard is currently being drafted at about pick 74, which puts him as the 24th pitcher off the board. This puts him immediately behind Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, and Tyler Glasnow, in that order. As such, fantasy players are drafting Syndergaard as a back-end number-two starter, which seems like pretty fair value even with positive regression considered. If Thor can pitch 180 to 200 innings with his numbers aligning closer to his career averages (3.31 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 26.4% strikeout rate), he could return equal or slightly better value than the above-named starters. Signs point to Syndergaard performing better than he did in 2019, but the high-60s to mid-70s seems like a reasonable spot to target him.

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