MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals

Noah Syndergaard and the Audacity of Velocity

The last decade of baseball has been marked by an inescapable arms race: The need to find pitchers that throw hard, harder and even harder, still. The signs are evident everywhere, both anecdotal and empirical. Staffs are stocked with pitchers who can turn hitters into cannon fodder. The average fastball velocity has risen–almost linearly–from 90.1 mph in 2004 to 92.3 mph last season.

This buildup has had a twofold effect across the sport and its consumption. With velocity seemingly ever-rising, there is an insatiable demand for pitchers that can match up in this era. And there is a certain numbness to velocity. The allure–rather, the awe–of a pitcher who can hit 96 loses its luster. Again, it’s just a numbers game. In 2004, there were 11 relievers across baseball who threw at least 30 innings and averaged 95 mph or higher. Last year, there were 48. We are nearly saturated.

But sometimes velocity can still be awe-inspiring. It happens when Aroldis Chapman comes in from the bullpen and hits 100+ on the mound. And it happened Tuesday in Kansas City, where Noah Syndergaard provided a six-inning sizzle reel.

His fastball averaged 98.5 mph, according to FanGraphs. His sinker–his bleepin’ sinker–topped out at 99.8 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. He threw 20 changeups and they averaged 90 mph and hit 91. If you need a comparison, Jon Niese hit 91 mph just 109 times last year and he logged 176.7 innings.

“I feel like I really took it to the next level because I’ve never thrown a 95-mph slider before,” Syndergaard said afterward. And he wasn’t exaggerating. His slider really did top out at 95 mph according to PITCHf/x.

It was a sterling performance, not just for his overpowering stuff and six scoreless innings, but because Syndergaard, at least for a day, reinforced the audacity of velocity. It’s bound to happen again. He is the type of physical force on the mound who can create such moments of shock. This is the same guy who hit 100 mph and crushed a ball 430 feet in the same game last year. In 2015, his rookie year, he set the record for highest average fastball velocity over a full season for starters that threw at least 140 innings–FanGraphs’ data went back to 2004.

On a rotation already starring Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, two proven All-Stars with track records, it’s not so crazy to think that Syndergaard could put together the best season of any Mets starting pitcher. He is the type of talent who could one day vie to be the best pitcher in baseball once–if?–Clayton Kershaw ever gets off the throne.

“Just from seeing everything, he’s got all the tools that he needs and he’s got the right attitude,” Yoenis Cespedes said. “He’s got the right confidence. He’s got the right kind of mindset. Knowing that he’s got all of that and the way he carries himself. And seeing the way he prepares every day I definitely think he’s got all the tools to be the best.”

Even on the Mets’ rotation, his skillset stands out. He could be at the head of a rotation that’s primed to set its own record marks.

Last year, Mets starters averaged 92.7 mph with their fastball. It was the eighth-highest mark in FanGraphs history. It’s not inconceivable they could topple the 2012 Nationals, who sit atop the standings at 93.5. Not when you remember that Dillon Gee, Bartolo Colon, Logan Verrett, and Niese combined to throw 426 innings last year–42.5 percent of all innings thrown by Mets starters. None of those pitchers averaged more than 90 mph.

Perhaps most astonishingly, as Syndergaard showed against the Royals, there is still room for upside. Harvey threw harder in 2015–his first year back from Tommy John surgery–than he did in 2013 with his first ulnar collateral ligament. Jacob deGrom’s velocity is constantly ticking upward.

If nothing else this season, the Mets staff may well show that in this era of the sport, velocity can still overwhelm us.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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