As the 2016 season winds down, the Mets find themselves in the middle of the playoff race with both the Cardinals and the free-falling Giants. The NL Wild Card game will feature two of those three teams, barring a miraculous late run by the Marlins or Pirates. Given how tight the action is, there may even be a playoff game just to get into the one-game showdown, a scenario which previously occurred in 2013, when the Rays beat the Rangers in a playoff just to earn the privilege to travel to Progressive Field to face the Indians for one game.
Either way, the Mets seem fairly likely to appear in at least one of those games, especially since they have a very light schedule the rest of the way. (Baseball Prospectus has them at 71.6% playoff odds.) The Mets were tied with both the Cardinals and Giants for the Wild Card spots entering Wednesday. In an ideal world, those two teams do need that extra playoff game and they have to burn their aces (looking at you, Madison Bumgarner), weakening their odds.
What about the Mets’ starter though? Unless he suddenly gets hurt, Noah Syndergaard will be given the ball for the do-or-die game, whether it’s a play-in game or the official playoff. Since Syndergaard figures to receive at least a few down-ballot Cy Young votes, the Mets are in pretty good shape. Armed with a wicked arsenal and sporting 210 strikeouts to go along with a 2.36 ERA, 2.90 DRA, and 5.0 WARP, Syndergaard would be a formidable opponent for either squad.
Even with a pitcher as good as Syndergaard though, the Mets have a strong enough back of the bullpen with Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia that they can capably take over any close game. There is very little point to risk a tiring Syndergaard leaving a pitch up late in the eighth or ninth when they have high quality relievers available.
However, the middle innings present another story. Terry Collins will have a decision to make about how long he’s willing to stick with Syndergaard. Unless he runs into late situation where Jerry Blevins makes sense, there is a good chance that Syndergaard will present a better option than, say, Hansel Robles.
So how has Syndergaard typically fared later in games this year? Unlike most pitchers, Syndergaard has not struggled the third time through the order, which is usually a death knell for average starters. Opposing batters have improved from .215/.264/.306 the first time through to .275/.317/.438 the second time, only to fall back to .233/.284/.306 when Syndergaard is given a third shot. In 194 plate appearances, he has yet to surrender a single homer the third time through the order, though the eight allowed in 252 PA the second time is at least a warning sign.
There could be something to be Syndergaard pitch usage that might suggest how he would fare in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings. With the help of Brooks Baseball, PITCHf/x, and FanGraphs, I made a table of how Syndergaard has tweaked his selection by inning (there were only 12 combined PA between the eighth and ninth, so they were omitted):
|Noah Syndergaard pitch usage percent by inning|
Syndergaard’s high-octane fastball is unsurprisingly his most commonly used pitch, though OPS against and PITCHf/x value both have his less-deployed slider as the most effective selection. The sinker has been fine, but it appears to be the weak link of his repertoire this year.
The problem is that as the game has progressed, Syndergaard has gradually eased up on the fastball and thrown that sinker more often than any other pitch from innings five through seven by a decent margin. Since the sinker has been hit harder than any of his pitches this year, this is not ideal.
Each batter naturally presents a different scouting report for the battery to use, which could certainly affect Syndergaard’s typical pitch selection. That being said, it’s possible that the Mets have found that his fastball is a little less useful in the middle innings. Sure, he can still dial it up to the high-90s, but it might not have as much command or movement.
If Syndergaard is rolling, Collins will probably stick with him into the seventh inning anyway, and that’s perfectly fine. The Mets will want Syndergaard to go deep and even relying on his sinker more often in the sixth or seventh, he is still a better option than Robles. The third-time-through-the-order concern is not present the same way for Syndergaard as it might be for other starters.
Should Syndergaard put a couple runners on in a close game in the seventh or maybe even with two outs in the sixth though, Collins should not be afraid to pull the trigger to bring in Blevins. In a do-or-die game, every at-bat becomes more magnified, and the Mets need to maintain any advantage they can find, even if it’s pulling their ace in a tense situation. They’ll just be glad if he doesn’t have a rare blow-up, like his start on Monday against the Braves.
Ideally, Syndergaard will throw shutout ball and this won’t be a problem. The game could be won or lost before Reed even enters though, so it will be imperative for Collins to pay close attention to Thor in the middle innings.
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