Noah Syndergaard Will Be the Mets Ace Among Aces in 2016

Noah Syndergaard has the youth, size, and nasty stuff to be one of baseball’s elite pitchers. That’s why he’s Brian Mangan’s pick to lead the Mets formidable staff in 2016.

The secret is out about the New York Mets: their pitching staff is great. Luck, skill, and health converged last season to give the Mets one of the most formidable rotations in recent memory, headed up by Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard.

Just how good were they last year? Here are their ranks among all National League pitchers with at least 150 IP last year:

  • ERA: deGrom (4th), Harvey (6th), Syndergaard (14th)
  • FIP: deGrom (4th), Harvey (11th), Syndergaard (14th)
  • xFIP: Syndergaard (4th), deGrom (5th), Harvey (13th)
  • Fastball Velocity: Syndergaard (1st), Harvey (2nd), deGrom (5th)
  • K%-BB%: Syndergaard (4th), deGrom (5th), Harvey (7th)

That last category is particularly important, as it has a ton of predictive value going forward. This makes sense, because it goes toward both dominance and command/control. Not only did the Mets’ Big Three strike out a lot of batters (24.9% or more) but they walked incredibly few (5.1% at most).

These guys are great and they are for real. But we all knew that already. So I got to thinking about another question … what can we expect from them in 2016 for an encore? And which guy in the Big Three will lead the way?

Terry Collins suggested on Thursday to the Daily News that it might be Syndergaard. “There’s always a debate about who’s going to be the best,” Collins said. “This kid’s got a chance to be the guy.” In January, I ran this poll:

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It’s clear you can make the argument for any of these men (and some voters even argued in favor of Steven Matz). However, I believe that Noah Syndergaard will emerge at the ace-of-aces this year. Here’s why.

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These Pitchers Were Virtually Identical in 2015

There is very little which separates these three pitchers with regard to the more obvious stats listed above like ERA, velocity, strikeouts and walks. So how about under the hood?

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Again, to no surprise, these guys are all pretty much even on these metrics. They each had a similar batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which is what you’d expect with similar infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) and ability to miss bats with high swinging strike rates (SwStk%). No wonder the fans I polled on twitter were almost exactly evenly split between the three.

In a case like this, a pick for #1 will have to be based on what we know (or can guess) about these players on the scouting/development side rather than the statistical one.

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deGrom is Great, But Likeliest to Replicate 2015

Of the three, deGrom is the most “known” quantity as no-doubt-about-it ace. He has a 2.61 ERA over 331 innings, with the great peripherals to match. Although his ERA increased in the second half (from 2.14 to 3.14), his peripherals actually improved over that time (he posted a 24.7% K%-BB%).

The only warning sign with deGrom is his unusually low batting average on balls in play last year, at .271. Fangraphs has noted that there is no reason to believe his BABIP should deviate much from the mean, so perhaps it rises this year to closer to .290 or .300. ZiPS projects deGrom to a 2.83 ERA and Fans like deGrom to come closer to his career averages with a 2.71 ERA.

Harvey is a Year Further from Tommy John, but What’s His Ceiling?

Harvey, of course, offers the most tantalizing upside. It was Harvey who posted a 2.27ERA/2.00 FIP over 178 incredible innings in 2013. It was Harvey who posted a 2.19 ERA in the second half of 2015 with an awesome 7.18 K/BB ratio. Nonetheless, I don’t believe Harvey will have the second year post-Tommy John that people expect.

I wrote about Harvey for Metsblog in December 2014 and compared him with a cohort of other similar players who had just returned from the surgery. I found that in their first year back, their strikeout rate decreased slightly, their walk rate increased, and their WHIP and ERA worsened a little as a result. I projected him for a 2.98 ERA and 9.4 K/9 and he ended up posting a 2.71 ERA and 8.9 K/9.

The second year after Tommy John usually shows an improvement in performance compared to year one, but with “better overall performance despite a decrease in strikeouts.” Many expect Harvey to improve this year given his distance from Tommy John, but his 2015 baseline was already so good. He posted a 9.1 K/9 in his great second half, but he had more rest down the stretch than he will get in 2016 and pitcher strikeouts always decrease with age. I don’t think there is much ceiling left in his peripherals which could make him markedly better than last year. ZiPS likes Harvey at a 2.91 ERA, but the Fans love him, projecting a 2.68 ERA.

Syndergaard, However, May Be Ready to Take the Next Step

This leaves Syndergaard, who was simply masterful over his 150 innings in the major leagues last season. His ERA increased in the second half (posting a 3.35 ERA) but that was largely a function of a brief bout of gopheritis — he allowed 8 home runs in five games from August 2nd through August 25th. He corrected that problem, and allowed only four home runs over his final five starts and then zero during the playoffs.

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In my opinion, Syndergaard has the best “stuff” of the three. In addition to his fastball being the fastest, it also has the most “rise” according to Brooks Baseball. He also has the highest swing and miss percentage on his secondary offerings, at 19.2% on his curveball and a whopping 24.4% for his slider (deGrom’s changeup is the second most dangerous pitch, with a 22.1% swinging strike rate). In addition, neither Harvey or deGrom threw fastballs as often as Syndergaard did in 2015, meaning he may be allowed to go for the strikeout a little more often in 2016.

I tried to look for some comps for Syndergaard, and in doing so I cast a very wide net. This is every National League starter since 1960 with at least 100 innings pitched their rookie year, age 23 or younger, with at least 8.5 K/9 and less than 3.5 BB/9:

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That’s the seven best seasons. Yes, really. I wouldn’t call his rookie performance unprecedented, but it is very hard to find other players who dominated the way that he did at such a young age. Obviously, nobody is approaching Dwight Gooden, but you have to admit — Syndergaard actually compares favorably to the rest of the guys on this list. Shelby Miller, for instance, had a pedestrian K%-BB% rate of only 15.5% compared to Syndergaard’s 22.5% or even Jose Fernandez’s 18.9%.

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Essentially, whether or not you believe Syndergaard belongs ahead of Harvey and deGrom boils down to whether or not you think a) whether he is as good or better as he showed last year, and b) if he can prevent home runs at the same rate as his rotation mates. Syndergaard actually led the Mets in xFIP last year, which corrects your home run rate to league average:

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I am inclined to believe that Syndergaard is more deGrom than he is Niese, and that his brief bout of gopheritis was just a bump-in-the-road that a young pitcher might face in his first year.

We got to see Syndergaard evolve in front of our very eyes at the major league level last year, culminating with a resilient and temporarily season-saving start in Game 3 of the World Series. There’s an excellent write-up here by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs where he talks about Syndergaard’s confidence in throwing back-to-back sliders in the most important plate appearance of his life.

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There is clearly no wrong answer to this question. But with these experiences under his belt, I believe Syndergaard is the best bet in the Mets rotation to take a significant step forward this year. He’s got the best stuff of the Big Three and, as unfair as it might be to opposing batters, is only now tinkering with the Warthen Slider. Syndergaard is only beginning to scratch the surface of his immense potential, and he will be a pleasure to watch in 2016.

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In one word….