Late last season, Noah Syndergaard told the world he wanted to throw harder in 2017. I think most of us took it as a form of bravado, maybe a little machismo, mixed with some tongue in cheek humor. As it turns out, Noah was dead serious, and he’s put on 17 pounds of muscle to help him on his way to adding a tick to his already ridiculous 98 mph fastball.
You’ve seen a lot of analysis into his comments and weight gain already this week, I particularly enjoyed Eno Sarris’ look into Syndergaard’s Weight Change in Context. I’m a visual learner, though. The numbers and explanations are great, but I want to see how he compares to the rest of the league.
First, I need a visual backdrop to help set the scene. In the Pitch Stats section of my website I have an embed Tableau sheet depicting the major league average swinging strike rates with respect to spin rate, x coordinate, z coordinate, and pitch velocity.
Here, I’ll be using the velocity table. It looks something like this.
This chart looks a lot like a map, with the blue area’s looking like sea and the green like land. That wide blue area in the middle is the Sea of Fastballs, as you may notice going forward.
On this chart, darker shades of green represent higher swinging strike rates, while deeper shades of blue represent lower swinging strike rates. Gray regions are roughly average, and the blank white areas are unmapped (contain no data). If you go to the Tableau Viz, you can click on each box to see more information, such as the number of fastballs/breaking balls/off speed pitches land within the box zone, the number of swinging strikes, etc. I encourage you to play around with that tool, it is fun to look at.
The average major league fastball is 91.8 mph, with a spin rate around 2220. The standard deviations are 2.9 and 200 respectively. I have mapped this average fastball onto this chart and color coded it roughly in conjunction with the standard deviations. It isn’t exact, but they are pretty close. (Frankly, I was running out of time and this plot was taking longer to make than expected).
That white section there highlights the average fastball, it sits between 90 and 94 mph (91.8mph average) and 2000 and 2400 rpm (2220 average). The white section contains 50% of the fastballs thrown between 2015 and 2016. As you move out, redder areas represent above average fastballs, and bluer areas represent below average fastballs. Combined, the shaded areas contain 99.7% of the fastballs thrown between these two seasons.
Okay, now that we have some frame of reference, let’s take a peak at Noah Syndergaard.
Syndergaard’s fastballs live in the southern part of the Sea of Fastballs, nestled up to the Cape of Good Cheese. This section of the sea ranges from 7.2% to 11.5% swinging strike rate, which, and this isn’t any sort of measurement but moreso a feeling I get looking at the numbers, the average is probably somewhere around 9%, judging by this chart. Using a more scientific method (using the gameday stats), the actual rate turns out to be 9.5%. So the chart got us in the right ballpark.
PS, you may get different numbers from Brooks Baseball, this chart was made using Gameday.
Here’s the money shot, I’ve created an overlay of Noah Syndergaard’s fastball and the average fastball.
Noah Syndergaard’s fastball is towards the extreme high end of fastball velocity, obviously. It sits around 97.8 mph, which is ridiculous. The spin rate, though, is more mundane, and actually below average. The average spin rate is 2220 rpm, and Syndergaard’s is instead 2174. Not terrible, but not otherworldly by any stretch of the imagination. It is somewhat odd, though, generally the highest velocity fastballs have the highest spin rates. Generally, not always. But preferably.
I mentioned Syndergaard’s fastball is nestled up against the Cape of Good Cheese. I mean that, you want to live on that Cape, it is the home of the best fastballs in the game. Syndergaard is tantalizingly close, but not quite there. He can jump on the southern tip by picking up a few miles per hour on his fastball, which is something he apparently feels inclined to do.
More realistically, and also much more valuably, he could add spin rate. Adding 200 rpm could increase his expected swinging strike rate by 50%, perhaps even 100%. That would put him in the same camp as Aroldis Chapman (100.6 mph, 2508 rpm, 19.2% SwStrk%), Dellin Betances (98 mph, 2448 rpm, 12.5% SwStrk%), and Craig Kimbrel (97.7 mph, 2458 rpm, 12.5% SwStrk%).
Alright, well, spinrate is a buzzword recently, and saying that on its own isn’t particularly useful. So, I’ve created pitchfx movement chart. The x axis shows inches of x movement (left and right), and the y axis shows inches of z movement (up and down). In this chart, darker green represents higher batting average, and deeper blue represents lower batting average. You’ll see three different color regions. These are the most common movement combinations, and account for about 70% of each pitcher’s fastballs. Noah Syndergaard is Red, Craig Kimbrel is Purple, and Aroldis Chapman is Orange.
Note, Chapman is left handed, so you need to remember his results need to be mirrored to account for this.
Compared to Syndergaard, Chapman’s fastball has about two more inches of drop and two more inches of ride. Kimbrel has about two more inches of drop, but the same amount of ride. Granted, these guys have different release points, grips, and mechanics, but it appears the 200 rpm that separates Syndergaard from these guys manifests itself as about two inches of movement, which can be ride, drop, or both depending on your mechanics.
Two days ago, Pete McCarthy had a 26 minute interview with Rick Peterson, much of it about Syndergaard. I encourage you to listen to it, it’s very enlightening and gives some great perspective on the game. Early in the interview Pete asked, and I am paraphrasing here, “Is Noah on the short list of pitchers with the best stuff?” Rick said “No, it’s the only.” Meaning, in Peterson’s eyes, Noah Syndergaard is the only pitcher in major league baseball that has this sort of raw talent. To describe what he means, maybe we should take a step back and think about music for a moment.
Imagine the best singers you have ever heard. Perhaps Whitney Houston, who is acclaimed for her 3+ octave live concert vocal range. The truly great singers are able to carry through a song, seamlessly transitioning between the high and low notes and in doing so they engross us with the emotion and feeling of the song. Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl National Anthem is a great example.
The power in this performance comes from her ability to move from the dulcet lower tones to the powerful mids and emotional upper registrar. She begins the song with a lower voice, matching the emotional of the room, fans sitting in their seats just waiting for the game to begin, but by the end people are on their feet and fired up. This is one of the most powerful National Anthems in memory because she used every tool in her disposal to fire up the crowd and create a genuinely great performance.
This is what Rick Peterson means when he says Syndergaard is in a league of his own. Syndergaard has the unique ability to effortlessly range from low to high velocities. From fastballs to changeups to curveballs to sliders. He can throw anything at any time at any speed to any part of the plate.
Syndergaard can throw a 95 MPH fastball, a 94 MPH slider, an 84 MPH curveball, and a 102 MPH fastball all in the same at-bat. No other pitcher in the game can do this. Syndergaard is unique, and I, like Rick Peterson, hope he learns to take full advantage of his natural gifts. With little more than a slight change in pitch sequencing, he could become one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived.
At the moment, it appears, Noah is focusing on velocity. Which is unfortunate. The data suggests, if anything, spin rate would be a more valuable addition.
Finally, in case you’re curious, here are all of Syndergaard’s pitches mapped on this chart.
Black = Fastball, Red = Slider, Blue = Change-up, Orange = Curveball.