Hindsight is always 20/20, but even in the moment, lifting Noah Syndergaard for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh inning on Friday seemed like a mistake.
With Josh Hader, the most dominant reliever in the National League right now, on the hill and two men out in a 3-2 deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers, Mickey Callaway opted to bat Jose Reyes after a Jose Bautista walk extended the inning, thus ending a quality start some could argue was only just taking off for Thor.
Although the three earned runs on six hits pushed his ERA from 2.91 to 3.06, Syndergaard still retired eight batters via strikeout while walking none in the six inning effort. Perhaps most encouraging about his outing was the fact that he exited having thrown just 78 pitches, retiring his last eight hitters in order (if not for a Wilmer Flores throwing error in the fourth inning, Syndergaard would have managed 11).
In a season that has been defined by frustrating lapses in control and subsequently excessive pitch counts, Syndergaard did a sound job chipping away at the narrative. Averaging 16.4 pitches per inning coming into the night, the flamethrower averaged just 13 against Milwaukee. If you were to exclude the 18-pitch third inning that saw most of the damage (two runs, three hits and two steals), Syndergaard averaged just 12 per frame.
A major attribute to Syndergaard’s success last night was a confidently established, frequently used slider, which he threw at a season-high 33.3 percent clip.
His fastball, meanwhile, while used at a season-low rate of 42.3 percent, registered with an average velocity of 98.1 miles per hour — the hardest he’s averaged all season. A hard-hit rate of just 12.5 percent perhaps best characterizes a start that, save for a Travis Shaw home run in the second inning, was simply a matter of resourceful offense from the Brewers, who failed to put up any other extra-base hits through the first six innings.
Syndergaard took clear measures to pitch methodically last night, and instead of trying to overpower his opponents with fastballs, he focused on locating off speed pitches and fooling hitters. In other words, instead of throwing, he pitched.
Of course, conventionally speaking, using a position player for a pitcher with a theoretical chance at tying the game made plenty of sense. Not to mention, it protected Syndergaard from hitting a wall late in the game, as he did a month ago in St. Louis, and possibly losing confidence.
However, looking at it from the perspective of a fan wary of Hader’s stuff and the offensive capabilities (or lack thereof) on the bench, there was really no conceivable way the Mets were going to tie the game. Particularly in the case of Reyes, who is now hitting just .143/.200/.196 on the year, batting Syndergaard (lifetime .182/.243/.318) wouldn’t have been much more of a white flag, especially if it meant he continue working.
While Syndergaard’s exit had little bearing on the outcome of the innings that followed, calling Seth Lugo into action to work two innings on 30 pitches and proceeding to deploy Robert Gsellman, who threw 18 pitches in an inning and two thirds, inarguably taxed the bullpen.
With Corey Oswalt sidelined with lat tightness and Paul Sewald just two days removed from a two-inning, 25-pitch stint of his own, Callaway effectively set fire to the elaborate “opener” plan he had previously discussed for Monday’s doubleheader.
Jason Vargas starts tonight, and while he certainly improved in his most recent start, is still liable to an early hook if things get hairy. Off the heels of Syndergaard’s most encouraging start of the year, the Mets are instead faced with a crisis halfway through a pivotal series.