Mets manager Terry Collins wasn’t forthright Saturday night, but the subtext was clear: top prospect Noah Syndergaard would not throw a major league pitch this season.
“You’ve got to be more consistent” Collins said in reference Syndergaarrd, “He’s had some good games, but he’s had some rough games.”
Another source close to the team was more blunt.
““The results are just not there,” the source told the NY Daily News‘s Kristie Ackert . “We know he’s talented, but we just aren’t seeing the results yet. He’s young and it shows.”
The rough games, the results, that the twin sources spoke of were on full display friday night, when the 21 year old right-hander gave up six runs over six innings in a start against New Orleans.
Noah Syndergaard, the game’s 19th best prospect per Baseball America, was originally expected to follow in the footsteps of Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler before him, and earn a mid-season promotion after a few months in Triple-A. Yet five months into the year, he remains in the Las Vegas rotation with no change in sight.
And while there is certainly an argument to be made – namely his 4.87 ERA – that the hard-throwing right-hander’s performance has not merited a call up, this smells to me more of service time consideration than performance evaluation.
As Collins passingly acknowledged Saturday night, Syndergaard pitches in Las Vegas, one of the worst pitcher’s ballparks in what is arguably the most hitter-friendly league (The PCL) in North American professional baseball. The thin, dry Nevada air not only allows balls to travel much farther off the bat than they normally would, but also prevents pitchers from getting the proper spin on their breaking pitches.
The latter point can be a major problem for the import from Toronto, who relies on a plus curveball as one of his chief secondary offerings. “A hook from hell,” Collins called it in Spring Training.
Those things considered, Syndergaard’s 2014 campaign actually looks like a strong one, marked by growth and development; his ugly ERA, the product of poor luck and uncontrollable ballpark effects
In Friday’s six run performance, Syndergaard also managed to strike out eight Zephyrs and issue only one walk. A 6’6, 240 pound presence who can leverage the ball hard downhill, he induced eight ground ball outs and just four flyouts.
In fact, his peripherals have been solid almost all year and have actually improved as the season has worn on. Since July 22nd, Syndergaard owns a 2.95 ERA across seven starts and 39.2 innings, across which he has fanned 48 batters and brought up his seasonal strikeout rate to 9.84 batters per nine innings, second in the PCL. His walk rate over that span is 3.7 per nine, slightly higher than his 2.96 BB/9 for the year but still respectable.
The result is a Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.77, the third best mark in the Pacific Coast League. His paradoxically poor ERA is largely a product of his exorbitant .382 batting average on balls in play, a number that also traces its roots to his home environment.
To prevent the Nevada air from turning every game into the 2008 home run derby, the 51’s followed the Rockies lead and built an expansive ballpark, with a center-field wall that stands 433 feet from home plate. Much as it does in Denver, this set-up allows troves of bloops and fly balls to fall between the outfielders. Indeed, Syndergaard has allowed 61 more hits this season than last, despite throwing only 6 1/3 more innings.
To quote ESPN.com senior analyst and former Blue Jays scouting executive Keith Law, “Syndergaard’s numbers in AAA are fantastic, not disappointing”
The Mets cannot be incognizant or apathetic to these numbers. Led by Moneyball architects GM Sandy Alderson and player development director Paul Depodesta, they embrace statistics and sabemetrics as much as any other team in baseball.
And from the scouting side, what does Syndergaard have left to learn? At 21, he is certainly not a complete pitcher, but he already has three above average/plus pitches. His fastball has sink and was 97-99 MPH even in his final inning friday night, and while scouts are split on whether his change-up or curveball is better, most agree they are both more than major league ready.
And having never posted a walk rate above 3.0 in his professional career, his control is spot-on, certainly better than Wheeler’s at the time of his MLB debut in 2013.
But ten games under .500 and nine games out of a playoff spot with 32 games to go, New York has little to gain by promoting Syndergaard, and a year of free agency to lose. If they keep him down until the end of next April, the right-hander will become a free agent in 2022 instead of 2021. That not only has the value to the Mets, but could also make him more attractive in a trade for a veteran or young bat this off-season.
Clubs are loathe to admit that they consider service time when deciding on prospect promotions, so the Mets will hide behind Syndergaard’s innings limit, as Collins did Saturday night. He threw 117 2/3 innings, so, Ackert notes, his max for 2014 should be about 150 and he has 124 1/3 frames thus far. After two more regular season Las Vegas starts and the PCL playoffs, he won’t have anything left.
Of course, they could also give Syndergaard one short outing on the 27th and promote him on September 1st, leaving him enough innings for three starts down the stretch.
Alderson, though, seems to have made his choice.