Noah Syndergaard vaguely remembers sending the tweet. He was lying on his couch in his apartment. Only a few hours had passed since he climbed the mound in the National League wild-card game, delivered perhaps the game of his life . . . and watched the Mets lose.
“Baseball has a way of ripping your [heart] out, stabbing it, putting it back in your chest,” the Mets ace tweeted, “then healing itself just in time for Spring Training.”
The poetry of the sentiment obscured the reality of the situation. In truth, the healing process already had begun, at least in his own mind. There was work to be done.
“Why spend energy being mad about it?” said Syndergaard, who will make the first Opening Day start of his career Monday against the Braves at Citi Field.
It wouldn’t be long until Syndergaard, 24, began chiseling his body and sharpening his ideas about pitching.
To be clear, he has not added any new pitches to his repertoire. The weapons themselves aren’t different, though there might be a shift in how he deploys them.
In spring training, he focused on honing his changeup. Then he holstered his triple-digit four-seam fastball in favor of the two-seam variant. “Right now, I’m just primarily going to be a two-seam guy,” he said.
Two years ago, Syndergaard threw two-seam fastballs with a quarter of his pitches. Last year, that number approached one-third. This year, it could climb even more. “If I can throw my two-seam as hard as I can throw my four-seam, why not throw my two-seam more often with movement?” he said.
At times in spring training, he noticed that righthanded hitters gave up on two-seamers too soon, thinking they were out of the zone, then watching helplessly as they crossed the plate. It was yet another reason to feature the pitch more.
“He’s not just trying to blow it out from the start, and I think that’s going to make him more durable, it’s going to keep him out there longer in games,” Terry Collins said. “I just think this guy has learned so fast, has come on so strong in a short time. The sky’s the limit for this kid.”
The idea was hatched after arriving at the most straightforward of conclusions. While Syndergaard’s four-seam fastball is thrown hard, it possesses relatively little movement. Video confirmed what he felt in real time and what pitching coach Dan Warthen had sensed as well. Hitters took better swings at the four-seamer.
The two-seamer was different. Sure, it didn’t tear through the air at 100 mph, but it moved like crazy. Syndergaard might miss a spot with the two-seamer, but he enjoyed more leeway. Its natural arm-side run meant the pitch bored in on the hands of righties and zipped away from lefties. Hitters had a tougher time squaring it up.
“Everybody’s seen a two-seam fastball,” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “What they don’t see is a two-seam fastball at 98 mph.”
Nor do hitters see pitchers who seem equally comfortable attacking with muscle or guile.
It’s not uncommon for Syndergaard’s four-seamer to reach triple digits or for his curveball to buckle knees. His slider is a devastating blend of wicked movement and high-end velocity (91 mph, the highest average in baseball). Scouts consider each to be an above-average pitch.
But it’s the interplay between the two-seamer and changeup that has opened his mind to another way to toy with hitters. Out of his hand, the two pitches are almost indistinguishable, leaving hitters with an impossible task. “Everybody’s going to be geared up for his fastball,” Warthen said. “And his changeup has so much depth that it’s almost like a split-finger.’’
Righthanded pitchers typically shy away from throwing changeups to righthanded batters because the movement of the pitch leaves it vulnerable if the location isn’t precise. Syndergaard threw only 6 percent changeups to righties last season, but he used spring training as a lab. In his final tuneup, in a scrimmage against minor-leaguers, he offered a preview.
He unleashed a two-seamer in on the hands to handcuff 22-year-old prospect Wuilmer Beccera. Then he attacked the same spot, except this time he pulled the string with “probably one of the best changeups I’ve ever thrown in my life.” Helpless, Beccera flailed, the pitch leaving his body tangled in the righthanded batter’s box.
“That’s something I need to store in my hard drive and learn to repeat that time and time again,” Syndergaard said. “Because it could be a devastating weapon.”
Braves vs. Noah Syndergaard
Ender Inciarte, CF 1-2 0
Dansby Swanson, SS 2-2 0
Freddie Freeman, 1B 3-6 1
Matt Kemp, LF 1-11 0
Nick Markakis, RF 3-6 0
Brandon Phillips, 2B 3-10 0
Adonis Garcia, 3B 0-3 0
Tyler Flowers, C 0-1 0
Julio Teheran, P (Lifetime vs. Mets: 7-3, 2.36 ERA)
Mets vs. Julio Teheran
Jose Reyes, 3B 2-13 0
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS 4-12 0
Yoenis Cespedes, LF 3-12 0
Curtis Granderson CF 6-26 2
Neil Walker, 2B 2-17 0
Jay Bruce, RF 3-20 2
Lucas Duda, 1B 7-23 2
Rene Rivera, C
Noah Syndergaard, P (Lifetime vs. Braves: 0-1, 5.52 ERA)
Not bad, for openers
Mets’ overall record on Opening Day: 34-21
Last 10: 6-4
Vs. Braves: 4-1
Temperature: 57 degrees
Skies: Partly cloudy
Chance of precipitation: 0 percent
Winds: SSE 9 mph