PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For Noah Syndergaard, success in 2020 seems to hinge on two areas of improvement: thinking less and dominating more with his slider.
The former caused him issues last year, he said, when he suffered from “paralysis by analysis,” both while on the mound during a given game and between starts. And the latter was an obvious problem in 2019, but one that neither he nor the Mets’ cadre of pitching experts on staff could solve midseason.
Syndergaard believes a revamped offseason routine, which focused less on being in tip-top physical shape and more on pitching, will help in both areas.
“Right now, where I’m at in spring training compared to previous years, is night and day just in terms of comfort on the mound and being ready,” Syndergaard said Tuesday. “In previous offseasons, I was like, 'I'm going to figure it out on the mound during spring training,' whereas now I spent the whole month [of January] in LA and was able to get on the mound twice a week.”
Syndergaard, to be clear, is still ripped — and he has the shirtless social media posts to prove it. His physical fitness seems not to have taken a hit as a result of his more frequent wintertime throwing.
But early-and-often mound work in 2020 was Syndergaard’s goal. He got off the mound 10 times before arriving in Port St. Lucie a week early and has already thrown several bullpen sessions — including Tuesday with Rene Rivera, his favorite catcher — at the Mets’ Clover Park facility.
That all is in accordance with the throwing program prescribed to him by the Mets’ performance team of athletic trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists and other experts, a major source of investment for the franchise in recent years.
“I trusted our performance staff,” Syndergaard said. “I followed it to a tee.”
That all has put Syndergaard in a better headspace at the dawn of a new season. Last year, as he struggled with a career-high 4.28 ERA, he admitted after some poor starts to being lost and not knowing how to fix whatever was wrong. His confidence seemed shot.
With the benefit of an offseason of hindsight, Syndergaard said he was “thinking a little too much and making things a lot more difficult than they should be.” He does not want his mind to be on, for example, where his ankle is and what it is doing while he is delivering a pitch.
“I feel like I'm really going to benefit this year by just keeping things as simple as I can and trusting my ability and my talent and not getting too hard on myself when things don’t necessarily go how I want,” Syndergaard said. “On the mound, I think that’s going to be really beneficial to me. … Just being fluid with my delivery, trusting in the athleticism as opposed to being more robotic.”
The confidence will stay — and build — if Syndergaard is good again. The key there is his slider, which Syndergaard said “seems to be back to where it was in previous years.”
In 2016, when Syndergaard was most recently healthy and effective for a full season, opposing hitters had a .165 average and .229 slugging percentage against his slider. Last year, those numbers were .207 and .378.
The ineffectiveness mystified Syndergaard at times, but he said Tuesday that he found solace in his final outing of the year. On Sept. 29 against the Braves, his slider averaged 91.6 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, closer to 2016-18 levels and better than his 2019 average velocity of 89.4 mph.
“The last start of last season it showed glimpses of where it was in the past,” Syndergaard said. “So that was encouraging.”