by Paul West
Noah Syndergaard has certainly deserved a fair amount of the scrutiny, and criticism, he’s gotten in recent years. Despite having nearly supernatural stuff, and having provided several great moments for the Mets franchise, he’s also at times been baffling in his difficulty performing when he hasn’t got his ‘best stuff’ on the mound. He’s shown little hesitation to flex his keyboard muscles, happily lobbing wisecracks on social media when he or the Mets are directly or obliquely challenged. He once issued a thinly veiled tough-guy challenge to the Kansas City Royals, declaring that ‘they can meet me sixty feet, six inches away,’ and infamously spent an offseason saying he wanted to throw harder (yes, really) before subsequently tearing a lat muscle–likely due to his curious emphasis on velocity and excessive strength training (despite being advised to the contrary from many circles) instead of honing his craft to augment his already ludicrous stuff. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that, from an organizational standpoint, the Mets are tiring of some of his, you might say, intangibles; it might be, as some suggest, the reason they’ve decided to put their foot down with him–now, of all times–regarding the matter of his preference in battery mates.
The interesting thing is that in this instance, Syndergaard has actually been–publicly, at least–a team player about the whole thing. Despite having eye-popping splits among his games with different signal callers, the Mets almost seem to be making a point of having him work with Wilson Ramos, with whom he’s clearly half the pitcher he is otherwise.
The reasons for this are both real and imaginary–but this is a case where the difference scarcely matters. Talk of metrics and statistics aside, it bears remembering that the game is still played by humans, with human foibles and frailties; and pitcher-catcher is very much a relationship, with tangible and intangible aspects. Part of the issue is almost certainly the difference in Ramos’ and Nido’s mechanics, namely the fact that the latter is clearly better at both catching and framing pitches in the lower part of the zone; this is likely both creating frustration on Syndergaard’s part, and making him hesitant to throw certain pitches with the proper conviction. Thor’s aforementioned issues with performing when he hasn’t got his best stuff are cause for further criticism–he’s not the best at managing frustration on the mound–and, as such, criticism on this issue are well earned. But it would be absurd, and lacking in historical perspective (baseball history, that is), to suggest that Thor is the first pitcher to struggle in such a way. Baseball history is full of renowned aces who were noticeably better with certain catchers (it could be argued that eventual World Series champion David Ross owes the latter part of his MLB career to this phenomenon), for reasons both tangible and intangible; for that matter, other sports are littered with examples of elite tandems–quarterback-receiver, point guard-forward, center-winger–who force-multiply each other, and are far better together than apart. While Thor’s issues managing frustration are definitely a strike against him, it’s unfair to suggest that being much better with a catcher like Nido makes him ‘selfish’ or a ‘diva.’ Nido’s strengths as a catcher clearly play to Syndergaard’s strengths as a pitcher, and how much of that is mechanical versus how much is in Thor’s head is not a matter that needs sorting during must-win games.
The Mets failed to put their foot down during prior instances of mouthiness, insolence, or machismo; why would they choose now to prove their point force-feeding him a catcher with whom he’s less comfortable at a time when they need him at his best? To use an old expression, this would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. The argument that ‘deGrom can pitch to anybody’ is relevant, but only to a point: are they really willing to punish other pitchers for not being Jacob deGrom, by making them half as effective by not pairing them with their best battery mate? It can also be argued that since Ramos is hitting the ball so well, it’s more important to have him in the lineup; but again, is that worth increasing the odds that they’ll be chasing an early deficit? The concept of plus-minus, as in hockey, can apply here: the difference between a 5.09 ERA and a 2.45 ERA can certainly be seen to outweigh the chances that Ramos will produce enough offense to make up that difference in a single game.
If they’re going to finish climbing their way into playoff position, they’ll need everyone at their best. This includes Thor; and if they want to teach him to be a catcher-independent ace, now’s not the time.