Noah Syndergaard glanced down, touched the tips of his forefingers together and sighed as he recalled his frustrations from last season.
“It just kind of felt like a Chinese handcuff,” said the latest Dodgers pitcher, referring to woven bamboo finger clips that tighten when you try to pull away.
“The more I struggled,” he continued, “the harder it was to get out.”
There was a time when Syndergaard made pitching look easy, when the flaming All-Star dominated the mound with ironclad character and a seemingly never-ending well of ability.
In 2015, he helped the Mets reach the World Series as a contender for Rookie of the Year. The following season, he earned votes for the Cy Young and MVP awards.
His underwhelming stuff shortlisted him as one of baseball’s best — or at least dirtiest — pitchers alongside Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer, the only major league starters to better Syndergaard’s 2.93 ERA from 2015 to 2018 .
And though he was only in his early twenties, Syndergaard thrived on both the praise and the pressure.
“I always want to raise the bar,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2017.
Since then, however, Syndergaard has struggled to get his career off the ground again.
A torn right lat muscle cost him most of 2017. A strong return in 2018 was followed a year later by his worst entire big league campaign, when he posted a career-worst 4.28 ERA.
Another blow came during spring training in 2020, when Syndergaard began experiencing elbow pain, eventually leading to surgery on Tommy John that sidelined him for nearly the entire next two seasons.
The frustration came to a head last year, with what Syndergaard felt like an unsatisfying — though hardly unproductive — return to the mound where he posted a 10-10 record, 3.94 ERA and helped fuel another World Series run with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I’m definitely not trying to be like a serviceable No. 4 or 5 starter,” said Syndergaard, his soft, demure tone belying his towering six-foot body. “I want to go back to where I was.”
That’s what drew the Dodgers to the 30-year-old free agent this offseason: that his numbers weren’t That bad, that flashes of greatness still appeared, yet he seemed daunted by his performance, motivated to go more into his second year back from the Tommy John procedure.
“It’s one of those things where he’s kind of a victim of his own greatness,” said Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes. “There’s a lot of things we’re excited about… I feel like it’s going to have a big impact that Noah is going to bring.”
Who do you want to be?
That’s the question Syndergaard has been trying to answer, with the help of his new coaches at the Dodgers, since he signed a one-year, $13 million deal this winter.
The contract, which includes an additional $1.5 million in potential bonuses for innings pitched, was less lucrative than some offers Syndergaard made from other teams. However, the right-hander thought the Dodgers had “the best coaching baseball to offer.”
“I have a lot of faith,” he added, “they can get me back to where I want to be.”
Syndergaard must first find out what exactly that means.
With the Angels and Phillies last season, the seven-year veteran never felt completely comfortable with his mechanics or delivery. He successfully navigated some starts, completing six innings or more in 11 of 25 appearances, but also faced clunkers more often than he liked.
His once-98 mph fastball also averaged just above 94 mph, and the rest of his arsenal didn’t cause as many swings and misses as they did before surgery, with his strikeout percentage dropping nearly 10%.
“I’m definitely not trying to be like a useful No. 4 or 5 starter. “I want to go back to where I was.”
— Dodgers pitcher Noah Syndergaard
“I started to deteriorate instead of getting better,” Syndergaard said. “Everyone says, ‘I guarantee you’ll be back at 96.98 (mph) in July.’ It didn’t really happen.”
The longer it took, the more Syndergaard got into his head. At times during matches he would become preoccupied with his mechanics rather than simply executing throws.
“I went down a rabbit hole trying to improve some things, instead of just chalking it up to… having surgery,” said Syndergaard, adding, “I was trying to get better. It kind of disappointed me.”
And yet, shortly after his Dodgers signed in December, Syndergaard made headlines with a bold proclamation.
“I don’t see an excuse why I can’t get back to 100 mph,” he told reporters during an introductory video conference. “And even beyond that.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one the Dodgers don’t believe is far beyond the realm of possibility.
“There will be a marked increase in speed,” said manager Dave Roberts.
“I think there’s more velo,” added pitching coach Mark Prior. “Is it 100? I don’t know… But is it 96, 97? Maybe. Time will tell.”
Whenever Syndergaard’s triple-digit goal was mentioned to team officials this week, it came with another major caveat regarding his performance in 2023:
As much as they’d like to see Syndergaard radar guns light up again, it’s not an absolute necessity. After watching Syndergaard get around his reduced fastball speeds last season, they think there’s a new dominating hybrid style on the mound he could achieve.
Gomes expects “the nights when (his fastball speed) is on the upside, it’s going to be really hard to straighten him out.”
“I think it only takes one throw, one feeling that I’m back, and then it will be good.”
— Dodgers pitcher Noah Syndergaard
But, the general manager also noted, “the great thing about Noah is that no starter has his best stuff every time he goes out, so he has multiple options for navigating a lineup.”
Prior sees things the same way.
“Speed matters, speed plays,” said Prior. “But I think his stuff and his movement and his ability to be in the strike zone and do different things, I think he’s extremely good at that as well.”
That is how Syndergaard came around last season.
He pounded the zone at a career-high pace. He limited hard contact on one of the majors’ better clips. And he relied on his offspeed and breaking throws more than ever before.
It contributed to a decent overall production, including a 103 mark in ERA+ (an advanced metric in which 100 is considered league average) over 134 2/3 sound innings.
“It was a good season,” said Prior.
Just not the way Sydnergaard had hoped.
“I was surviving last year,” Syndergaard said. “I wouldn’t dominate.”
Looking back at his 2022 season, Syndergaard chuckled as he explained one of his other big lessons.
“It’s like pitching sucks,” he said. “In that if you watch basketball, football, hockey, and even hitting to some degree, you can hit and play all day and get better. With pitching you only have a certain number of bullets.”
Translation: It takes time and patience to make changes on the hill.
That is why, after signing with the Dodgers, Syndergaard went for an off-season revamp.
Focusing on muscle mass recovery, he followed a strict diet that included grass-fed meat, Joolies dates, and raw water buffalo milk that he said he could only find in Amish stores.
He made a winter training trip to Tread Athletics in North Carolina, then another to Driveline Baseball in Arizona, before spending the rest of the winter at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch facility, working hands-on with their coaches for the past several months.
“I like the curiosity and the competition,” said Gomes. “The drive to get better every day.”
It has all helped Sydnergaard make quick strides this spring.
His fastball reached 94 mph in his first outing against live hitting last Saturday, according to Roberts, already eclipsing his average mark from last season.
Prior thinks Syndergaard’s mechanics are a bit cleaner too, with a bigger counter twist in his leg lift – a throwback to his Mets days – and a more enclosed landing position to better utilize the baseball and keep his release aimed at the plate .
“I don’t know if you can see it by eye,” Roberts said. “But it’s a big change.”
While there is still a lot of work to be done – Syndergaard said he “still didn’t feel great mechanically” during Saturday’s performance – Syndergaard has identified some early positives in the camp.
He is satisfied with his command and pitch mix. More importantly, he has found a smoothness and rhythm he lacked last year, a specific feeling he hopes to further cultivate heading into the regular season.
“I think it only takes one throw, one feeling that I’m back,” he said, “and then it will be good.”
Of course, being “back” may not mean what it used to be, as Syndergaard and the Dodgers try to recapture its old effectiveness, but in a new (and perhaps even more complete) way.
“If he takes what he has now and even what he had last year, I think he can go out (and pitch well),” said Prior. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be a fun year,’ because I think he’s doing a lot of things.”
It is indeed a balance that the pitcher and his new team will have to strike as the year progresses, doing their best to maximize Syndergaard’s speed and raw skills, while at the same time making sure it’s not the only thing that dictates its success.
Last season, he learned the dangers of trying too hard to flip like his old self.
And to free his career from its own kind of finger trap, he’s opening himself up to the new changes he and the Dodgers are trying to make.
“We already have great confidence with Noah,” Roberts said. “And I just don’t see how this year he’s not going to be the dominant man he once was for us.”