PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Noah Syndergaard draws an imaginary line from his armpit down the right side of his body.
"Your lat is a huge muscle that goes from under here, all the way down your back," he says, explaining how it interacts with his hips and his leg muscles. Syndergaard is speaking about what he learned last season, after a lat tear torpedoed what was supposed to be one of the best years of his career. He is talking about hip flexibility and t-spine mobility, the types of things that prompt trainer Eric Cressey to call him "a little bit of a nerd."
MLB.com is taking a look at Players to Watch for all 30 teams in the Major Leagues, and for the Mets it's the 25-year-old Syndergaard.
For the first act of his time with the Mets, Syndergaard focused on becoming the biggest, baddest pitcher in baseball. A nerd he was not. Syndergaard revolved his workouts around powerlifting. He threw 101 mph and said he could do more. He pitched through discomfort. He threw harder and faster and better … until one of the biggest muscles in his body gave out.
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"I guess you could say ignorance is bliss," Syndergaard said. "At that time, I didn't know to a certain extent. I thought that's what I needed to be doing. I feel like the stuff I'm learning now about my body, and how to take care of my body, is a step above. I'm not going to have another one of those, 'Oh, s---' moments where maybe I need to do something else."
Looking back, Syndergaard says, the warning signs were easy to see. Strong as anyone in baseball, Syndergaard lacked mobility. A series of tests he took last spring at Cressey's Jupiter, Fla., facility revealed what Syndergaard called a "messed up" body. Cressey recalled watching him pitch at one point last March and taking note of the way he ran to cover third base -- a gait that Syndergaard likens to "a fat guy in flip-flops."
"I probably would have gone more with the Tin Man analogy," Cressey said. "It wasn't athletic, fluid movement."
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A well-known personal trainer with studios in Massachusetts and Florida, Cressey corresponded with Syndergaard for years after the Blue Jays made him a supplemental Draft pick in 2010, but never trained him personally until Syndergaard reached out after tearing his lat last April 30 in Washington. Syndergaard was an avid reader of Cressey's blog posts. Realizing he needed to do things differently, he sought out someone whose philosophies he trusted.
"If I'm coming to an organization, I don't know diddly squat about how I'm supposed to train my body," Syndergaard said. "I'm supposed to just trust other people to tell me that this is the right way? Have you ever read 'Freakonomics'? You know how the guy takes his car to the shop and the mechanic says, 'You need a transmission change?' Well, I don't know any better. So yeah, you can change my transmission, but I might not need one."
The educated consumer knows. The educated athlete understands his body. The jock becomes the nerd: Syndergaard, after a "pretty enlightening" offseason of reading and studying fitness methods in general, and more specifically how they relate to pitching, feels he has reached another plane of understanding. A winter spent supplementing his heavy weightlifting with massages, physical therapy, plyometric and mobility training has him confident he's found the "answers to make sure I never have another serious injury again."
In a profession rife with risk, that may be unrealistic. But if the short-term results are anything close to what Syndergaard believes they can be, the Mets think they can ride their rebuilt ace back to the postseason. Although Syndergaard will start Opening Day mostly because Jacob deGrom was not healthy enough to claim the assignment, only one of those two throws 101-mph fastballs and 95-mph sliders. There may not be a pitcher in baseball with a higher ceiling.
Consider: In 62 career games, Syndergaard owns a 2.89 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. A popular pick to win the National League Cy Young Award last season, Syndergaard fanned out 23 batters in 20 innings this spring, allowing three earned runs. His goal is to reach 200 innings for the first time in his career, knowing if he accomplishes that, everything else will fall into place.
"He's a guy who absolutely has the potential to win Cy Youngs and start All-Star Games," Cressey said. "You only see what you see on TV. You see arm speed. You see the number of strikeouts. It's very hard to appreciate that in the offseason, there are guys who are thinking about how to get better. That's the stuff that you see from Noah."