No more breaking pitches for Thor in 2021

Mets right-hander resumes rehab, will only be using fastballs, changeups

August 27th, 2021

NEW YORK -- The Mets’ plans to convert Noah Syndergaard to relief work in his return from Tommy John surgery gained significant clarity on Thursday, when Syndergaard announced that he will refrain from throwing breaking pitches for the rest of this season.

The idea initially came from Mets team physician Dr. David Altchek and Dodgers orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who believe the mid-May setback that delayed Syndergaard’s return by three months may have stemmed from the torque generated by Syndergaard’s high-velocity slider. Those two instructed Syndergaard not to throw sliders for the rest of the year. To be safe, Syndergaard has decided that he also won’t throw his curveball.

“Just this last month of the season, I’ll just work on four-seam [fastball], two-seam and changeup,” Syndergaard said, “and I think I can be effective with that.”

In essence, then, Syndergaard has become a two-pitch pitcher, as he was during his return to a Minor League rehab assignment on Thursday night for High-A Brooklyn. Throwing exclusively fastballs and changeups, Syndergaard served up a first-pitch homer to Orioles prospect Lamar Sparks, who took a ferocious hack at a 95 mph ball well above the strike zone.

According to one scout in attendance, Aberdeen hitters were starting their swings early to try to catch up to Syndergaard’s heat, which registered 94-96 mph on the radar gun, as he also hit a batter and recorded one strikeout in his inning of work.

The same scout described Syndergaard as “nowhere close” to a return, though he based that evaluation partly on the fact that Syndergaard did not throw any breaking pitches. It was Syndergaard’s slider, as much as his triple-digit fastball, that made him one of baseball’s most feared starting pitchers during the back half of last decade, when he went 47-30 with a 3.31 ERA over 119 outings. Often reaching the mid-90s with the pitch, Syndergaard was among those who revolutionized what “offspeed” could look like at the game’s highest level.

Now, Syndergaard is without that weapon for at least the next five weeks as he looks to reestablish his value following his March 2020 Tommy John surgery -- a development that came as news to some in the organization. Manager Luis Rojas said he was not aware of Syndergaard’s decision to scrap his breaking pitches until he revealed it in Thursday's postgame media session.

“I thought they gradually were going to incorporate the curveballs, but I did hear that he said that,” Rojas said. “We can talk about these things and see where he’s at, but I do like the willingness of him participating in any role. He’s still a force, even if he doesn’t have those two pitches.”

If Syndergaard is to survive without any breaking pitches, he will have an easier time doing so as a reliever, without worry of facing hitters multiple times in a game. That remains New York's plan, even if it’s not necessarily due to Syndergaard’s condensed repertoire. To the contrary, Mets officials intend to use Syndergaard in relief work down the stretch because it will allow him to return to the Majors more quickly, without need of an extended rehab stint to stretch out as a starter.

It’s been a long enough road already for Syndergaard, who has not appeared in a Major League game since Sept. 29, 2019. Six months later, he underwent Tommy John surgery with an eye toward returning in June. However, a bout of elbow inflammation on Syndergaard’s previous rehab assignment required him to shut down from throwing for several weeks.

Given that delay, Syndergaard does not particularly care what his role will be once he returns. He simply wants to pitch.

“I just want to go out there and compete and help the team in whatever capacity I can and pitch in some meaningful baseball games,” Syndergaard said in his first extended public comments since surgery.

Yet how Syndergaard fares down the stretch -- even as a fastball-changeup specialist -- could affect him in significant ways, as he is eligible to become a free agent following this season after nine years in the organization. The Mets could extend him a one-year qualifying offer worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. If they do, Syndergaard would have little choice but to consider it as a way to rebuild his value before seeking a multi-year deal next winter. If they don’t, the market for his services won’t be easy to predict.

It’s something that Syndergaard admitted to thinking about regularly, even while most of his mind is on “rehabbing and getting back to the mound.”

“I can’t imagine leaving New York or leaving the Mets,” Syndergaard said. “I love the culture that New York has to offer, the grit and tenacity of all the citizens and fans. Especially ever since 2015, that special run will forever be engrained in me. It was the best time in my life, and I really want to get back to that.”