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Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 24, 2017

One of two things will happen in Noah Syndergaard’s immediate future: He’ll either continue to punish hitters or end up punishing himself.

What the young New York Mets ace will do next is certainly worth being excited about. He was billed as The Next Big Thing™ as a prospect and has lived up to that both in appearance and production.

Watch Syndergaard pitch, and you see a blond behemoth who bears more than a passing resemblance to his superhero doppelganger, Thor. Look at his numbers, and you see a 2.89 ERA in two MLB seasons.

Syndergaard’s latest feat was a 2.60 ERA as a sophomore last season. He struck out 175 more batters than he walked. Despite what his .334 BABIP would indicate, he was good at avoiding the barrel of the bat. In all, he may have been the most dominant pitcher in the league.

Yet he wants to do better.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 02:  Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets pitches in the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on September 2, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McI

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Perhaps the top story early in spring training is the size at which Syndergaard, 24, reported to Mets camp. Already listed at 6’6″ and 240 pounds, he gained an additional 17 pounds over the offseason by working out and pumping himself full of protein.

Why? Partially so he can hold up better.

“I feel like guys with a little bit of mass are a little bit more durable throughout the season and throughout their careers,” he told reporters, including James Wagner of the New York Times.

OK, fair enough. Syndergaard did only pitch 183.2 innings last season, well short of the 200-plus generally expected from an ace. He has things to shoot for with his workload.

But that’s not the sexier idea he has in mind for his added bulk.

“I’ve always wanted to throw harder and continue to make the game easier,” he said. “Last year, from my rookie season, my velocity jumped up. I’m always going to try to raise that kind of bar.”

Now, here’s a solution without a problem. In the recorded history of the hardest-throwing starters to pitch 150 or more innings in a season, there’s Syndergaard and then everyone else:

Hardest-Throwing Starters (Min. 150 IP): 2002-2016
Noah Syndergaard 2016 59.1 98.0
Noah Syndergaard 2015 61.7 97.1
Yordano Ventura 2014 65.4 97.0
Nathan Eovaldi 2015 47.9 96.7
Yordano Ventura 2015 57.6 96.4
Garrett Richards 2014 63.8 96.3
Daniel Cabrera 2005 65.2 96.2
Ubaldo Jimenez 2010 61.4 96.1
Yordano Ventura 2016 56.7 96.1
Ubaldo Jimenez 2009 62.7 96.1

Syndergaard’s wish to throw harder would be like if Giancarlo Stanton wanted to hit the ball harder. Sure, it may be possible. But is it necessary?

Believe it or not, it could help from a performance perspective. Hitters hit .286 against the right-hander’s heat last season, placing him far below the Jake Arrietas, Max Scherzers and Justin Verlanders of the league. There’s also room for improvement on the whiffs-per-swing rate on his four-seamer.

But any short-term improvement in Syndergaard’s performance wouldn’t be worth it if extra velocity leads to a long-term injury. That’s where there are warning signs all over the place.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 15: Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets in action against the Pittsburgh Pirates during a game at Citi Field on June 15, 2016 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Pirates 11-2

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Go back and scan that list of the hardest-throwing starters, and the guys who have needed Tommy John or run into some other serious elbow trouble will stand out. Near the top are Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Richards. Further on down are Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, Josh Johnson and the late Jose Fernandez.

Writing for FanGraphs, Travis Sawchik referenced two different studies that have linked velocity to Tommy John surgery. The latter specifically warned against throwing at max effort all the time. That one was supported at USA Today by data from Harry Pavlidis of Pitch Info that showed the best and healthiest pitchers tend to keep some distance between their average fastball and their max fastball.

As his average and max release speeds on his four-seamer show, Syndergaard doesn’t bother with that:

Noah Syndergaard’s Average and Max Four-Seam Fastballs
2015 97.8 101.3 3.6
2016 98.9 102.3 3.4
Brooks Baseball

The bottom line is best summed up by something Dr. Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, told Jonah Keri for Grantland in 2015.

“Velocity is a factor. All things being equal,” he said in reference to Tommy John risk, “throwing 95 miles per hour is more stressful than throwing 90.”

Fleisig did, however, add a “but” that could prove to be Syndergaard’s salvation: “But throwing 95 miles per hour with good mechanics is less stressful than throwing 90 miles per hour with bad mechanics. Throwing 95 miles per hour with proper rest is less dangerous than throwing 90 miles per hour without rest.”

It’ll be up to the Mets to make sure Thor gets proper rest. As Wagner reported, the club already plans to keep not only Syndergaard but also Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler on the mound by policing their workloads. Rather than 33 or 34 starts, each of them might make only 30.

“With what happened last year, they’re more willing to buy into some ideas about staying healthy this year as opposed to last year,” manager Terry Collins said in reference to injuries that sidelined Harvey, deGrom and Matz last season. “If they’re rested, they’re going to stay healthier. That’s going to be the big push.”

The Mets also seem prepared to help keep Syndergaard’s mechanics in shape. Here’s Marc Carig of Newsday:

Meanwhile, Syndergaard isn’t one who needs to be told about the importance of strong mechanics.

The book on his mechanics has generally been positive. As Christopher Crawford and Bret Sayre of Baseball Prospectus wrote upon his arrival in the majors in 2015: There isn’t much effort to his delivery, which allows him to repeat it on a consistent basis.”

Syndergaard’s mechanics could be evolving for the better. He’s raised his arm slot over time. That’s the opposite of the arm slot dips that preceded injuries to Richards, Harvey and Fernandez.

It sounds as if Syndergaard’s mechanics are now in even better shape. In addition to gaining strength over the winter, he told reporters he also “focused a lot on maintaining my flexibility.”

Matt Ehalt of detailed how the combination of strength and flexibility training made a difference:

Syndergaard’s new routine apparently has already paid dividends, as he said it did not feel awkward when he picked up a baseball for the first time this off-season, compared with previous years.

He normally would feel “a little funny” when he first started throwing and have to find his release point, but said that he’s already comfortable with his delivery heading into the first workout.

This shouldn’t be taken as a guarantee that Syndergaard will avoid injury in 2017. Concern over his well-being has always come hand in hand with excitement over his radar gun readings. That concern is rightfully heightened now that he wants to throw more and throw harder.

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