Noah Syndergaard and the Problems of Piggybacking
By Kyle Matte
A couple of weeks ago, in the sixth edition of the Blue Jays prospect hot sheet, I mentioned that one of the Lansing pitching pairs had developed some alarming splits. That duo is, of course, Noah Syndergaard and Anthony DeSclafani. The two right handers have been pitching in tandem -– or piggybacking as it’s come to be known -– with both appearing in the same games every five days, alternating who starts the outing.
The alarming splits I mentioned were the pitcher’s respective starter versus reliever numbers, and they’ve only become worse since I wrote that article. Including his most recent game on June 8th, Syndergaard has produced like the elite pitching prospect he is while starting, with a 0.79 ERA and 0.84 WHIP. When coming out of the bullpen, however, he has pitched like an on-the-verge-of-release non-prospect, with a 9.00 ERA and 2.06 WHIP. The reverse is true with his partner Anthony DeSclafani, and all of the astonishing numbers can be viewed in the table below.
I had been monitoring these splits for some time, but given the sample size and the fact I haven’t been able to actually see the pitchers in person, I decided to hold back on writing the article. This changed last week, when Curt Rallo released a feature piece about Noah Syndergaard on MiLB.com. Hidden in the final paragraph were a couple of quotes that drew my attention and confirmed my suspicions.
"It’s kind of frustrating, but at the same time, I know there’s a goal, there’s a plan that the Blue Jays have for me,” Syndergaard said of alternating starts and relief outings. “I’m OK with it, but I definitely feel more comfortable starting. I still haven’t figured out the relieving role. It would be a lot easier to acclimate to my routine if I was a starter every five days. The first few relief appearances, it was tough to get my arm loose, but I feel that I have a set routine going and get my arm loose."
It makes sense, when you really think about it. Noah Syndergaard is a very large man that stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200-plus pounds. He’s been a starter for his entire pitching career, and it probably takes a while for him to get that big body loose. When working in relief, you warm up with the rest of your team during pregame, but then sit around for an hour or two before it’s your turn to come in and pitch, at which point you have five to ten minutes to get yourself ready. The starting pitcher has a vastly different routine, as over the course of nearly an hour he’ll stretch, play catch, long toss, throw in the bullpen, and then finally warm up on the mound.
I asked Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the Lugnuts primary radio announcer, whether he saw any noticeable differences, velocity or otherwise, when Syndergaard was starting versus relieving. He didn’t believe there were any velocity variations, but noted that Syndergaard often appeared off rhythm during his relief appearances. Jesse described how he would be breezing through the outing, but once he got in trouble, things would pile up, making him very susceptible to big innings. From my perspective, that sounds like someone who can’t find a good feel for their pitches.
As I mentioned earlier, the reverse is true for Syndergaard’s partner, 2011 draft pick Anthony DeSclafani. With the University of Florida, DeSclafani pitched almost exclusively in relief over his sophomore and junior seasons, totaling 39 relief appearances against only eight starts. His fastball/slider combination is much more suited to the bullpen, and with the seemingly endless amount of starting pitching depth ahead of him, one has to seriously doubt DeSclafani’s future is long for the rotation.
So we have two pitchers –- one a long-term starter, the other a long-term reliever -– both of whom are struggling in their opposite roles. At what point does the Blue Jays front office put the kibosh on this experiment? I have little doubt that they are aware of these shocking splits, likely even more so with Syndergaard’s recent comments. I do understand wanting to have DeSclafani throw starter innings, as it builds arm strength and allows him to develop his secondary pitches at an advanced rate. The question is, why not have Syndergaard start every turn, and have DeSclafani finish his games? Both would remain in the roles they find most comfortable, and both would receive the necessary innings to progress development. There’s a point at which simply ignoring a problem becomes negligence, and while I’m sure the Blue Jays have the absolute best intentions behind this arrangement, I’m beginning to wonder whether this “learning exercise” has become more of a problem than a solution.