PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A pitcher is raised anymore on the notion of fear.
Do not strain. Do not risk. Do not tire. Do not finish. Do not make stuff up as you go. Definitely do not hit. Or run. Try not to cook. Uber to work. Stick to the schedule. Only bad can happen.
So, in the process of saving themselves for the game against the extraterrestrials that may never come, or for the contract that appears to be getting tougher to come by, and living amid the paralyzing anxiety of pitching coaches and field managers and general managers and agents, and dragging that little band of elbow ligament through it all, suddenly, maybe, they’re looking back on the better part of a career. It’s not entirely their faults.
Greater minds have attempted to unravel the mystery and perfect the craft and science of the hard-as-you-can overhand throw, and in their spare time they hold the hands of their pitchers, post-surgery. That the process of getting a pitcher on the field and throwing hard and without pain and for any significant amount of time is delicate and only half of it. The other half nobody can really say, other than throwing less is definitely the answer. Unless it’s throwing more.
It’s difficult not to think of these things when watching the New York Mets, when considering a rotation that introduces itself with Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, that charms you with Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler, that, granted, comes with a bit of a blurred reputation. On brighter days, after all, we’d been standing today -- hands on hips, shoulders back, satisfied expression -- in the first season of Matt Harvey’s multi-year, nine-figure contract extension. Instead, he has a 10.38 ERA in two spring starts for the Los Angeles Angels.
Of the four who remain, there have been two seasons of at least 200 innings -- both by deGrom, both in the past two seasons. The rest is pockets of distinction, moments of breakout, wisps of brilliance, faraway visions of four horses leading New York’s baseball understudy to sustained greatness. Even competence.
Syndergaard pitched Wednesday afternoon against a somewhat representative Houston Astros lineup. In 5 ⅔ innings he gave up two hits and struck out five. He, in the middle of March and with two exhibition starts remaining, pitched with his fastball at 96 and 97 mph, touched 98, and was exceedingly forceful.
It was beautiful, in that hair-in-the-wind, rosy spring way, the way deGrom threw in about every one of his 32 starts last season, the way Syndergaard has on cool October nights, the way Matz and Wheeler have and can, and then it seems something gets fouled up, because, you know, pitching. And baseball. And Mets.
The National League East is a buzzsaw. The way the Mets stay in it, even win it, is that one summer -- kind of like ‘15 -- when instead of it all falling apart it comes together. By the end of May, Wheeler will be 29 and Matz will be 28. Wheeler was as effective as deGrom in the second half of ‘18, when deGrom was better than anyone. DeGrom could leave at the end of summer. Syndergaard had a choppy year, health-wise, and twice in September threw complete games, including in his final start. They were the first two complete games of his career.
“I think the milestone for me individually is to just get to 200 innings,” Syndergaard said Wednesday afternoon. “I feel like that’s the norm for pitchers nowadays. I think I can speak on behalf of the five starting pitchers that are here that every time we grab the rock we want to go out there and throw nine innings every time.”
Everybody says that. And last year 13 pitchers threw 200 innings. Each of the two years before, 15 pitchers got there. You could argue most starters aren’t allowed to go deep enough into games to amass 200 innings. Bullpen arms are fresher. Lineups become dialed in. Starters are saved for, you know, tomorrow, until they’re not, until they prove otherwise, mostly to themselves.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said. “You see Jacob deGrom hit that 200-inning plateau, the next year he wins the Cy Young. I saw it with Corey Kluber. He hit the 200-inning plateau, he starts to win a Cy Young and then all of a sudden he gets things rolling, he knows what to expect, he understands he’s gotta attack every hitter with, just, disregard. And go after ‘em at all times, in order to maximize the innings he’s going to pitch.
“I think Steven Matz is in a spot this year where he made 30 starts, it’s kind of like that 200-inning plateau for some guys, that gets him over the hump to be an even better pitcher and give him confidence going into the season. If Noah Syndergaard stays healthy and he makes 32 starts he’s going to throw 200 innings because he’s going to be effective. He’s been a top-five pitcher whenever he’s been healthy and pitched. Wheeler, if he stays healthy and makes 32 to 34 starts, he’s gonna throw 200 innings this year.”
So on a hazy day with the wind blowing in what felt important was Syndergaard puffing up and owning the afternoon. The slider nobody can hit. The curveball that finished Alex Bregman. The fastball, of course. And the notion, for a moment, there is nothing to fear. It’s what spring is for, after all. To believe that all things are possible, that it all goes right, that the Mets are about to pitch themselves back into relevance.
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