LOS ANGELES –At the heart of Noah Syndergaard’s struggles in this 2019 season lies a problem that he does not have the answer to.
“I don’t know what happened to having one of the best sliders in the game,” Syndergaard told Yahoo Sports, “to now having zero confidence in throwing it.”
Without that deadly slider, which made hitters look silly all too often, Syndergaard, nicknamed Thor, has been rather mortal this year.
He entered Wednesday’s start against the Dodgers – a team that crushes righties – with a career-worst 4.93 ERA through 11 outings. He’s already surrendered more homers than he did all of last year, and has allowed more hits than innings pitched.
Syndergaard’s slider is slower and more hittable than ever, and he’s in turn used it less, reducing the amount of pitches batters have to account for.
“I mean, it has to (return),” Syndergaard. “It can’t just disappear.”
Syndergaard’s slow start has been one of the more puzzling aspects of the Mets’ inconsistent start since the righty has one of the game’s best since debut in 2015.
This year, though, batters seem almost a little too comfortable against him. He’s getting hit like he never has, and hasn’t looked the part of ace.
The righty has primarily relied on three pitches in his career – his high-octane fastball, an “artsy” sinker as he calls it, and his devastating slider.
This season, Syndergaard only has trust in his four-seamer and his sinker, and even the latter can be dangerous since it can move into too many bat paths.
The inflated ERA and his struggles are a reflection of that lack of a slider, and Syndergaard and the Mets coaching staff have been working daily on trying to rediscover it. Syndergaard doesn’t have a feel for it, and has backed away from it.
“It’s horrible right now,” Syndergaard said. “Needs improvement.”
From 2016-18, Syndergaard’s slider averaged an otherworldly 92-93 mph, and he threw it roughly 20 percent of the time, per BrooksBaseball.net.
It had a sharp bite —think almost like a cutter— that flummoxed hitters, and hitters were helpless trying to have their bats ready for such a sharp moving off-speed slider and an upper 90s fastball. You can’t sit on both pitches.
The 2019 slider is loopier, lacking that bite, and getting hit more often.
It averages 88.6 mph this season, and opponents are hitting .268 against it. They never hit higher than .203 off his slider in any previous year.
Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland feels Syndergaard is focused too much on the velocity, and that negative attention affects how he throws the pitch.
Eiland said Syndergaard often throws quality sliders in bullpen sessions, but it does not carry over into games.
“He’s infatuated because it’s not 95. It’s 88, 89. I don’t care how hard it is, I want shape of it and location of it. That’s the most important thing,” Eiland said Wednesday afternoon. “His thoughts on it are very negative. If you always have a negative thought on something, it’s not going to be very good.”
Without a feel for the pitch, and with opponents hitting it well, Syndergaard is now throwing it just 13.1 percent of the time, per BrooksBaseball.net.
He actually now uses his change-up more.
Mets manager Mickey Callaway, a former pitching coach with the Indians, described Syndergaard’s new slider as “bigger and slower.” There is a significant difference in the vertical movement compared to last year, per BrooksBaseball.net.
Callaway noted that the lack of a slider is hindering Syndergaard’s success.
“It’s played a big role,” Callaway said Tuesday. “When you have your best weapon taken away from you, your confidence can waver a little bit. He’s searching for that, he’s trying to get it back. He will eventually, but until then, you have to understand he has three other weapons that are pretty good in his curveball, his change-up and his fastball.”
Syndergaard attributes his troubles with his slider to an inability to find the right grip, which he has mentioned since the start of the season.
The slider is a “feel” pitch that requires all parts of the operation to be in sync for it to be effective. Right now, Syndergaard doesn’t have all the parts working together
There was some thought early that the cold weather played a factor, but even as the temperatures have risen, he can’t get the proper grip.
“He’s just not quite confident he understands what to do with it probably,” Callaway said. “He’d like to have his old one back. We’re working hard to get that one back.”
Syndergaard said that he used a certain grip in the past, and threw it like his fastball. He noted that grips can change over time, and he’s not even exactly sure what his old grip was other than the feel. Right now, he doesn’t have that feel.
When he tries to throw it like a fastball, as he did in the past, it “slips out of my hands.” A good slider needs to have a sharp break.
The lower velocity stems from that different grip, according to Callaway, since Syndergaard fingers are more on top of the ball.
“It feels like every ball I get that comes into play feels like it’s covered in baby power,” Syndergaard said. “If I felt I had some quality grip on the ball, maybe I’d have more confidence in throwing it. From the get go, the grip is not feeling comfortable. I don’t know if it’s the feeling of the baseball or what it may be.”
The lack of a slider has also hurt Syndergaard since opponents can prepare more for his sinker, a pitch he described as “hit or miss.”
When he feels his mechanics are in line, his sinker is “one of the most unhittable pitches in the game.” When he’s flying open, it’s “very hittable.”
The Mets want him to use that pitch since it can be so devastating, but hitters are batting .361 against it this year, per BrooksBaseball.net.
Batters are slashing .272/.315/.438/.752 against Syndergaard this year, a significant jump from the .244/.289/.365/.654 career line hitters have against him.
Take away a great pitch from any pitcher, and he’s more vulnerable.
“When you lose your best weapon, everything else gets exposed a little bit more. That probably has something to do with it,” Callaway said. “They don’t have to respect his slider as much, so they can kind of understand he’s not going to go to that as much and it leaves your other pitches susceptible. The lack of production in his sinker at this point is because his slider hasn’t been there and he needs to lean on change-ups and curveballs.”
Syndergaard remains confident that his slider will return, and he’ll get back to his old ways. He’s been too good for too long to suddenly have an ERA near 5.00.
He’ll keep working with Eiland to find the right grip, and, until it returns, try to see the positives in having to build up his other offering.
“I’m optimistic. It’s forcing me to use my other stuff and developing that to be even better quality pitches. I’m starting to get a lot more trust than I had before in my change-up and my curveball is developing into a better pitch than it was better previously,” Syndergaard said. “Once that slider clicks, I’m still going to be patient with it, if it doesn’t come around my next start, still optimistic in having the results with what I’m getting now.”