New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard is having Tommy John surgery on Thursday. This news obviously comes as a massive disappointment to Syndergaard, the Mets, and their fans; the big right-hander had experienced discomfort shortly before spring training was suspended, and over the past three weeks he’s been observed and evaluated to determine the severity of the injury. So while Tommy John was always a possibility, Syndergaard and those invested in his success had hoped that this was not a torn UCL, but rather a little temporary Thor-ness.
Just like Chris Sale and Luis Severino before him, Syndergaard will miss all of the 2020 season—if there is one—and could miss most of 2021 as well, depending on how his recovery goes. The Mets, who were expected to contend for a playoff spot on the strength of their starting rotation, are now out a crucial cog.
After losing not only Syndergaard but free agent Zack Wheeler, the Mets are now trotting out a rotation headlined by Jacob deGrom—the best pitcher in the National League—and Marcus Stroman, which is a good start. But after that comes Rick Porcello, Steven Matz, and likely Michael Wacha: three recognizable names who are perpetually one aggressive handshake from either a 5.00 ERA or a three-month trip to the IL.
(The timing and location of the procedure raise questions as to how Syndergaard is getting surgery in Florida just days after Governor Ron DeSantis—who otherwise has reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic with the tardiness of an overmatched batter chasing Syndergaard’s fastball—ordered nonessential surgeries to be postponed in order to free up hospital resources.)
If Syndergaard’s recovery stretches to the long end of the standard 12- to 18-month time frame, he’ll return somewhere near his 29th birthday, in August 2021. By that time, depending on how the pandemic-shortened schedule affects MLB service time, he could be merely a month from free agency and close to halfway through his MLB career. That’s an astonishing thing to ponder, considering how quickly Syndergaard found his footing at the big league level. When he arrived in New York in May 2015, he fit in seamlessly behind deGrom and Matt Harvey in the Mets’ pennant-winning rotation. The young Syndergaard was like an oil platform: gigantic, Texas-made, belching fire, and pumping gas. In his second big league season, Syndergaard made 30 starts, led MLB with a 2.29 FIP, and made the All-Star team.
Given his physique, fastball velocity, command, and multi-pitch arsenal, he looked like a surefire future Cy Young winner. In terms of repertoire and body type, he was then what Gerrit Cole has become now. In March 2017, I went around the Cactus League asking various big leaguers their thoughts on what made an ace, and who the best pitcher in baseball was—after Clayton Kershaw, of course. Max Scherzer’s name came up most frequently, but Syndergaard was not far behind, with the expectation that he’d pass Scherzer (and perhaps even Kershaw) sooner rather than later.
A few weeks after, Syndergaard came down with what he and the Mets thought was biceps tendinitis, but the big Texan refused to get an MRI. One start later, he left the field with a torn lat muscle that effectively ended his season; his final two starts of the year, in September and October, totaled 10 batters faced. And he hasn’t really been the same since.
Syndergaard was still the hardest-throwing starting pitcher (minimum 150 innings) in both 2018 and 2019, but his results have been somewhat lackluster. And while leaguewide strikeout rates have gone through the roof, Syndergaard’s K% has fallen off by about 5 percentage points from his career highs. Cole struck out almost 40 percent of opponents in 2019; Syndergaard came in at 24.5 percent, 23rd among qualified starters and a tick below Braves lefty Max Fried. Last year, the only category Syndergaard led the National League in was earned runs allowed.
The traditional stats were probably a little unkind to Syndergaard in 2019—Baseball Prospectus’s ERA estimator, DRA, indicates that Syndergaard’s ERA was about 0.9 of a run higher than it should have been, given his actual performance. But even so, that was 19th among qualified starters. Back in the 2016-17 offseason, the consensus expectation for Syndergaard was that he’d be one of the five best pitchers in the game by now, if not better. Now he’s around the back half of the top 20 starting pitchers who managed to stay healthy all year—and it’s not out of line to wonder what the hell happened.
It’s hard to imagine that the long layoff won’t help Syndergaard straighten things out, and if he recovers on anything resembling a normal timeline, he’ll come back in 2021 or 2022 with his physical gifts essentially undiminished. But the Hall of Fame ceiling he presented as a rookie is almost certainly gone. If he returns in mid-2021, he’ll finish his 20s with no more than 17 career bWAR. In the past 65 years, only one starter with fewer career bWAR in his 20s has gone on to make the Hall of Fame: Randy Johnson, who after he turned 30 was just about the best pitcher ever. At the peak of Syndergaard hype, “just about the best pitcher ever” seemed like a fairly likely outcome. The merely good pitcher who’s going under the knife this week was much harder to imagine.