Noah Syndergaard glanced down, touched the tips of his index fingers together, then sighed as he recalled his frustrations with last season.
“It just kind of felt like a Chinese handcuff,” the newest Dodgers pitcher said, referring to woven bamboo finger traps that tighten as you try to pull away.
“The more I struggled,” he continued, “the harder it was to get out of it.”
There was a time Syndergaard made pitching look easy, when the flame-throwing All-Star dominated on the mound with a steely disposition and seemingly infinite well of ability.
In 2015, he helped the Mets reach the World Series as a Rookie of the Year contender. The following season, he earned votes for the Cy Young and MVP awards.
With Freddie Freeman a year more comfortable, the Dodgers are hoping he can take on a leadership role this season while staying consistent on the field.
His overpowering stuff put him on the short list as one of baseball’s best — or at the very least, nastiest — pitchers alongside Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, the only major league starters who bettered Syndergaard’s 2.93 ERA from 2015 to 2018.
And though he was only in his early 20s, Syndergaard thrived on the plaudits and pressure alike.
“I always want to raise the bar,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2017.
Since then, however, Syndergaard has been struggling to get his career back off the ground.
A torn right lat muscle cost him most of 2017. A strong return in 2018 was followed by his worst full big league campaign a year later, when he posted a career-worst 4.28 ERA.
Another blow came during spring training in 2020, when Syndergaard began feeling elbow discomfort that ultimately led to Tommy John surgery, keeping him sidelined almost all of the next two seasons.
The frustration peaked last year, with what Syndergaard felt to be an unsatisfying — though hardly unproductive — return to the mound in which he posted a 10-10 record, 3.94 ERA and aided another World Series run with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“I’m definitely not trying to be just like a serviceable No. 4 or 5 starter,” Syndergaard said, his soft, understated tone belying his towering, 6-foot-6 frame. “I want to get back to where I used to be.”
That’s what drew the Dodgers to the 30-year-old free agent this offseason: That his numbers weren’t that bad, that flashes of greatness still appeared, but that he seemed disheartened at his performance anyway, motivated for more entering his second year back from the Tommy John procedure.
“It’s one of those things where, he’s a little bit a victim of his own greatness,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said. “There’s a lot of things we’re excited about … I feel like it’s gonna be a big impact Noah is gonna bring.”
Who do you want to be?
That’s the question Syndergaard has been trying to answer, with the help of his new coaches with the Dodgers, since he signed a one-year, $13-million deal this winter.
The contract, which includes another $1.5 million in potential bonuses for innings pitched, was less lucrative than some offers Syndergaard fielded from other teams. The right-hander, however, believed the Dodgers had “the best coaching baseball has to offer.”
“I have a lot of confidence,” he added, “they can get me back to where I want to be.”
First, Syndergaard has to figure out exactly what that means.
With the Angels and Phillies last season, the seven-year veteran never felt completely comfortable with his mechanics or delivery. He navigated some starts successfully, completing six innings or more in 11 of 25 appearances, but also suffered clunkers more often than he liked.
His once-98 mph fastball also sat at just above 94 mph on average, and the rest of his arsenal failed to induce as much swing and miss as it did pre-surgery, with his strikeout rate dropping nearly 10%.
“I’m definitely not trying to be just like a serviceable No. 4 or 5 starter. “I want to get back to where I used to be.”
— Dodgers pitcher Noah Syndergaard
“I started regressing instead of getting better,” Syndergaard said. “Everyone’s like, ‘I guarantee you’ll be back to 96, 98 [mph] come July.’ It wasn’t really happening.”
The longer it went on, the more Syndergaard got in his own head. At times, he became preoccupied with his mechanics during games instead of simply executing pitches.
“I went down a rabbit hole of trying to improve some things as opposed to just chalking it up to … having gotten surgery,” Syndergaard said, adding: “I was trying to get better. It kind of backfired on me.”
And yet, shortly after his Dodgers signing in December, Syndergaard made headlines with a bold proclamation.
“I see no excuse as to why I can’t get back to 100 mph,” he told reporters during an introductory video conference. “And even farther than that.”
It’s a lofty goal, but one the Dodgers don’t believe is far beyond the realm of possibility.
“There’s going to be a marked increase in velocity,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Hernández: A Red Sox employee was suspended for sign-stealing role. Now he works for the Dodgers
J.T. Watkins, a video coordinator suspended by MLB for his part in the Red Sox sign-stealing scandal, will help the Dodgers form game plans for hitting.
“I do think there’s more velo,” pitching coach Mark Prior added. “Is it 100? I don’t know … But is it 96, 97? Maybe. Time will tell.”
Every time Syndergaard’s triple-digit target was mentioned to team officials this week, it was met with another important caveat regarding his performance in 2023:
As much as they want to see Syndergaard light up radar guns again, it’s not an absolute necessity. After seeing Syndergaard work around his decreased fastball speeds last season, they think there is a new, dominant hybrid style on the mound he might be able to achieve.
Gomes expects “the nights that [his fastball velocity] is on the upper end, it’s gonna be really hard to square him up.”
“I think it will take just one pitch, one feeling that I’m back, and then I’ll be good.”
— Dodgers pitcher Noah Syndergaard
But, the general manager also noted, “the beauty of Noah is, no starter has their best stuff every time they go out there, so he has multiple options to navigate a lineup.”
Prior sees things similarly.
“Velocity is important, velocity plays,” Prior said. “But I think his stuff and his movement and his ability to be down in the strike zone and do different things, I think he pitches extremely well with just that too.”
That’s how Syndergaard got by last season.
He pounded the zone at a career-high rate. He limited hard contact at one of the majors’ better clips. And he leaned more heavily on his offspeed and breaking pitches than ever before.
It added up to decent overall production, including a 103 mark in ERA+ (an advanced metric in which 100 is considered league average) over 134 2/3 healthy innings.
“It was a good season,” Prior said.
Just not in the way Sydnergaard hoped it would be.
“I was surviving last year,” Syndergaard said. “I wouldn’t dominate.”
As he looked back on his 2022 season, Syndergaard chuckled while explaining one of his other big lessons.
“It’s just like, pitching sucks,” he said. “In the sense that, if you look at basketball, soccer, hockey, even hitting to a certain degree, you can go out there and hit and play all day and get better. With pitching, you only have a certain number of bullets.”
Translation: It takes time, and patience, to enact changes on the mound.
That’s why, after signing with the Dodgers, Syndergaard went about an offseason revamp.
He focused on rebuilding muscle mass, and followed a strict diet that included, among other things, grass-fed meats, Joolies dates and raw water buffalo milk he said he could only find in Amish stores.
He made one winter training trip to Tread Athletics in North Carolina, then another to Driveline Baseball in Arizona, before spending the rest of the winter at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch facility, working hands-on with their coaches over the last several months.
“Love the curiosity and compete,” Gomes said. “The drive to get better everyday.”
It has all helped Sydnergaard make quick strides this spring.
His fastball reached 94 mph in his first outing against live hitting last Saturday, according to Roberts, already eclipsing his average mark from last season.
Prior thinks Syndergaard’s mechanics are a little cleaner, too, featuring a bigger counter-turn in his leg lift — a callback to his Mets days — and a more closed-off landing position to better leverage the baseball and keep his release directed toward the plate.
“I don’t know if you can tell to the eye,” Roberts said. “But it’s a big change.”
While there’s still much work to do — Syndergaard said he “still didn’t feel great mechanically” in Saturday’s outing — Syndergaard has identified some early positives in camp.
He’s been pleased with his command and pitch mix. More importantly, he has found a fluidity and rhythm that he lacked last year, a specific feel he’s hoping to further cultivate heading into the regular season.
“I think it will take just one pitch, one feeling that I’m back,” he said, “and then I’ll be good.”
Of course, being “back” might not mean what it used to, as Syndergaard and the Dodgers try to recapture his old effectiveness but in a new (and perhaps even more well-rounded) way.
Mookie Betts, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux and Chris Taylor are among the Dodgers players who worked on their swings at Driveline Baseball during offseason.
“If he takes what he has right now and even what he had last year, I think he can go out there [and pitch well],” Prior said. “I told him, ‘It’ll be a fun year,’ because I think he does a lot of things.”
Indeed, it’s a balance the pitcher and his new team will have to strike over the course of the year, doing their best to maximize Syndergaard’s velocity and raw skill set, while also ensuring it isn’t the only thing dictating his success.
He learned last season the dangers of trying too hard to pitch like his old self.
And to free his career from its own kind of finger trap, he’s opening himself up to the new changes he and the Dodgers are trying to make.
“We’ve got a great trust with Noah already,” Roberts said. “And I just don’t see how he’s not gonna be that dominant guy that he once was, this year for us.”
Are you a true-blue fan?
Get our Dodgers Dugout newsletter for insights, news and much more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.