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A common saying in casinos and household card games is the idea of the “trump card,” which could be the difference between a person bringing home all the dough or nothing at all.
This surprise-turned-advantage helps individuals gain the upper-hand in card games, sure, but it can also apply to other competitions, with baseball and Major League Baseball being no exception to the rule.
For MLB teams on the playoff fringe, vying for a Wild Card spot when division title aspirations are far-fetched is the magical spot to shoot for. To get one of those valuable spots, a trump card will be needed. For the Arizona Diamondbacks, it is Madison Bumgarner. For the Texas Rangers, it is Corey Kluber. For the Los Angeles Angels, it is Mike Trout.
For the New York Mets, it is Noah Syndergaard.
Well, not is, but was.
This past Tuesday, the Mets announced Syndergaard had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and that it would require Tommy John surgery. The surgery would put “Thor” in exile for at least a year, with a best-case scenario return slate of mid-June in 2021.
What makes this injury so tough for Mets fans, who yearn for another World Series berth since having a taste of it in 2015? What makes Syndergaard that trump card that will be so desperately missed? What makes this injury a devastating blow the Mets playoff hopes this season, assuming baseball is played?
Let’s look at what the Mets have in their starting pitching rotation first. Their ace is Jacob deGrom, who over the past two seasons has not only led all of baseball in ERA (2.05 in 64 starts) but also won two straight National League Cy Young Awards.
Next is Marcus Stroman, who after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays last summer pitched to a 3.77 ERA with New York in 11 starts (including a 2.91 ERA in six starts in September).
Then you have Steven Matz, who slots in as mid-rotation guy on his best day and a back-end innings soaker on his average day. Over the last two seasons, Matz has pitched to a 4.09 ERA through 62 games (60 starts) and averaged around five innings per game started in that span. Not elite, but adequate in a back-end role.
The Mets also have not one, but two lottery ticket pitchers in Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, who both bring experience in pitching in big moments with two postseason-regular teams in the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, with the former in Porcello pitching to a 3.52 ERA during Boston’s steamroll path toward a fourth World Series title in 2018.
Then you have Syndergaard, who potentially has more upside than any of the starters listed combined. Through the 2015-2016 seasons as a 22-23-year-old, Syndergaard pitched to a 2.89 ERA in 55 games (54 GS). Additionally, Syndergaard had a .80 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9 and was striking out over 10 batters per nine innings pitched (10.4). During those two years his fastball usage (via the four-seamer and sinker) was 60.4%. That heavy usage, though, was warranted; his average fastball velocity within that two-year span was 97.3, tops in the majors.
During the 2017-2018 seasons, however, injury issues plagued Syndergaard to where his production dipped slightly, starting only 32 games combined. The results in those games were still productive (3.02 ERA, .40 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 9.2 K/9), but the durability was not. Within that span, his electric fastball usage went down, with the pitch usage dropping to 52.4% in that span.
Then you have last year, where the durability was back and better than ever, but the production dipped. In 32 games (32 GS), Syndergaard pitched to a 4.28 ERA, and while his strikeout and walk numbers were still phenomenal (9.2 K/9 and 2.30 BB/9), his homerun numbers spiked (1.1 HR/9). However, his games started, and innings pitched were both career-highs (32 GS and 197.2 IP). Additionally, his fastball usage shot back up, with the right-hander throwing fastballs 59.1% of the time. His fastball velocity of 97.7 was first in the majors as well.
Syndergaard’s production and durability have been solid, but not at the same time over the past three years. His upside, though, as shown through his first two seasons in the big leagues, was astronomical.
But what made him a trump card for the Mets this season? He was finally putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together. As a 27-year-old, Syndergaard was entering his prime years of playing. After putting together a durable season last year, the starter was looking to continue that durability but put together better numbers within those innings pitched. After going back to a heavy dosage of fastballs last season, Syndergaard was realizing what makes him electric on the mound.
If Syndergaard was going to pitch this year, he would have potentially combined the durability and electricity and pitched his way into a starting role behind deGrom or, in a better scenario, pitched his way ahead of him as a new legitimate ace.
While it is true the Mets will still be decent from a starting pitching standpoint without Syndergaard, they will not be as dynamic, elite or deep. Instead, they will have to find another way to put themselves above other Wild Card hopefuls. Perhaps Jeff McNeil will win a batting title, or deGrom will three-peat as NL Cy Young winner in as many years. Maybe 37-year-old Robinson Cano will have one final hurrah with the bat. Maybe Edwin Diaz will regain the explosiveness at closer that garnered the Mets to trade for him in the first place.
Regardless, though, the Mets will have to hit the casino without that trump card in Syndergaard.