Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Thor To The Dodgers: Can They Turn Him Into Comeback Player Of The Year?

Noah Syndergaard announcing his move to the Dodgers on Twitter. @NoahSyndergaard.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have been quiet this offseason, but they made an appealing move on Wednesday night, when it was announced that they signed Noah Syndergaard to a one-year, $13 million deal.

Syndergaard, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Mets, had an interesting 2022 season. He signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels, and in 15 starts with them, he went 5-8 with a 3.83 ERA, with just 64 strikeouts in 80 innings, before he was traded to the Phillies in late July. Thor found himself in Philadelphia, where he went 5-2 with a 4.12 ERA in 10 starts, as he helped them sneak into the playoffs in the final days of the season. He made three starts in the postseason, as they made it all the way to the World Series, in which he started Game 5, but lost to the Houston Astros' Justin Verlander (who's now a Met) on the way to Houston clinching the title in the next game.

The Dodgers have lost two starters in their rotation, journeyman left-handers Andrew Heaney and Tyler Anderson, who had the best seasons of their careers, so Syndergaard will be taking one of those vacated spots.

They are probably thinking, and rightly so, that if they can get that much out of two pitchers who had unremarkable careers, think how much they can do with Syndergaard, who has shown what he can do. Can a Comeback Player of the Year Award be on tap?

Syndergaard pitched for the Mets from 2015 to 2021, and mostly lived up to the hype in Flushing after they sent Cy Young Winner R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays for him in 2012. His debut season, in which he went 9-7 with a 3.24 ERA (earned run average), with 166 strikeouts in 150 innings in 124 starts, was marked by leading them to the 2015 World Series, and the legend of Thor was born when he opened Game 3 with some chin music against the Kansas City Royals' Alcides Escobar. The Mets went on to win that game, was the only game the Mets would win in that series.

The next year, Syndergaard went 14-9 with a 2.60 ERA, and he was an All-Star as the Mets made the postseason again. In the Wild Card game, he threw seven shutout innings, but he was outduelled by Madison Bumgarner, as the San Francisco Giants won, 3-0.

Injury issues hit in 2017, and he came back to be a 13-game winner in 2018 before taking a step back in 2019 when he went 10-8 with a 4.28 ERA. Syndergaard didn't pitch in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season and then made two relief appearances at the end of 2021 before he signed with the Angels last offseason.

Can the Dodgers build on what he did with Philadelphia? Last season's reclamation projects paid off big time, especially when injuries hit, as Heaney had a 3.10 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 72.2 innings, with a 4-4 record, in 14 starts; and Anderson went 15-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 178.2 innings.

Both were free agents this offseason, and Heaney signed a 2-year, $25 million contract with the Texas Rangers, and Anderson signed with the Angels, turning his stellar performance last season into a three-year, $39 million deal.

Last season, Heaney looked nothing like what he did struggling through the final two months of the 2021 season for the Yankees. He started his career with the Miami Marlins, and then pitched for the Angels from 2015 to last season. He never had a winning record in Anaheim, with his best records being 9-10 in 2019 and 8-9 in the first four months of the '21 season before he went 2-2 with the Yankees in five starts with a 7.32 ERA (earned run average).

Before Anderson's renaissance, he could best be described as a journeyman, as he pitched in Colorado (2016-19), San Francisco in 2020, and both Pittsburgh and Seattle in 2021 before joining the Dodgers. His only winning record came in the pandemic 2020 season, when he went 4-3 with a 4.37 ERA. That was his only winning record, with the closest he came in a full season being his rookie year, 2016, in Colorado, when he went 5-6 with a 3.54 ERA.

How is this possible? How do the Dodgers make aces out of castaways?

Last August, in a pregame press conference before they took on the Dodgers, Mets Manager Buck Showalter was asked what their secret is, and he said, "One of the things that, uh, you know, certain assets that some teams have over others is that you are able to identify those guys. Yankees identified Heaney as looking for that same thing, but they're able to send them to this place where there's no time restraints and they say, 'this is what you do real well,' like you know, they shorten up his breaking ball, shorten up his stride, I mean, we see the short of things they did, get into a consistent place where you can play the high-ride fastball.

"They're able to take these guys and not try to teach them in the big leagues right away. They send them to, whatever you want to call it, a lab, you know, and they're not the only ones, but they've had a great return for it. They're looking at the same information everybody else is, you know, when you see a guy on waivers, you look at certain things and you say, 'maybe we can help this guy if we can get him to do this more.'  What you find a lot, though, is they already knew what you think you know. The ability to take it and slow it down and say, 'okay, we're going to give you one side session doing this and we show you all this video, now go pitch,' no, they're able to slow down the process for all these guys, sometimes it's a spring training with an Anderson, you know. 

"I would ask the question what happened to Heaney from the time they acquired him to what he's doing now. What did they do with him? I know what they did with him, so you know, some of the things they're able to do, you know, financially - one of the biggest things that they do well is their depth. They have great depth because they're able to acquire these guys and take their time, taking advantage of some of the things they can do that they may not realize. They realize it, it's just how do you get to it. How do you get to that pitch? There's a pitch that has great spin up in the zone, there's a slider that if you would do this to it, it would be a lot more effective; got to slow down the process to get to an endgame."

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