A superior work ethic and a fastball that touches 98 is a formidable combination for a young arm with a lot of promise. Yet baseball people say there is more to Syndergaard.
MANSFIELD, Tex., — Spend a day with Noah Syndergaard and you can’t help but come away thinking, above all else: he’s got a lot of Matt Harvey in him.
That’s high praise, obviously, and it remains to be seen if Syndergaard lives up to the expectations as the next big thing for the Mets, another highly touted pitching prospect expected to follow the lead of Harvey and Zack Wheeler.
Scouts went gaga over the 6-foot-6 righthander last season as he reached Double-A, but don’t forget, scouts loved Wheeler a lot more than they did Harvey in the minors, yet Harvey had that extra something special that translated to greatness at the highest level before his elbow gave out on him last year.
As one Mets official said on Tuesday, “That last step to the big leagues is the hardest to predict. A lot of times the intangibles make all the difference."
That’s not to say Wheeler also won’t improve dramatically in his first full season in the big leagues. But for now the perception is that Harvey set himself apart with his intensity and his fearlessness on the big stage.
Enter Syndergaard. He’s a friendly, 21-year-old who describes himself as being “goofy’’ off the field, yet he’s driven in ways that show up in his work in the weight room, where his friends worry that he pushes himself to the point of risking injury, and even in the way he embraces the huge expectations that await his arrival in the big leagues, likely in June or July of 2014.
“I wake up every day with the idea of giving it everything I’ve got,” he said on Tuesday at his old high school, after a morning of working out and then long-tossing.
“Why are you so driven?” I asked, and Syndergaard didn’t hesitate.
“I want to make it to the big leagues and pitch against the best,” he said. “Hopefully I can make it to the Hall of Fame someday. Win a couple of Cy Youngs. Win a couple of World Series rings for the Mets.”
Nope, the kid is not afraid to put himself out there, but don’t mistake it for boasting. Quite the contrary, Syndergaard comes off as very level-headed, even humble, and he’s quick to say he needs to “make big strides’’ in the coming months, especially with his changeup, just to be worthy of a big-league call-up sometime in 2014.
It’s just that he was raised as an only child here in Mansfield by his parents, Brad and Heidi, to expect the best from himself, starting in the classroom.
“If I made a ‘B’ in a class,” Syndergaard recalled, “I was pretty afraid to come home sometimes.”
As a result, he says, he was a straight-A student, and believes that expectation of maximizing his potential eventually carried over to sports.
“It’s all about never being satisfied,” he said.
Actually, Syndergaard says he probably wouldn’t be a pro ballplayer if his mother hadn’t pushed him to play baseball at age 7 and 8.
“I didn’t want to play the first year or the second year,” he recalled. “I remember arguing with her. Thank goodness she made me stick with it. Maybe she saw something in me.”
The surprise is that, growing up deep in the heart of Cowboys country, only a short drive from Dallas, Syndergaard dabbled only in football, the sport that practically is a religion in Texas.
Perhaps it’s because he said he was only an averaged-sized kid until late in high school, and got turned off to football playing in the seventh grade “against kids twice my size from football powerhouses at other schools.”
Just as well, he said, because he grew up rebelling against his family’s love of the Cowboys.
“I guess I was being a devil’s advocate,” Syndergaard said with a laugh. “But as a kid I hated the Cowboys. The only team I watched was the Rangers.”
By high school he played only baseball, yet no one thought of him as even a college prospect until he grew some 4-5 inches to 6-4 going into his senior year. That was about the same time he discovered the weight room.
“I got dedicated in the weight room and something just clicked,” he said. “I went from throwing 80 mph to 90 from my junior to senior year.”
Even friends couldn’t believe the transformation.
“I barely recognized him,” said Mike Smith, a pitcher who graduated two years ahead of Syndergaard at Mansfield Legacy High School and went on to get drafted by the Angels after attending Dallas-Baptist College. “For a long time he was just a regular-sized kid with some baby fat. He was the No. 2 pitcher on the freshman team.
“But then he grew and turned into something special. The size helps, but he also works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. To be naturally gifted but still put in the work is pretty fun to watch. It makes you root for him even more.”
I heard that a lot on Tuesday, talking to the people who know the Mets prospect well. His trainer, Ryan Mentzel, said Syndergaard squats 455 pounds and dead-lifts 512, numbers he says are rather stunning, even for someone who goes 6-6, 250.
“He’s really, really strong,” Mentzel said. “I mean, really strong. I work with a bunch of NFL guys and I’ll tell you, nobody works harder than Noah. Sometimes we get to the point where I have to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be careful at some point.’
“But I also don’t want to hold him back either. He’s just highly, highly motivated."
A superior work ethic and a fastball that touches 98 is a formidable combination. Yet baseball people say there is more to Syndergaard. His Double-A catcher last season, Blake Forsythe, raved about the kid’s willingness to ask questions between innings on ways to pitch to hitters, etc.
“He’s always looking for ways to get better,” Forsythe said.
And scouts say he has a natural feel for pitching, which may explain why Syndergaard references Greg Maddux when he talks about wanting to disrupt hitters’ timing by changing speeds, as well as go for the strikeout when needed.
“I’ll elevate the fastball when I’m ahead in the count to try and get the strikeout,” he said. “But if I’ve got a runner on first with less than two outs, I’ll throw a two-seamer down in the zone on the outer half trying to get a double-play ground ball.”
In short, he’s a student of pitching, but above all, Syndergaard seems to have that Harvey-like something about him. In fact, his eyes lit up talking about the Mets’ injured ace, in particular the night Harvey was so focused last season that he didn’t notice he had a bloody nose on the mound.
“He’s scary out there,” Syndergaard said admiringly. “He’s intimidating. That’s something I want to resemble.”
In a lot of ways he does already. But that last, huge step to the big stage still has to be taken.