Noah Syndergaard and the Perils of Max Effort Pitching

Houston Astros v New York Mets
Houston Astros v New York Mets / Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Noah Syndergaard's recovery from Tommy John surgery hit a major roadblock this week, as the New York Met shut him down for at least six weeks. In baseball's new world of high velocities and max effort on every pitch, the 28-year-old ace's struggles are a cautionary tale.

Syndergaard was pulled early from his second rehab start due to elbow discomfort. An MRI revealed inflammation, which is why he was shut down by the franchise. He may get better and wind up returning to Queens this year, but no one should be counting on that right now.

Syndergaard could be the poster child for the max effort era. His fastball was one of the hardest in Major League Baseball and he always wanted more. After his average fastball velocity was 97.7 mph as a rookie in 2015, he worked to add muscle because he wanted to top 100 mph more regularly. It might have been the worst thing for him.

While his average fastball velocity jumped to 98.7 in 2016 -- and was 98.6 in 2017 -- Syndergaard only made 32 starts in 2017 and 2018 combined. In 2019 he pitched a full season again and his fastball velocity was at 97.7. Despite that velocity, he wasn't the same guy. His ERA ballooned to 4.29 (up from 2.60 in 2016) and his FIP went to 3.60 from 2.29 in 2016. Something was wrong.

Syndergaard had incredible stuff but he started to injure himself. A torn lat cost him much of the 2017 season and in 2020 he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. It was probably bound to happen sooner or later. Blown elbows are the rule in MLB nowadays not the exception. The high-velocity revolution has revealed a simple truth: most human bodies can't deal with the stress of throwing in the upper-90s or hitting triple digits for long.

Tons of studies have been done on this and even more articles have been written about it. Pitchers used to keep some velocity in the tank and "reach back for it" when needed in a key at bat or with two strikes. That mentality is gone in baseball now. Max effort on every pitch is the norm and careers are being shortened as a result.

Rick Peterson is Syndergaard's former pitching coach with the Mets and he believers his former pupil could be a great pitcher if he sat at 95 mph. And he also thinks it would lengthen his career. Peterson claimed tendons can only move so fast, with so much force before something gives. He's studied with Dr. James Anders on the relationship between biomechanics and pitching deliveries. Here's how he explained it:

"Here's the best way I can explain it, if you're driving your car and you put your foot on the brake really hard and your call pulls to the right, meaning your front end is out of alignment, you can keep driving your car but you're not getting 40,000 miles out of that front tread. 

"That's what happens when you're late getting your foot down. And every time you're at max effort, you're at risk of being late, meaning your arm is in improper position at foot contact. It's not something you can see with the naked eye, because the arm accelerates so fast, but if you look at in slow motion and you do a biomechanical evaluation every year, you can see when you're wearing out the tread."

That's about the best summation of the problem I've heard. Players are so concerned with velocity they're losing sight of mechanics and getting hurt as a result. Syndergaard is just the latest.

So why write this about Syndergaard when dozens of pitchers have gone down with elbow injuries over the last year? Because he was so much damn fun to watch pitch. It's a shame to see him struggle. He's still on the right side of 30 and at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds he could easily bring heat without going all effort. I am really rooting for him to figure it out.

Hopefully this rash of injuries hitting MLB pitching staffs starts to change the prevailing philosophy around the league.