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Seeing Noah Syndergaard's injury coming at 100 MPH

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets walks off of the field after an injury during the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on April 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) 700010605

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard #34 of the New York Mets walks off of the field after an injury during the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on April 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) 700010605

NEW YORK — Jim Kaat was young and Warren Spahn was old, and the kid wanted to learn from the master. He asked a coach to arrange a meeting, and for 20 minutes the ancient lefty told the green lefty about mechanics — how to use the torso to drive to the plate, and so on. The pitchers parted, and then Spahn turned back for a final word.

"Oh, kid, one more thing I meant to tell you," he told Kaat. "When the game's tied in the seventh inning, the game's just starting. You have to learn how to pitch Mickey Mantle differently in the ninth inning than you did in the first inning."

Kaat, who ultimately earned 283 victories in the majors, laughed as he recalled the anecdote by telephone Monday. "That would be so strange today," he said.

Kaat, 78, has stayed in baseball as an analyst for MLB Network. But the games he broadcasts are very different from the ones he played. Noah Syndergaard, the muscular right-hander for the New York Mets, has made 63 starts — including games in October — in an electrifying young career. He has not completed any, but he has achieved one goal.

For the second year in a row, Syndergaard throws a harder fastball than any other starter in baseball: 98.2 mph. Only now, he cannot pitch at all, because he tore his right latissimus muscle Sunday when he came out firing at 100 mph in Washington. Officially, he is on the 10-day disabled list. But the Mets acknowledged he will miss weeks, not days.

"It's really sad to see," Kaat said. "You get a guy like Syndergaard and so many other young pitchers — they're so much more talented and gifted than we were."

They know how to pitch, too. Half of Syndergaard's pitches this season have been sliders, curveballs and changeups. He has an impressive repertory and seems to enjoy the craft, not just brute force, of pitching, which makes his fixation on velocity such a shame.

Syndergaard bought so thoroughly into his Thor persona last winter that he should have just carried a hammer to spring training. He was jacked, unapologetically so. Why did the hardest-throwing starter in the majors — 98 mph last season, according to FanGraphs — need to bulk up and throw even harder?

"I want to set goals, not necessarily throw harder, but just make the game easier," he said this spring. "Just never become complacent and try to maintain anything, because once you start maintaining, you ultimately lose."

That rationale sounds fine on the surface, but it contradicts decades of examples of pitchers who lost a little of their youthful fastballs yet continued to dominate. Syndergaard wanted more, a goal that was noble, perhaps, but ultimately reckless. Smart pitching minds saw an injury coming.

Tom House, the former pitcher and coach who runs the National Pitching Academy in California, told Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record in February: "Unfortunately, this is an injury waiting to happen by the second week of June. Unless you're picking up a ball while you're getting stronger, you're just adding muscle that doesn't know how to throw. It's unskilled muscle."

Sure enough, Syndergaard had not thrown all winter, believing that consecutive seasons with around 200 innings were enough stress on his arm. And sure enough, an injury happened even before House expected.

"I hate being right about these kinds of things," House said by phone Monday, adding that he had almost called the Mets' team doctor, David Altchek, last week.

"But it's none of my business. I'm not with Syndergaard every day; I'm not part of the Mets' anything. I'm friends with Danny Warthen" — the Mets' pitching coach — "and I just figured, well, it's going to run its course. In retrospect, I should have probably called the doctor and just kind of told him what my fears were."

House, like Kaat, believes that developing pitchers should throw more, not less. The modern industry believes the opposite. Yet pitchers continue to break down.

"What happens in today's game is kids pitch too much, but they don't throw enough," House said. "That's the simplest way to explain it. They haven't created a broad enough throwing foundation to handle the pitching workloads.

"My brother and I wore out three garage doors throwing tennis balls against them. We lived at the beach. I bet you I threw a million sea rocks at sea gulls. Not very environmentally friendly, but we were throwing all the time."

Kaat worked under the renowned pitching coach Johnny Sain, who believed that pitchers should throw at least a little every day. Two of Sain's pitchers, Kaat and Tommy John, would go on to throw more than 4,500 innings apiece. No active pitcher has worked even 3,300 innings.

"The single most important exercise that I did during my career was throwing the baseball," Kaat said. "Whenever they would say, 'You sure you're not throwing too much?' I would say: 'Well, this is how I make my living. I'm just spinning the ball. I'm trying to figure out what makes it move, how can I make it do this and do that?' So my arm always stayed very flexible."

Syndergaard is only a product of today's culture, in which the radar gun too often dictates a pitcher's value. But he also seems to have held too much sway over his employers, refusing their request for a magnetic resonance imaging for his biceps discomfort last week — and getting away with it.

"The MRI was not dismissed out of hand simply because Noah said he wouldn't do it," general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters in Atlanta on Monday. "We evaluate whether it's important to do so in spite of his opposition. That was factored into the decision as well. From that standpoint, who's not to say that things couldn't have been done differently?"

Alderson insisted there was no connection between the lat injury and the biceps problem. But did Syndergaard overcompensate Sunday, trying to throw too hard to prove a point, and cause a new injury?

"Anything's possible," Alderson conceded.

All we know, really, is that Syndergaard made the radar gun sizzle on Sunday. At a carnival, he would have won the biggest stuffed animal at the booth. At the ballpark, he won a lengthy trip to the disabled list.

Seeing Noah Syndergaard's injury coming at 100 MPH 05/02/17 [Last modified: Monday, May 1, 2017 10:22pm]
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