So if you're 6-foot-6 and throw 100 mph with a 92-mph slider and a changeup that's unfair and sometimes a slow curveball when you really want to be a cruel, how do you get better? If you're the New York Mets' Noah Syndergaard, you work on improving your two-seam fastball to add another dimension to your game. During Sunday night's 5-2 victory over the Marlins, we saw evidence that Syndergaard is a good bet to raise his game to another level -- and this from a pitcher who had a 2.60 ERA last season.
It seems odd to say for a guy who throws as hard as Syndergaard, but there is actually room for his fastball to become more dominant. Last season, batters hit .283/.327/.411 against his fastball; his wOBA allowed on the fastball ranked 25th out of 74 qualified starters. Of course, no pitch exists in isolation, and his fastball helps set up the offspeed stuff that is so unhittable. Still, his swing-and-miss rate on his fastball in 2016 was a somewhat pedestrian 19.0 percent; that's a few percentage points above league average, but below guys like Mike Fiers and J.A Happ, who show deception and location are just as important as velocity.
During Sunday's broadcast, Syndergaard showed how he has a couple different grips on his two-seamer, one where the ball rides in on right-handed batters and one with the more traditional downward sink. The early returns indicate he's throwing more two-seamers and fewer four-seamers, although it hasn't created better results through two starts, as his swing-and-miss rate on all fastballs is 17 percent and batters are hitting .357 (a very small sample of 5-for-14).
Still, I like the approach, since batters won't be able to sit as much on a four-seamer up in the zone. The slider remains as dominant as ever (batters are 0-for-14 against it), so they're still going to try to jump on a fastball early in the count if possible. That's where more fastball variety and location can help turn a great pitcher into a Cy Young winner.
Syndergaard got off to a terrific start last season as well, when he had a 1.91 ERA through June 15. So the second part of his step to a Cy Young season is keeping this going for six months. Two starts down, another 28 or 29 to go.
Other takes from the weekend as we wrap up the first week with four teams in first place that finished in last place or within a game thereof in 2016 (Diamondbacks, Twins, Reds, Rays) ...
Worst loss of the season or best win of the season, depending on your team of choice: No, I'm not exaggerating. You can pretty much bank on this one. Since 2011, teams leading by six or more runs in the ninth inning had gone 2,529-1. Make it two losses as the Angels rallied for seven runs to stun the Mariners with a 10-9 victory, dropping the first week's most disappointing team to 1-6 before they've even played a home game (boy, that's a good way to ruin ticket sales). Albert Pujols started the inning with a home run off Casey Fien and tied the game with a two-run, two-out single off Edwin Diaz. Cliff Pennington followed with the winning hit off the wall in right field.
Should the Mariners be concerned? Rule No. 1 of opening week: Don't panic. Rule No. 2: See Rule No. 1. On the other hand, who is more likely to have a 1-6 week? A good team or a bad team? The Mariners haven't hit, with just 22 runs in seven games even with that nine-spot Sunday. The bigger concern might be a bullpen that is, um, a work in progress (Diaz gave up a couple cheap hits, but also walked a couple guys). Is this a bad time to point out that Mariners haven't had consecutive winning seasons since 2002-03? OK, I'll point this out: The Cubs had a 1-6 stretch from June 20-26 last year, soon followed by a 1-9 stretch from June 30-July 9. So don't overreact! And as my colleague Jim Caple reminded me, the 1991 Twins started 2-9 and went on to win the World Series. Still, it was a horrible loss to end a horrible week (but a great win and a great week for the Angels!).
New blood in the National League West? The Diamondbacks had the best opening week of any team, going 6-1 against the Giants and Indians while hitting over .300 and averaging nearly seven runs per game, impressive considering the Giants and Indians are supposed to have good staffs. The Rockies went 5-2, including taking two of three against the Dodgers. They hit three home runs off Clayton Kershaw on Saturday, including back-to-back home runs from Mark Reynolds and Gerardo Parra, the first time that has ever happened to Kershaw. Anyway, as you know, the Dodgers and Giants have dominated the NL West in recent seasons; in fact, the last non-Dodgers/Giants team to finish over .500 was the Diamondbacks in 2011. The collective games under .500 of the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Padres since then:
2012: 44 games
2013: 24 games
2014: 72 games
2015: 44 games
2016: 62 games
A key for both teams has been better bullpen work, a disaster area for both in 2016. The Rockies have a 2.88 ERA and newcomers Greg Holland and Mike Dunn have combined to allow one hit in eight scoreless innings. The Diamondbacks have a 3.70 ERA, with Archie Bradley looking good in two multi-inning outings. We'll see if the Arizona can remain hot as it heads to San Francisco and Los Angeles this week, but it would be certainly be a lot more fun if get a three- or four-team race in the West.
As for the Royals, after getting swept in the opening series by the Twins, they appeared ready to sweep the Astros on Sunday until Jake Marisnick hit a game-tying home run off Kelvin Herrera in the bottom of the ninth and the Astros would go on to win in 12 innings. Two takeaways from that series: The Royals have a thin line for success this year, and they're going to need Herrera to have a Zach Britton-like season as closer, except Britton was perfect last year and Herrera now has one blown save. Chris Devenski is going to be a huge weapon for the Astros as a multi-inning reliever. He did give up a go-ahead home run in the ninth Sunday, but finished seven strikeouts in four innings, his second four-inning appearance of the week (the Astros won both games in extra innings). With 14 K's and one walk in eight innings, he's showing last year's 2.16 ERA might not be a fluke. If he's going multiple innings in close games, he could end up being the most valuable reliever in the game, even if he's not the closer.
Fourteen pitches later ... Mike Trout has faced Felix Hernandez more than any other pitcher in his career and has basically owned him, hitting .367 with seven home runs in 79 at-bats. Felix got a small measure of revenge Saturday, getting Trout looking after a 14-pitch battle. Of course, Trout being Trout, he'd later hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning off Evan Scribner.
Holy cow ... 14-pitch AB -- Mike Trout vs Félix Hernández— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) April 9, 2017
14th pitch was best one, got him looking
(strikes or fouls in red) pic.twitter.com/GtIA4jCbQS