-- Every once in a while, a pitcher wanders onto this planet who makes you think: No way this guy's human.
Is he real? Is he fiction? Or is he some video game monstrosity come to life? Hmmm. Of those three choices, "real" feels like the worst choice on the board.
"As a kid, I used to play baseball video games," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "And there was an option where you could create players and put all the max abilities on the player, all the way up to 10. And he's kind of that guy. If you could build a pitcher in a video game, he's the guy you'd build."
Exactly. You'd build a guy who is 6-foot-6, with flowing blond Hollywood hair and a superhero nickname -- aka "Thor." You'd build a guy who could throw a baseball 101 mph. Nonstop. For two hours. And you'd build a guy who, just for fun, would also mix in "off-speed" pitches faster than most guys' fastballs.
That's the guy the Mets now have on their hands, a burgeoning star who will head for the mound Monday night in Queens with a 0.90 ERA and more strikeouts (29 in just 20 innings) after the first three starts of his season than any Met in history who wasn't known as Pedro Martinez.
It's way too soon to argue that Syndergaard is already the best pitcher on earth. Not on an earth that Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta (among others) continue to reside on, anyway. But it's not too soon to argue that Syndergaard might be as fun to watch as any pitcher alive.
So what makes him such a must-watch attraction? I asked the men who get to watch it every time he jumps onstage. The Mets have seen it. And even they're not quite sure they believe it.
THE EYE-POPPING RADAR BOARD
Last Monday in Philadelphia, in his last start, Syndergaard threw six fastballs in the first inning. Good thing there were more than two digits on the radar board. Here they come, in all their mph splendor: 100, 100, 101, 101, 100, 101.
That was the first inning. He threw eight more fastballs in the second inning. The readings on those meteor showers? A "disappointing" 99, followed by 100, 101, 100, 101, 100, 100, 101.
Two hours later, just before calling it a night, Syndergaard launched his 94th pitch of the evening. It was clocked at 98 mph. Then again, it was only a two-seamer.
So you know what they call that in Syndergaard's world? Just another night at the office.
His catcher, Kevin Plawecki, swears he only looked at the radar gun once all night. Because why should he? He doesn't have to see it. He lives it.
"I didn't know he hit 101 until the next day," Plawecki said, looking eminently credible. "I mean, that's just how hard he throws. I'm used to him."
Still, it's impossible to talk about this guy without mentioning the speed-board readings. They look like something you should be seeing at the Daytona 500, not at a baseball game.
According to Inside Edge, Syndergaard already has thrown eight pitches this year at 101 miles per hour -- and 23 that were traveling 100 or faster. So how many triple-digit fastballs have been fired by the 164 other pitchers who have started a game in the big leagues this year? That, naturally, would be none.
So maybe Syndergaard's catcher doesn't feel a need to peek at that radar board. But his manager is the first to admit that he definitely does. And apparently, he enjoys the view.
"I did the other night," Terry Collins confessed. "I didn't see the first pitch. But I looked up on the second one, because the second one was down in the zone, and when balls are down in the zone, they really don't explode like that. But I mean this thing was just, 'Pow!' So I looked up, and it said 101. I went, '101?' And then the next pitch was 100. I said, 'Obviously, he's feeling pretty good tonight.'"
And you know who else was feeling pretty good that night? The manager, because that's called Managing Made Easy.
THE HARDEST SLIDER ON EARTH
Now let's put this man's mph numbers in even better perspective. According to FanGraphs, there are only seven current starting pitchers in baseball not named Noah Syndergaard whose fastballs average 95 mph or greater. Got that?
So now try to comprehend that Syndergaard throws a slider that has hit 95 mph. He's done it four times already this year, in fact. Including a swing-and-miss 95 mph special he threw to Kendrys Morales in Kansas City in his first start of the season, which caused Royals manager Ned Yost to say, incredulously, that "no man alive" could hit that pitch.
"I didn't realize, in his outing against Kansas City, that those pitches were sliders," right fielder Curtis Granderson said. "I was like, 'Oh man, he's starting to get tired. His velocity's dropped to 95.' Then [hitting coach] Kevin Long, without me even asking, said, 'He's throwing 95 mile-an-hour sliders.' And I was like, 'Wow. So that's why those guys are taking swings like that.'"
Yeah, that would explain it. But we're about to make the Royals feel a little more upbeat about that. In three starts, Syndergaard has thrown 33 sliders that were gauged at 93 mph or swifter. All the other starters in baseball have combined for three (all by Luis Severino).
And you know that "no man alive could hit that" scouting report by Yost? Pretty close. Syndergaard has thrown 64 sliders this season. The hitters who have seen them coming are batting a combined .083 against that pitch with no extra-base hits and more strikeouts (six) than balls put in play (five).
WHERE'S THE 'OFF' IN OFF-SPEED?
Clayton Kershaw threw an eephus pitch at 45 mph the other day. Now that's an offspeed pitch.
But when we're talking about Syndergaard's "off-speed" stuff, we really need different terminology. We've already mentioned that 95 mph slider. But then there's his "changeup." He has already delivered 16 of those changeups this year that were measured at 91 mph or faster. No other starter in the big leagues has thrown more than four.
Just so you can wrap your brain around this, Zack Greinke's fastball averages 91 mph. So we're very close to outlawing the use of that word, "off-speed," to describe either Syndergaard's changeup or slider.
"Well," Wright quipped, "It's off-speed compared to 100."
All right, so that's true. And it's also true that Syndergaard features a curveball that averages a more traditional 83 mph. But regardless, FanGraphs tells us he leads baseball in throwing the hardest curve, fastball, slider and changeup in the whole sport.
So shouldn't it be illegal to throw that many "off-speed" pitches that hard -- and be so precise in locating them that they result in three times as many strikeouts (23) as hits (five) and walks (two) combined?
"Yeah, I consider it unfair," reliever Jerry Blevins said with a chuckle. "It's hard to do at 88 [mph], where I'm at, let alone 99. ... But I enjoy watching it every fifth day."
THE SCARS TO PROVE IT
So when a man throws this hard, it isn't only the hitters who pay the price. How about his catcher?
Last Monday, Plawecki made the mistake of blocking a Syndergaard pitch with his chest. Here's how that worked out for him:
"I'm sure it's happened before," Plawecki said two days later. "The other day was just something that was more noticeable. I didn't even notice it until after the game. ... I looked in the mirror and I was like, 'Holy cow.' I don't really remember anything that visible or that clear. But obviously, I didn't know it was going to become that big of a story."
Uh, 'fraid so. At last look, just the SportsCenter tweet of that photo had been retweeted more than 1,200 times. Much to the shock of the man attached to that chest.
"Yeah, the chest had its time of fame," Plawecki said. "Hopefully, we can move past that."
THE BIRTH OF THOR
From the moment he was included in the package the Mets got from Toronto when they traded R.A. Dickey, we've been hearing about the unreal stuff of Noah Syndergaard. But to his teammates, there's no doubt when the legend of Thor was born.
"I would say probably the playoff game against the Dodgers, when he came in in relief," Granderson said. "And I was wondering, 'Why are we bringing Noah in? I'm confused.' Now, obviously, I'm not a manager. I can't always figure out what's going on. But that was the first time I saw 100 pop up. And I said, 'Wow. OK, good move, TC.'"
Now, six months later, we don't know quite where this is all leading. But it feels as if Syndergaard already has zoomed past Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom in buzz factor, if nothing else. And when you think about how much buzz those two have manufactured, that's incredible.
"One of the best baseball guys I've ever been around is Larry Bowa," Collins said. "He walked over and told me the day after his start, 'I think this guy is the best pitcher in baseball right now.' That's a big statement, because he pays attention. That's a guy who knows this game."
Then again, Collins had to admit, it sounded familiar. So he's trying to keep it in perspective.
"I had guys coming up to me last year after Jacob pitched and saying, 'This kid's the best pitcher in baseball,'" Collins said "And two years ago, when Matt was pitching, they'd say, 'This guy's the best pitcher in baseball.' Then I'd have the minor league people, when Steven Matz came up, they'd say, 'You know what? We think this guy is going to be better than all of them.'
"So you know what?" the Mets' manager said, laughing heartily, "I just hope they're all right."