Future looks bright for talented, towering Syndergaard
Demonstrating incredible physical ability, right-hander earns nickname 'Thor'
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A lumberjack was in the building, a ninja and a Cobra Kai disciple. But what really stood out that October morning in Midlothian, Texas, was 6-foot-6 Noah Syndergaard dressed as Thor, the hammer-wielding, thunder-making god of Norse mythology (and, later, of comic book and Hollywood fame). Thor stood on a wooden platform beneath a squat bar as he half-scowled, half-smiled at the camera. He hoisted 445 pounds.
On other days, Syndergaard has proven capable of dead-lifting a quarter-ton and throwing a baseball nearly 100 miles per hour. When he stepped into his first big league camp earlier this month, even his teammates were not sure how to classify him. A linebacker, maybe. A monster.
"A stud," offered catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
To look at Syndergaard is to understand immediately why he is not only universally recognized as the Mets' top prospect, but as one of the best in all of baseball. It is to understand why, when fans saw his Halloween costume plastered across Twitter that morning, they embraced the nickname and made it stick. From a physical standpoint, Noah "Thor" Syndergaard is the definition of the classic Texas gunslinger -- a stereotype that, over the years, has enveloped the reputations of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Josh Beckett.
Syndergaard may ultimately prove more complex than that; he boasts all the physical tools of those pitchers, but does not equal their collective brashness, and there is evidence to suggest he never will. Now 21 years old, Syndergaard is quiet, subdued. He lives at home during the winter because he enjoys having his mother cook his meals and do his laundry. (Syndergaard once attempted his own laundry to the chagrin of his mother, Heidi, who feared a broken washing machine upon realizing that he had piled in four loads at once.)
From a Mets perspective, Syndergaard shares more with Zack Wheeler, the easygoing Georgian, than Matt Harvey, the Manhattan socialite. But all three in reality have little in common, other than freakish talent and the weight of expectation. Harvey, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, has already resumed his quest to become the best pitcher alive. Wheeler, on the cusp of his first full big league season, is shooting for stardom.
Syndergaard -- Thor -- will almost certainly debut in June or July, potentially giving the Mets one of the most dynamic young rotations in baseball.
And one of the strongest, in more ways than one.
Mansfield, Texas, was not a friendly place for professional baseball scouts in the spring of 2010. Those who traveled to see Syndergaard slug home runs -- he was committed to attend Dallas Baptist University as a hitter -- came away with an underwhelming impression of him on the mound. Forget that Syndergaard showed little enthusiasm for pitching. The lack of interest was reciprocal; scouts do not typically write glowing reports on pitchers with mid-80s heat.
So the evaluators skipped town for a while, until Syndergaard started throwing hard enough for Draft heads and assistant general managers -- the scouts' bosses and bosses' bosses -- to travel down and see him in person. They wanted to make Syndergaard an early-round pick.
"This wasn't a guy who was famous before the spring of his senior year," said Mets vice president of amateur scouting Paul DePodesta, who watched Syndergaard homer and earn the win during one high school game. "He sort of emerged on the scene. He didn't go into the year with a whole lot of hype, and that's probably one of the reasons why he lasted to where he did in the Draft.
David Walden, Syndergaard's high school coach, laughs when he recalls it: "There were a bunch of scouts down here who got in a lot of trouble."
How Syndergaard went from throwing mid-80s fastballs to upper-90s kerosene in the span of four months is not entirely clear. Walden believes he had previously been holding back, worried about hurting his arm. His father, Brad, tells the story of a boy who never needed to shave until age 20, taking longer to mature physically than his peers. Syndergaard claims he simply grew mentally over the course of the spring.
Whatever the reason, the man who emerged as Toronto's supplemental-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft hardly resembled the boy who had committed to Dallas Baptist as a hitter. A local scout clocked Syndergaard's final high school pitch, in the seventh inning of the Texas state regional semifinals, at 97 mph.
"We don't even have kids that can play catch with him anymore," Walden said. "We're not taking credit for it because we have no idea what happened."
It was not until the following autumn that Syndergaard, on a tip from Mets prospect and fellow Dallas-area native Mark Cohoon, began attending Ryan Mentzel's Athletes Enhancement training center in Midlothian. He took to it immediately, requesting a more leg-centric program than those of other athletes at the facility. Back squats. Front squats. Dead-lifts. Box jumps. Mentzel figures that if left unchecked, Syndergaard would punish himself with bodybuilder-style workouts every day.
One weekend, Mentzel realized that Syndergaard had left his squatting shoes behind, corroborating whispers that he was sneaking into the facility for afterhours CrossFit workouts. Relaxation means Bikram yoga in the evenings and boxing in his free time. "I've never seen a person as dedicated to physical fitness as he is," Heidi says of her son, whose idea of downtime is a skeet-shooting expedition with Brad.
"I don't like the whole aspect of days off," Syndergaard said. "I'm always wanting to do something. I'm always wanting to get better in the weight room. It makes the game easier."
The Syndergaards do worry that their son trains too hard at times, but Mentzel boasts that he works "the right way" with Syndergaard, who has packed on more than 20 pounds of muscle over the past three years. The trainer recalls 300-pound 49ers defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie walking into his complex and "wondering who this big guy is." In terms of sheer weightlifting ability, Syndergaard compares favorably to NFL players such as Jerod-Eddie, Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Steelers wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who also work in Midlothian. Among baseball players, Mentzel says, "Noah's usually the one who sticks out the most."
The "Thor" nickname materialized out of that, and -- in a sports landscape littered with A-Rods, J-Rolls and D-Wades -- seems tremendously apt. Within days of his arrival at Port St. Lucie, Syndergaard's teammates taped a picture of Ivan Drago, the "Rocky IV" villain, to the top of his locker. The likeness is striking. Syndergaard has the word "Drago" scrawled onto one of his gloves, and "lion" on another. "Thor" could be next.
"It's not a bad nickname at all," Syndergaard says. "Being the god of thunder is a pretty cool thing."
Not that Syndergaard is all blunt brutality. His fastball may be what drew scouts to him in the first place, but Syndergaard has also improved his curveball to plus-pitch status since Draft day. Though he bemoans people who "are always dogging my changeup," that offering also profiles as Major League-caliber. Syndergaard simply did not need three pitches to compile a 3.06 ERA between Class A Advanced St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton last season, emerging as a jewel of the seven-player trade that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto in December 2012.
This spring is about fine-tuning for Syndergaard, who will not make an Opening Day rotation that already includes Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Bartolo Colon and -- barring lingering injury -- Jon Niese. He will instead follow the blueprint that Harvey established in 2012 and Wheeler shadowed last summer, starting off at Triple-A before debuting in June or July.
When that happens, Brad and Heidi Syndergaard, who dropped their son off at Minor League camp last year as if it were his first day of school, will certainly be in attendance. Family and community are important to Syndergaard, who attends weekly chapel at the Mets' spring home. When he is not dressed up in a superhero costume or even a baseball uniform, Syndergaard prefers a polo and jeans, coming across as tremendously subdued. "I don't care how tall he is," Heidi says. "He is, as far as I'm concerned, still my baby boy."
In those instances, the thunder that defines him stays coiled in reserve, ready for whenever Syndergaard might need it.