Throwing live batting practice is a routine part of spring training for starting pitchers, a transitional step between bullpen workouts and appearing in exhibition games.
Noah Syndergaard’s live batting-practice session Thursday was anything but routine, and not just because Shohei Ohtani, the reigning American League most valuable player, was among the hitters facing the Angels’ new right-hander and a dozen or so front-office executives were on hand to observe.
Syndergaard, the former New York Mets star who signed a one-year, $21-million deal in November, threw his curveball off a mound for the first time in two years. His fastball, which averaged 97.8 mph before he had Tommy John surgery in March 2020, appeared to have its usual zip. He also threw his slider and changeup.
“I was flying pretty high,” Syndergaard said Friday in his first meeting with reporters this spring. “Granted, it was only a live BP, but it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time. I felt really crisp.”
The Angels’ chances of winning the AL West would increase dramatically if the 6-foot-6, 242-pound Syndergaard could regain the form that made him one of baseball’s most dominant starters from 2015-2018, when he went 37-22 with a 2.93 ERA in 87 games, striking out 573 and walking 116 in 518 1/3 innings.
“Just intimidation,” new Angels reliever Archie Bradley said, when asked what a healthy Syndergaard could add to the team. “That’s the biggest thing. When you have a guy like that with his size and presence and he’s throwing that hard … I know you see fastballs every day, but a guy like him is intimidating.”
Syndergaard, 29, felt he took a step in that direction Thursday, not only because of how he felt physically on the mound but how he felt mentally.
Syndergaard suffered several setbacks in his recovery last season, pushing his return from June to late September. He threw only fastballs in his two one-inning appearances in the final week of the season. Thursday marked the first time since surgery that he felt like the Syndergaard of old.
“It was a huge relief, because last year in those two innings, I was still tinkering, I wasn’t comfortable with my mechanics, and [Thursday] I felt really repeatable,” Syndergaard said. “I didn’t have to think much at all, and that’s the ultimate goal for me when I’m throwing against hitters, to compete and not focus on … finding my delivery.
“When [catcher Max] Stassi calls for fastball away, it’s focusing on fastball away and not, OK, ‘What’s my hip doing?’ That’s gonna take away the ability to [have conviction] on a pitch.”
Syndergaard, who threw a career-high 197 2/3 innings in his last full season in 2019, isn’t sure if the Angels will place any restrictions on him, but more days off will be built into his schedule as he goes from a five-man rotation to a six-man rotation to accommodate Ohtani.
“You get an extra day of rest, and I think that’s really important for me coming off Tommy John surgery,” Syndergaard said. “I think it’s going to allow my body enough time to recover and get ready for another start.
“I know there might be some limitations coming off surgery and not being able to pitch for the last two years, but there’s also a benefit because I haven’t pitched in two years, so my arm’s pretty fresh.”
So is his outlook on the game. Syndergaard said in November that he was looking forward to a “fresh start” after spending seven years in Queens, not because he didn’t enjoy his time there or thrive on the pressure of playing in New York City, but because he needed a career reset.
“It was a great eight years in that organization, but playing in New York isn’t the easiest,” Syndergaard said. “I feel like I embraced it and was able to adapt to that kind of environment. But coming off two years of not pitching and this being arguably the most important year of my career, I just needed to take a lot of stress off my shoulders.”