If You’re Looking for Thor, Check the Beach

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Those who vividly remember Noah Syndergaard on top of the mountain, hair flying and fastball sizzling, may not recognize the 2022 version of the man they called Thor.

The long hair is still there, even if the 100-mile-an-hour fastball has turned into a memory after two years lost to injuries. But in Syndergaard’s first year with the Los Angeles Angels, a new teammate has been helping reinvent the Texan into something that is decidedly more Southern California.

“He is Texas, but he loves the beach,” Michael Lorenzen, an Angels right-hander and Anaheim native, said of Syndergaard’s Mansfield, Texas roots. “I’ve shown him around and broken him in pretty good. And he loves it here.”

Represented by the same agency, Syndergaard and Lorenzen both signed with the Angels as free agents in November — Syndergaard for one year and $21 million, Lorenzen for one year and $6.75 million. Their houses are close to each other., and close to the beach.

“Every morning this winter, we’d meet up at the beach, do our routine there, condition, get in the water and then head to where we were training and do all of our throwing at,” Lorenzen said.

From those first tentative steps into life in his new home, Syndergaard’s comeback this summer has gone swimmingly, even if his team has begun to sink. With the Mets in town for a weekend series, Syndergaard, in his first healthy season since 2019, is 4-4 with a 3.69 E.R.A. over nine starts. He has allowed two or fewer runs in six of his starts.

Syndergaard is 4-4 with a 3.69 E.R.A., but he has been particularly effective at home, where his E.R.A. is 1.48.Credit…Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

He has done his best work at home, going 3-1 with a 1.48 E.R.A. in five starts at Angel Stadium. Despite that, the Angels chose not to line him up to face his former team, planning to use him instead for a Tuesday start against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

With regular rest, Syndergaard would have pitched Sunday. But in a nod to the unusual challenges faced by the Angels pitching staff, the team is using a six-man rotation. The idea is to reduce the strain on Syndergaard, who pitched a total of two innings over the previous two seasons, and Shohei Ohtani, the team’s two-way superstar, who serves as the designated hitter when he is not pitching.

What Mets fans will be missing is getting a glimpse of a version of Syndergaard that is less reliant on overpowering every batter he faces.

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“I faced him a bunch of times when he was with the Mets,” said the veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki, now with the Angels. “And it seems like he’s pitching more now.”

Syndergaard’s fastball no longer is teeth-rattling, averaging 94 miles an hour (it touched 97 in his most recent start against Boston on Monday). But he is compensating for that by throwing fewer four-seam fastballs (23.1 percent) and a higher percentage of sinkers (27.6) and changeups (24.9). Mix in the sliders (16.7) and a few curves (7.7), and today’s Syndergaard is far from the cocksure rookie who helped lead the Mets to the 2015 World Series with a big fastball and a willingness to send a message with where he threw it.

Though he declined to speak with New York media members ahead of this series, in a conversation this spring Syndergaard said that he has learned to “work smarter, not necessarily harder.”

Syndergaard’s brushback pitch to Alcides Escobar in the 2015 World Series showed off his big fastball, and his somewhat reckless nature. He is a far different pitcher these days.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

“I try to give even attention to my training, my nutrition and my recovery,” he said. “It’s not one versus the other. And it’s training, more importantly, that should take place in the off-season. You can’t get better during the season because you need to manage your workload. The most important thing is the ability to compete on the field.”

His immediate comfort with Los Angeles came from his relationship with General Manager Perry Minasian, who was a scout in Toronto’s organization when the Blue Jays drafted Syndergaard in the first round in 2010. Minasian was Toronto’s director of professional scouting when they included Syndergaard in a December 2012 trade for R.A. Dickey.

“He’s the kind of guy who likes big right-handers, and I fit that criteria,” Syndergaard said of Minasian “He flew up to New York, and some of the things he was voicing his opinion on were things that I thought I could improve on.”

The two discussed speeding up down the slope of the mound in his delivery and having conviction with all of his pitches.

“I’ve never had that before, a general manager trying to help me on the mound,” Syndergaard said. “He’s watched a lot of baseball in his life, and I trust what his eyes are telling him. I was really encouraged to be presented with a G.M. who had a game plan that was going to help me get back to my old self.”

The Angels’ six-man rotation is an attempt to keep Shohei Ohtani and Syndergaard well rested. Should Los Angeles pull out of its skid and get back on a playoff track, that could pay dividends later this season.Credit…Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Nobody around here expects Syndergaard to regain his old velocity. But for a work in progress, he has impressed his teammates and coaches alike.

“He’s a very, very thoughtful guy, so we have some good conversations,” said Matt Wise, the Angels pitching coach. “The personality off the field doesn’t match the look. He’s a great guy. He asks lot of questions, he wants a lot of feedback and he’s really a perfectionist.”

To get started, Wise and Syndergaard pored over video of the right-hander’s 2018 (13-4, 3.03 E.R.A.) and 2019 (10-8, 4.28) seasons, when his stuff was at its best.

“Guys who have had elbow surgery and are a little gun shy about throwing the slider,” Wise said. “That’s something we jumped on and feel really good about where it is right now.”

Phil Nevin, named as interim manager this week after Joe Maddon was fired, has watched Syndergaard since the right-hander was a Mets prospect at Class AAA Las Vegas in 2014 and 2015, where he would face the Reno teams that Nevin managed. Though they only had casual conversations before this spring, Nevin noticed something right away in March that impressed him about Syndergaard.

“A pro,” Nevin said. “Watching him work, the way he goes about his business, he’s been a leader of our staff, which is nice. As far as getting guys to work, to run, they’re kind of following his lead.”

He said Syndergaard herds the Angels’ rotation to the bullpen before games to support whichever starter is warming up. Nevin said that is something that CC Sabathia had done with the Yankees, “and I love it.”

Not that everything is perfect. The break-in, get-to-know you stuff is still happening, especially for the catchers. Suzuki said that in his Washington days, Max Scherzer had told him that he thinks it takes half a season for a catcher and a pitcher to really become comfortable with each other, “and I believe that.” Syndergaard’s primary catcher, Max Stassi, said he wasn’t quite sure what to expect when they started.

“After two years without pitching, for him to come in and have the success he’s had, it’s been fun to see,” Stassi said.

On the home front, to hear Lorenzen tell it, things have been working out well, with Syndergaard quickly adapting to the Southern California lifestyle.

“Well, he’s listening to Stick Figure a lot more, some reggae music,” Lorenzen said. “When you go to the beach and you get some vitamin D, you’re just in a better mood. It’s nice to have blue skies, the sun out, knowing you are going to play every day, no delays.”

Toss in a few specialties from their favorite taco shop — “steak tacos, carne asada,” Lorenzen said — and a career that started very loudly in New York can settle into a much quieter vibe in its new surroundings.

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