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September 1, 2014

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Las Vegas 51s pitcher Noah Syndergaard taking his game to new heights

New York Mets’ top prospect is using his time in Las Vegas to learn how to become a pro

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Sam Morris

Las Vegas 51s pitcher Noah Syndergaard throws against the El Paso Chihuahuas on Saturday, April 19, 2014.

Las Vegas 51s pitcher Noah Syndergaard

Las Vegas 51s pitcher Noah Syndergaard pitches during practice at Cashman Field on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Launch slideshow »

When Noah Syndergaard took the mound in April for his first start in Triple-A, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound pitcher knew his stay could be short.

Chances are, he’d be in the spotlight at the New York Mets’ Citi Field in about three months, potentially as a key member of the Mets, whose top minor league affiliate is the Las Vegas 51s.

Ranked as baseball’s No. 11 prospect, with four near-flawless minor-league seasons under his belt, the 21-year-old appears to have all the tools: a fastball regularly clocked in the mid-90s, an above-average curveball and an intimidating presence on the mound.

But his time in Las Vegas hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Although he has shown flashes of domination, posting a 4-2 record with a 3.92 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings through May 10, he also has struggled for arguably the first time as a professional.

“I’ll have a good start and then a bad start,” he said. “I have to take every bad start as a learning (experience). You have to take your lumps and bruises to get better and to make strides. You aren’t always going to have success in the major leagues.”

Getting hit hard is one thing, but Syndergaard’s failures early this season were deeper than throwing a few bad pitches. He was guilty of working too slowly, a sign that he lacks confidence.

After a heart-to-heart with manager Wally Backman, he has fixed the problem — that’s why the Mets have him here.

Syndergaard’s got the stuff, as indicated when he struck out 10 batters in six innings May 10 against Tacoma. But he also surrendered three first-inning runs that game, showing he’s still a work in progress.

“Sometimes failure is a good thing for any position or any pitcher to see how they respond to that,” Backman said. “They will (take) some lumps once in a while. It shows you some of the things that come from within a player.”

That’s why his three months here are important.

Syndergaard is being schooled in how to get batters out. Before, his fastball usually did the trick. Now, it’s about mixing in off-speed pitches and keeping batters guessing.

He’s learning how to handle expectations. If you give up a home run, shrug it off and get the next batter out.

He’s learning how to be a professional, which includes facing the media. He’s still getting used to being the star attraction and having multiple cameras in his face. At media day before the season, most local outlets wanted their turn with Syndergaard, who says he’s still timid being interviewed because he fears giving the wrong answer.

When Bobby Abreu, a 40-year-old big-league veteran, opened the season with Las Vegas, he got rave reviews from club officials for how he mentored younger players such as Syndergaard. Syndergaard said it was great for his development to observe Abreu’s professionalism, from preparation on game days to making sure he had fun.

“It’s nice to see the progress I have made to get my name out there, but there are 10 more spots (in the rankings),” Syndergaard said. “I want to be one of the best out there.”

Good answer.

Anatomy of a power prospect

Arm: When Noah Syndergaard was drafted at age 17 out of Mansfield, Texas, he was more a thrower than a pitcher, with a dominating fastball regularly clocked in the mid-90s. The heater is still a strength, helping him record 329 strikeouts in 293 minor-league innings entering this season.

Legs: Syndergaard’s fastball was clocked at 97 mph in the seventh inning recently, showing the power of his long legs. They help increase his velocity late in a game, when he should be tired.

Height: With Syndergaard being 6-foot-6 with long arms, his release point is closer to the plate when throwing a pitch. The ball has less distance to travel, meaning his fastball gets there even faster.

Wrist/elbow: Syndergaard has developed a nice complement of off-speed pitches, including a curveball he drops in at 82-84 mph when batters are expecting the fastball.

Head: Syndergaard has all the physical tools to be a star in the big leagues, but he has learned it takes more than ability. Part of his development includes learning how to pitch to more seasoned hitters and gaining confidence in his talent.

Eye: Syndergaard prides himself on his pitch command, hitting just four batters in his career and throwing only 12 wild pitches. He has fewer than 100 career walks in about 340 innings, showing his ability to find the strike zone.

Following footsteps, big and small

Being tall, especially for right-handed pitchers, hasn’t automatically translated into successful big-league careers. Randy Johnson was a lefty, and he’ll likely be a first-ballot selection to Cooperstown. But others have had limited success. Here’s a look:

Randy Johnson: At 6-foot-10, he is the gold standard of tall, lanky pitchers. The 300-game winner finished his career second all-time with 4,875 strikeouts and won the Cy Young award five times. His pitches regularly approached 100 mph. It was especially scary for left-handed batters, who sometimes thought his pitches were heading toward their heads. They’d move out of the way only to look foolish when pitches were called strikes.

Chris Young: Tall athletes are most common in basketball — exactly where the 6-foot-10 Young thrived during college while playing hoops for Princeton. His professional career has been in baseball, posting a 55-43 record in more than 10 injury-filled seasons. At one point, the current Seattle Mariner was an all-star. He’s the tallest active player in the big leagues.

Jon Rauch: At 6-foot-11, Rauch is the tallest player in MLB history. The relief pitcher posted a 43-40 record in 11 big-league seasons with 474 strikeouts and 62 saves. He played with eight big league teams, most recently the Miami Marlins in 2013.

Eric Hillman: The 6-foot-10 Hillman, who pitched three seasons in the 1990s, is proof that being tall isn’t necessarily an advantage. He posted a 4.85 ERA with a 4-14 record.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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