Noah Syndergaard started Game 3 of the World Series by going up and in to leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar. The Royals grew irate. Syndergaard later described it as trying to set tone. The Royals decried the action as misguided headhunting. Syndergaard said that anybody who has a problem with it “can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.”
Syndergaard was correct in his justification … and wrong in his execution.
It is a pitcher’s prerogative to prevent hitters from getting comfortable in the batter’s box. His primary tool in this regard is the ability to move their feet with inside fastballs, preventing them from diving over the plate for outside stuff on later occasions. Nolan Ryan was a master at this. It worked out pretty well for him.
To judge by Game 3, however, Syndergaard is not that guy. He accomplished his goal of establishing a presence against the hottest leadoff hitter on the planet—a guy known for swinging at first pitches—and then completely failed to maintain it. Escobar struck out, but came back an inning later and singled to center field. The two hitters behind him in the first inning doubled and singled. The Royals scored once in the first and twice in the second. If intimidation was Syndergaard’s endgame, it was a pretty bad night.
Which is understandable. Anybody who throws as hard as Syndergaard must be wary of the implications of missing too far inside. That fear even hampered Ryan for a time, and he had to overcome it to reassert his dominance.
It’s not difficult to see the allure of intimidation. Syndergaard’s first pitch (which, contrary to reactions on the KC bench, did not come close to hitting the batter; watch the whole thing here) set Alcides up perfectly for two straight curveballs—the first of which froze him for a called strike, the second of which he fouled off. That, in turn, set him up for a fourth-pitch four-seamer at 99 mph, which Escobar had no hope of catching up with for strike three.
That was it for Syndergaard’s intimidation. So why were the Royals so upset?
Ballplayers tend to look at aggressive tactics, be they inside pitches or assertive slides, through a similar lens. Players who thrive on ferocious play, for whom it is a regular part of their approach, are granted more leeway in this regard than guys who break it out only when it suits them. It’s one explanation for why so few batters ever charged Ryan; they may have been scared of him, but they also knew that pitching inside was how he operated, and that nothing they could do in response would change that.
Syndergaard’s pitch caught the Royals by surprise. Only when such tactics are no longer startling will an opponent ever accept them as anything approaching standard practice.