Jacob deGrom: Both Sides Now

© Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: Jacob deGrom was scratched from his scheduled start today after feeling tightness in his throwing shoulder. He will undergo an MRI. While that potential injury makes his availability for the start of the season murky, this article is about his spring start on March 27.

When you watch Jacob deGrom, he’ll make you question what you know about the fine art of pitching. Develop a mix of killer pitches to keep batters off balance? He has five excellent pitches, but he basically only uses two of them. Change speeds? He throws his fastball in a consistent band, his slider in a consistent band, and when he does deign to drop in a changeup, it matches his slider.

None of that is the most obviously extreme thing about deGrom, though. If you’ve paid attention through a few of his starts, you know what I’m talking about: he barely uses any of the plate. Home plate is 17 inches wide, and baseballs have a radius of roughly 1.5 inches. That means that pitchers have 18.5 inches of horizontal space to play with, from catching the edge on one side of the plate to catching it on the other.

Here’s deGrom laughing at that. Strike one:

Strike two:

And then hit them with the change (a rare right/right changeup from deGrom), but on the same side:

Hey, pitching is easy! And just so you don’t think I’m cherry-picking a single at-bat, here are the top 10 right-handed pitchers in baseball when it comes to the rate at which they throw to the glove-side edge of the plate (defined here as the part of the shadow zone that touches that edge):

Most Pitches Glove-side, RHP in 2021
Pitcher Gloveside Edge%
Jacob deGrom 28.4%
Dan Winkler 24.5%
Jesse Chavez 22.5%
Josh Tomlin 22.3%
Miles Mikolas 20.6%
Drew Rasmussen 20.5%
Corey Kluber 20.6%
Louis Head 20.5%
Adam Plutko 20.4%
Max Kranick 20.3%

Seems good! But these statistics could still be manipulated. In addition to being one of the hardest throwers in the game with one of the best breaking balls, deGrom has some of the best command. Maybe he’s first on that list because he’s just better than everyone else at avoiding the heart of the plate and hitting the edge.

Except, nope! Here’s a list of the righties who hit the opposite edge, the arm-side edge of the plate and area just off of it, least frequently last year:

Least Pitches Arm-side, RHP in 2021
Pitcher Armside Edge%
Jacob deGrom 3.8%
Drew Rasmussen 5.2%
Josh Tomlin 5.2%
Dan Winkler 5.3%
Adam Plutko 6.0%
Anthony Bass 6.6%
Brandon Workman 6.8%
Lucas Sims 6.9%
Josh Sborz 6.9%
Tyler Glasnow 6.9%

Batters know this. Announcers know this. Fans at the stadium know this. None of that matters – deGrom still overmatches hitters, 100 mph fastball after 100 mph fastball and 92 mph slider after 92 mph slider, even though he’s more or less calling out the location before he throws. He has a heat map that looks like an advertisement for some cheesy fire and ice promotion:

You can say that he’s too predictable. Pretty clearly, that’s the case. Hitters can eliminate a third of the plate against him before they come to bat, and the entire area off the arm-side edge. He simply doesn’t throw it there. Do you think there’s a single major league hitter who faces deGrom without knowing this beforehand? Of course not! And it doesn’t matter – it still works.

This past Sunday, however, things got weird. In his second spring training appearance, deGrom faced the Cardinals as the opening part of a deGrom/Max Scherzer double feature. After mowing down Dylan Carlson with fastballs down the middle and a back foot slider, he faced nutrition enthusiast Lars Nootbaar, and things got downright weird:

I’m sorry about the camera angle. Pitches are harder to pick out this way, I know. But that was a fastball just off the arm-side edge of the plate. Watching the game at home, I was only mildly intrigued. “Eh, missed his spot,” I mused, though on loop it’s clear that Tomás Nido set up away. But on the next pitch, he did it again:

That one caught the plate for strike one, and batters taking a fastball against deGrom for strike one is nothing new. But two arm-side pitches in a row? Watching deGrom over the past few years, it would have been unthinkable. Bad news for our puny pattern-matching brains – here’s the next pitch of the sequence:

Statcast has that down as a curveball, and I think I agree, which would be noteworthy if this weren’t a spring start. He threw only four curveballs in the entire 2021 season, and has only thrown 121 in the past three years combined. He threw five in this start, likely just to get a feel for a pitch he’ll break out only in emergencies. But he wasn’t done subverting expectations; he tried for a backdoor slider on 2-2:

In 2021, deGrom threw exactly three sliders that came near the arm-side edge; two were mis-throws. You can’t exactly count this as an attempt to sneak a breaking pitch into the zone against a dangerous hitter:

I’m not saying he’s never thrown there. I found a handful examples of arm-side targets that deGrom hit with a slider in the 2020 and ’21 seasons. But it’s really just a handful. That’s not how he operates – or at least it wasn’t before Sunday.

Out of the 52 pitches that deGrom threw in his tuneup, 10 were on the glove-side edge of the plate and nine were on the arm-side edge. This wasn’t him missing spots, either: Nido was setting targets on the lesser-used side of the plate all game long.

Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything. It’s likely, in fact, that it doesn’t mean anything. Pitchers work on all kinds of niche things in spring. Most of deGrom’s uncharacteristic pitches were to lefties – eight of the nine, and four of the five curveballs. Perhaps he was simply trying out a new plan for attacking the platoon advantage.

That would still be a notable change, because deGrom’s existing pitching plan mostly ignores handedness. Against lefties in 2021, he hit the glove-side edge 23.1% of the time and the arm-side edge 5.9% of the time, still a massive split. That meant he was attacking lefties in and righties away with roughly equal ferocity. For completeness’s sake, yes: no right-handed pitcher attacked lefties inside more frequently, or away less frequently.

Even if it’s merely a soon-to-be-discarded wrinkle, hitters should be afraid. There’s already no question about who the best pitcher in baseball is; deGrom has that title locked down as long as he’s healthy (gulp). He’s ascended to that unquestionable peak using a tiny sliver of home plate. Watching him pitch is as baffling as it is awe-inspiring; batters know what’s coming, and it just doesn’t matter. He’s too much for them, even with his cards face up. It’s a fastball or a slider, it’s coming to one side of the plate, and good luck doing anything about it. If he’s going from having one hand tied behind his back to giving hitters just a sliver of doubt, things could get interesting. Will he be better? I mean, probably not. He’s already Jacob deGrom. But he might be different, and for a pitcher who does everything exactly the same all the time, that’s still worth watching.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

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