Jacob deGrom Is Back

Jacob deGrom
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

From 2018 through the first half of 2021, watching Jacob deGrom carve his way through whatever hapless lineup the Mets faced was a constant. His 1.94 ERA over that stretch was wildly impressive, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He wasn’t just enjoyable for the ERA, or even his entire statistical line, though that also boggled the mind.

To me, what was most impressive about deGrom is how he seemed to make the opposition inconsequential. It didn’t matter who he was facing, really. Every start was deGrom against himself, a pitcher perfecting his craft. When he located well (and he frequently did), he might as well have been pitching to cardboard cutouts. Fastball on the upper corner, slider falling away beneath it — the specifics changed, but deGrom’s repetition of his pitches never did.

Then disaster fell. Though he’d been remarkably durable during his run, missing only a few games with lat issues early in the 2021 season, the fun came to an end last July. He sprained his flexor tendon — the tendon that runs from forearm to finger, which sounds pretty important for pitching — and never threw another pitch that year. Some of that was the Mets falling out of the race; the team said he would have been ready for the postseason.

After he missed the first half of this season with a right scapula stress reaction, no one would blame you for wondering whether the ride was coming to an end. An entire year without a major league start is an eternity for someone who didn’t get Tommy John surgery. But I have good news for those of you who, like me, found watching deGrom’s casual dominance calming and delightful: He’s back, and with little rust to be found.

In his first start this season, against the foundering Nationals, deGrom went five innings and 59 pitches. He gave up only a single run — two of Washington’s three hits off of him came in succession in the fourth inning — before the New York bullpen faltered and the Mets lost, 5–1. He left thanks to a ramp-up plan; five innings and 55 pitches was the rough target, and he achieved that.

Now, let’s talk about Sunday. Most pitchers can be understood in charts and pictures, for me at least. Show me their strikeout and whiff numbers, show me a chart of their pitch mix, add in some velocity and movement, and I can get the idea. If you’re feeling frisky, you can even add one of the Baseball Savant spin graphs that help explain how hard batters’ jobs are. That doesn’t really work with deGrom. Here, check out his spin chart, which is impressive mainly for how sparse it is:

He’s a two-pitch pitcher; his changeup and curveball are excellent too, but he simply hasn’t used them very often. In his first start, he threw four changeups and three curveballs. Yesterday, he used them even less: two curves and not a single changeup.

It didn’t look like deGrom missed them. For the first five innings yesterday, he was perfect. He tormented the Braves with his slider and backed it with an overpowering fastball. At times, he looked like a pitching machine, throwing the same pitch over and over again, to a perfectly calibrated spot. Here, watch all four pitches of William Contreras’ fifth-inning strikeout:

Not convinced? Here are all four pitches deGrom threw to the next batter, Robbie Grossman:

Eight sliders, five swings, five whiffs. I’ve always enjoyed deGrom’s one-sided dominance; it’s both calming and mystifying to watch him paint the same edge of the plate all day, despite hitters knowing exactly what’s coming. Yesterday was that experience taken to another level, though. I don’t know how pitch command grades work, exactly, but I think this is an 80:

I don’t know if you saw it in that first smash cut, but in addition to that pristine location, deGrom’s slider topped out above 95 mph; his first slider to Contreras was 95, and he hit 95.7 earlier. His average slider velocity yesterday was the same as 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray’s average fastball velocity in 2022. He’d be in the 57th percentile league-wide for velocity among starting pitchers — if that were how fast he threw his fastball.

It’s a slider! He’s three ticks clear of any other starter there (Zack Wheeler comes in second). He throws his slider 1.5 mph faster, on average, than Emmanuel Clase. He throws it three mph harder than Edwin Díaz and with similar movement, and Díaz has used a slider-first approach in putting up the best relief season in the majors this year.

The Braves swung at 20 sliders yesterday. They came up empty on their first 18 (!) attempts. Michael Harris II fouled two of them off in deGrom’s last inning of work. They were ineffectual foul balls, pulled and topped; per Statcast, they traveled a combined seven feet before hitting the ground. That was the best the Braves managed against his slider. What did Harris get for his troubles? A nice parting gift, 100 on the black:

The start wasn’t perfect, despite deGrom retiring the first 17 batters he faced with 12 strikeouts. Before the game, the Mets announced that they were targeting six innings and 75 pitches, but the Braves had other ideas. Ehire Adrianza worked a walk on five straight high fastballs. On a 1–1 count to Dansby Swanson, deGrom threw one of his slowest fastballs of the day — “only” 98.3 mph — and Swanson took an impressive hack, muscling it out to the opposite field:

That’s amazing hitting. It had to be to handle deGrom yesterday. He garnered 25 whiffs in only 76 pitches. The Braves only swung 42 times, which means they got nothing but air on 60% of their swings. I’d say that’s elite reliever territory, but I’d be lying: Díaz leads the majors in whiff-per-swing rate at 47.4%.

For once, the Mets backed deGrom with some early offense. One of the strange quirks of his dominance is that it came in games where his team hardly scored, and over 91 starts from 2018 through ’21, he went only 32–21. Watch a deGrom start in those years, and it always felt like a 2–1 game in the seventh. He was masterful — and he had to be.

This year’s Mets might change that narrative; they’re fourth in baseball in runs scored per game, a far cry from the light-hitting days of recent past. They hardly needed the pitching help; they’re allowing the fourth-fewest runs in the majors this season. Adding the best pitcher in baseball — and after his two starts, I feel comfortable saying deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball again — surely won’t hurt.

Yesterday’s game ended without further scoring after Swanson’s homer, a 5–2 Mets victory. That was the last of a five-game set against Atlanta that the Mets took handily, giving them a 6.5-game lead in the NL East; per our playoff odds, they’ve eclipsed a 90% chance of winning the division. For the first time since a 2015 run to the World Series, we might be seeing deGrom in the playoffs a few months hence.

That’s assuming health, which feels sadly tenuous. Watching deGrom elicits awe, but it also elicits worry. How can his arm stand it? How can he throw so hard so consistently? Will his body continue to betray him in new ways? He’s pushing the limits of his craft, honing each pitch to a gleaming sheen and overpowering lineups with it. I’m imploring you: watch his next start. The one after that is never guaranteed, and the multi-year run he’s on is rare even in the great sweep of baseball’s history.





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

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tz
1 month ago

That last paragraph summarizes what’s killing baseball the most right now. Insanely great pitching driven by the necessity to be at 99.9999999% of humanly possibly efficiency and effort to be a 2022 star = insanely low mileage on said great pitching.

mercymember
1 month ago
Reply to  tz

I wholeheartedly agree. All of these starters who throw so hard, but is it necessary to do so all of the time?

TKDCmember
1 month ago
Reply to  mercy

I think the problem is you can’t just reduce risk by reducing effort like a robot. If there were some way for top pitchers like deGrom to somehow be like 10% worse but also 50% more likely to stay healthy, you’d take that right? A 10% less good deGrom is still an ace. But I don’t know that you could really achieve that by saying “throw just a little less hard.” First, as the Dansby homer illustrates, even for deGrom it may be a pretty fine line between him being the god he is and being just a good pitcher. And then of course we also really have no idea how much such a reduction in effort would help with preventing injuries.

I will say that I had a friend one time suggest that the Colts should just save Bob Sanders for the playoffs. This was when the Colts had that amazing offense and would regularly roll through the regular season and wrap up home field by week 15. But Bob Sanders was always getting hurt. He was a safety. The idea was that they really didn’t need him to make it to the playoffs but he sure would have helped once they were there. You don’t ever see this, but you wonder about a team like the Mets if they open up a big lead over the Braves (and over the NL central), if they’d consider giving deGrom a break of like a month to make it more likely that he could be used through October. They won’t. I just don’t think that mindset is even a starter in MLB ?or sports, generally), but it is an interesting thought exercise.

Six Ten
1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

It’s made tougher by the fact that MLB contract rules require incentives to be built around appearances or awards. I don’t know how close he’ll get to any of his, but the MLBPA might have something to say about it if they sit him.

TKDCmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Six Ten

Well, I’m this specific case award and appearance incentives are presumably out of reach, if deGrom even has those in his contract, which I don’t think he does. But yes, this would definitely be a consideration. And MLB may also get involved if this became a thing, like the NBA has.

indianbadger1member
1 month ago
Reply to  Six Ten

I have felt for some time that journalist based awards should not be used for contract incentives. More objective indicators are available now. Like appearances, innings pitched, bWAR, fWAR, RC+ etc, should be the basis for incentives. I can see why NYT disallows their journalists from voting on such things. I also think that the journalists themselves should petition MLB and MLBPA for this to happen.

cartermember
1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

In the past they would simply pitch through those injuries, tho

jaysfan39
1 month ago
Reply to  mercy

Another problem is if a pitcher does try to tone it down a bit to stay healthy there is probably just as much risk that he would alter his mechanics slightly and that could be what leads to an injury.