Jacob deGrom’s Breakout Season in Eight Batters

I’d like to believe that Jacob deGrom started out as hair. Just hair. Over time, that hair grew into much more than just hair, eventually sprouting a full human figure and developing world-class athletic ability. The hair would go on to play middle infield in college before transitioning into a pitcher and getting drafted by the New York Mets. The hair would then have Tommy John Surgery and never crack a top-1oo prospect list, but nevertheless the hair would reach the majors by age 25. And the hair would dominate.

On Monday night, deGrom made the 21st start of his rookie season, this one against the Miami Marlins. Here’s how he started:

That might look a little unusual to you, because that is not how major league baseball games are played, ever. People don’t just come up to the plate and strike out every time and go sit back down. Not only would that be a terrible game, but that’s just not how it works.

Nevertheless, that’s how it went for deGrom and the Marlins on Monday. That streak of eight consecutive strikeouts to begin a game tied the major league record set by Jim Deshaies on September 23, 1986. The Mets actually ended up losing on Monday – because, Mets – but deGrom finished with arguably his most impressive game yet. He struck out 13 batters over seven innings, allowing three earned runs on six hits and a walk.

And, aside from the eight straight whiffs, those numbers aren’t even that shocking when you consider what deGrom has done so far. His ERA actually went up after Monday’s start, from 2.62 to 2.68. His FIP dropped from 2.88 to 2.72. You’ll notice those are both exceptionally low figures. Of all starting pitchers who have thrown more than 130 innings, his ERA ranks 14th, right behind Zack Greinke and a few spots ahead of Jordan Zimmermann. His FIP is ninth, better than that of Jon Lester, David Price and Adam Wainwright. I could go on with more examples like this, but the point is, deGrom will soon finish the season with a sample of work that – while smaller than most – is not small enough to be insignificant. And over that four-month sample, he has been one of the 15 best starting pitchers in baseball.

It’s fair to say when a guy strikes out eight consecutive batters, he is either at his best or close to being at his best. While a Giancarlo Stanton-less Marlins lineup won’t easily be confused with a powerhouse, it’s still a major league lineup. So, we’ve got a run of eight batters where one of baseball’s recently-best pitchers is pitching at his best. Since deGrom is still relatively unknown, let’s use this stretch of eight strikeouts in an attempt to gain a better understanding of who Jacob deGrom is and how he operates. Obviously, since nobody reached base, we won’t get a look at him pitching out of the stretch or working his way out of a jam, but I’m confident you will know more about Jacob deGrom after reading this post than you did beforehand. If you somehow leave with less knowledge, you are likely in need of immediate medical attention.

I’m not going to show you every pitch because that would be 37 pitches and that would be outrageous. We’re going to pick our spots here.

Batter No. 1 – Christian Yelich

dg1

This works out nicely, because the first sequence of the game is a particularly deGrommy sequence. You see, deGrom’s game is built around the four-seam fastball. While it doesn’t top triple-digits on the radar gun like Yordano Ventura or Garrett Richards, it has good life to it at 94mph and there are results to prove it. Batters have hit just .198 off deGrom’s fastball with a .305 slugging percentage. A .503 OPS is second in the MLB, bested only by Tyson Ross. A 26% swinging strike percentage is third, behind Price and Madison Bumgarner. deGrom has a five-pitch arsenal, but it’s the fastball that leads the way.

In this at-bat, two elevated fastballs precede an offspeed pitch to change the eye level and set up two swinging strikes on fastballs that put Yelich away. You’ll notice a few trends here: fastballs to get ahead, offspeed to change eye level and timing, fastballs to put away.

Batter No. 2 – Donovan Solano

Again, deGrom starts Solano off with two fastballs to even the count at 1-1. This time, he comes back with a slider:

no2-1

deGrom doesn’t command the slider as well as his other pitches, but at 87mph, it’s one of the 10 hardest-thrown sliders in baseball. This one comes in at 89 and, again, changes the eye level before he blows him away with the heat:

no2-2

Batter No. 3 – Casey McGehee

With regards to the fastball, it’s not just deGrom’s four-seamer that gets him by. He also has a sinking two-seam fastball with eight inches of horizontal break that has both top-20 swinging strike and groundball rates. Here it is at 94mph freezing McGehee in a full count to strike out the side:

no3-1

Batter No. 4 – Marcell Ozuna

deGrom leads off the fourth inning with a fastball to Ozuna taken down the middle at 93. Already ahead in the count 0-1, he drops in this little number:

no4-1

According to the PITCHf/x run values we have here on the site, deGrom’s curveball has been the best of his three non-fastball offerings, checking in at about one run better than average, per 100 pitches. It’s got an above-average whiff rate, but what really makes the curve stand out is his ability to command it. He throws it in the strike zone 38% of the time, which is actually the highest zone rate of his whole arsenal. Here, it serves both to get deGrom ahead in the count 0-2 and to take Ozuna’s timing off the fastball. Two pitches later, Ozuna takes a two-seamer down the middle for a called strike three. The bat never left his shoulders.

Batter No. 5 – Justin Bour

no5-1

First pitch fastball: check. Offspeed pitch(es) to keep the hitter off balance: check. Elevated fastball to blow the hitter away: check.

Bour’s at-bat, like Yelich’s, is a pretty accurate representation of deGrom. He moves the fastball around early in the count to set up the offspeed pitches, but once he gets the count to two strikes, he elevates the heater to put hitters away:

degromelevate

On non-two strike counts, deGrom’s average fastball velocity is 93.3. Once he gets to two strikes, that ramps up to 94.2. Sequencing, elevation with two strikes and an extra tick of velocity are the leading reasons why his fastball has gotten such good results without triple-digit radar readings or plus-plus movement.

To go back to the sequencing for a moment, I think there might be another factor that helps play up deGrom’s fastball. Take a gander at his pitch usage table over at BrooksBaseball. Notice how consistent he is in his usage across all counts. He doesn’t lean on any certain pitch in a given situation. None of his pitches are necessarily elite, but they’re all good enough and can be thrown to batters on either side of the plate, making it hard to time him up by sitting on a specific pitch.

Batter No. 6 – Adeiny Hechavarria

I’m just gonna let this one play out naturally, because this one doesn’t need words.

no6-1

And then:

no6-2

Batter No. 7 – Jordany Valdespin

deGrom mixes things up a little bit to lead off the third, using the slider as the putaway pitch rather than the fastball:

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 6.46.31 PM

Batter No. 8 – Jeff Mathis

And then Jeff Mathis gets more of the same:

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 7.17.00 PM

Action shot of the hair, moments after making history:

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 9.16.03 PM

Because this is baseball and baseball doesn’t make sense, deGrom’s perfect game and streak of eight consecutive strikeouts is broken up by opposing pitcher Jarred Cosart on a ground ball to right field in the next at-bat. deGrom himself is one of the best pitchers in the league with the bat, so just think of it as pitcher karma.

Nevertheless, he had made history, or at least added to it. This streak, perhaps, helped thrust his name in the national spotlight, but if you’ve been paying attention, the hype about Jacob deGrom extends beyond a streak.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

18 Comments
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Ken
7 years ago

The NL Rookie of the Year choice should be a real litmus test for how much voters value / trust the defensive metrics.

If you don’t believe Billy Hamilton is or could be worth that much on defense, it should be a landslide in favor of deGrom. Billy Hamilton doesn’t get on base, doesn’t hit for power, and doesn’t steal bases with a high success rate. His case is pretty much about the outfield defense.

cmg8462member
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken

Agreed, but at this point even if you 100% agree with his defense and UZR and think it’s represented his defense perfectly — deGrom is almost of equal value in 50-50 split WAR and is ending on a higher note. I think this will be a landslide either way.

Wonder if Sandy will manage up and get the Wilpons to spend as the Mets are sitting in the right part of the win-curve this upcoming year.. Probably not.

Ken
7 years ago
Reply to  cmg8462

Doesn’t sound like they want to upgrade. The shame of it is they’d have money to upgrade the outfield if it hadn’t been for the Granderson move which looks absolutely awful going forward.

vivalajeter
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken

Are there any decent options this offseason though? I can’t recall specifics, but when I saw a list of free agents I was pretty unimpressed.

Senor_Met
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken

If you dive into his batted ball stats, Granderson is due for a bit of a rebound next season.

Besides, there aren’t any FA outfielders I’d want to go after besides Melky, who seems set on staying in Toronto anyway.

Dave42
7 years ago
Reply to  Ken

Tomas.

Senor_Met
7 years ago
Reply to  cmg8462

If Billy Hamilton wins ROY, then Juan Lagares should get a significant amount of MVP votes. Not that that would happen, but it should on principle.