Struggling At Work When You’re Great at Work

You’re not as good at your job as Jacob deGrom is at his. That’s no knock on you — I don’t even know who you are, much less have access to your performance reviews or job history. But deGrom is one of the very best, in all of history, at the thing he does. I’m sure you’re a great accountant or whatever, but you just don’t stack up.

There’s good news, though. As it turns out, deGrom is actually relatable at times. Last Thursday, deGrom came into the office and had an absolutely miserable hour of work. He got smacked around the park and gave up three runs before recording three outs. And if one of the best of all time at a job can have an off day, then anyone can.

What does a deGrom off day look like? Like anyone’s, kind of. It starts with being a little sloppy, making a silly mistake that you know, even as you make it, isn’t right. For example, don’t leave a fastball, the second pitch of the game, here:

That’s not where pitches are supposed to go. It was a 100 mph fastball, but middle-middle is still not a good look, and Ehire Adrianza laced it past Dominic Smith and into the corner for a leadoff triple. Two pitches in, nothing was going right for the best pitcher in the game.

Of course, having a bad day at work doesn’t mean doing absolutely nothing right. Freddie Freeman was next to bat, and with Ronald Acuña Jr. getting the day off, he was quite possibly the most dangerous hitter deGrom would face. Four straight sliders, all to roughly the same spot, produced a familiar result:

But we’ve all been here before: when you’re having a bad day, doing one task correctly doesn’t fix it. That presentation looks sharp, with every little detail just the way you want it, but then your boss changes some things, asks you to rewrite it. Next thing you know, Ozzie Albies is lining a slider into center field for an RBI:

Three batters, two hits? That’s certifiably awful by deGrom’s standards. Even worse, he frittered away a golden opportunity to turn things around. Albies was down in the count 0-2 after two wonderful sliders before deGrom threw him another three straight, the last of which we just saw. That makes nine straight sliders, and trying the same old reliable tricks over and over again, only for the result to frustrate you, sounds like a familiar bad day at work to me.

Of course, two hits and a run isn’t a truly bad day’s work for deGrom. He’s given up runs in seven of his 14 starts this year, the bum. No, for a really bad day at work, something really bad needs to happen. Maybe you hastily rewrite that presentation and inadvertently make two glaring math errors — little mistakes, to be sure, ones you’d normally catch, but now your big project looks bad. Or maybe you worry that hitters have figured out your slider, so you go to a fastball on 0-2, and Austin Riley takes you out of the park:

In a vacuum, that’s a perfectly fine pitch that Riley managed to beat. It surely didn’t feel that way to deGrom, though. On his first 0-2 pitch, he’d gone to his trusty slider again, the tried-and-true escape button. He overcooked it, left it high and away, and Riley fought it off. Another slider in a favorable situation, another middling result, which made for four straight blah results in a situation that deGrom usually aces.

That might undersell it. When deGrom throws a two-strike slider, he ends the at-bat then and there with a strikeout 40% of the time. That’s the best rate in baseball, which makes sense: deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball, and the slider is his best strikeout pitch. Four straight times, he failed to execute well enough to win. That home run was the punishment — get forced out of your comfort zone, try to improvise, and your bad day at work can spiral.

Three runs in less than one inning? That’s a bad beginning for any pitcher, not just deGrom. It wasn’t even a huge spate of bad luck — at least, it wasn’t exclusively. The Braves hitters, who had been collectively terrible this year, were simply his match; his slider wasn’t sharp enough to get them out, and his fastball got pummeled. That wasn’t some dink by Riley that narrowly escaped the park; it was a 101.4 mph laser, plenty deep even if it hadn’t been hit to the corner. For a four-batter span, deGrom’s performance simply didn’t pass muster.

Though he recovered to close out the inning, it’s hard to call three runs in the first anything but a disaster. That’s as many runs as he’d allowed in any start all year, and more earned runs. Things got worse, too; Abraham Almonte led off the second with a double, and Kevan Smith followed with a single to center. Watch this pitch and tell me deGrom wasn’t having a bad day:

Center cut, behind in the count against a backup catcher; this is the lot in life of a journeyman, not the best pitcher in baseball. Almonte made an abysmal read on the play and didn’t score, but that hardly seemed important; deGrom, the best person in the world at what he does, was all sixes and sevens, tripping over himself and looking thoroughly ordinary. Eight batters, three extra-base hits and two singles? A rough week of work shouldn’t feel so bad — it can happen to anyone.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though; you struggle at work more often than deGrom does. In fact, he made that exact point the rest of the game. First and third with no one out? No problem whatsoever. He struck out the next three batters he faced, all swinging; crisis averted.

From there, he kicked it into overdrive. Though deGrom sometimes struggles at work, he doesn’t do it the same way you do. You’re merely human, after all, and he’s a baseball cyborg sent from the future.

Seemingly instantaneously, a switch flipped. He retired the last 18 batters he faced — the best in the business operating at his absolute peak. Of the 21 outs he recorded, 14 were via strikeout, including an absolute bullying of Albies. After a slider for a called strike, he threw a perfect slider that Albies hopelessly waved over:

With that pitch in the back of both of their minds — the exact corner of the strike zone, at a blistering blistering 91 mph — good luck catching up to 98 at the top of the zone:

Everyone struggles at work, even the very best. Everyone flails through simple tasks they should be able to do in their sleep — replying to an email from your for you, striking out the side for deGrom. There’s no explaining it, and there’s no shame in it either; we can’t operate at peak potential 100% of the time, no matter how badly we might like to.

A quick word of warning: though you share a basic fallibility with deGrom, he is emphatically not “just like you.” This isn’t me telling you that you can be the work equivalent of the greatest pitcher of the 21st century. What I am saying is that everyone has bad days. We all have a baseline level, and working below it is inevitable. Struggling at work is a fact of life. It’s what you do afterwards that matters.

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

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His unreliability makes him virtually unrosterable. My fantasy team’s ERA went up after this start. May have to drop him.