The Mets may have dodged a bullet, or they may have experienced their most Mets-like moment of the 2018 season — with that franchise, you can never be sure. On Wednesday night at Citi Field against the Braves, after he was seen wincing during a third-inning swing of the bat and again following a fourth-inning pitch, Jacob deGrom departed with what was soon characterized as a hyperextended right elbow. The good news, revealed in manager Mickey Callaway’s Thursday morning press conference, is that a postgame MRI revealed no structural damage to the elbow. No torn ligaments, in other words. Whew.
Nonetheless, almost immediately, confusion reigned in Queens. The New York Daily News‘ Kristie Ackert initially reported that, via Mets sources, deGrom “is expected to miss at least four starts with the hyperextended elbow.” But shortly afterwards, multiple reporters tweeted that deGrom had been cleared to make his next start on Monday. Hardly the finest hour for a team that’s attempting to change its reputation for turning injury management into a punchline.
As Ackert later explained, “I was told by sources there was a much bleaker outlook on deGrom earlier this morning. I reported what I was told, my bad. The #mets are cautiously optimistic he will make his next start and so is deGrom.” SNY’s Andy Martino bolstered that account by saying that sources told him that the team would prepare deGrom but “haven’t made any decision to scratch him yet.”
Via Newsday’s Roger Rubin, here’s what the 29-year-old righty explained to reporters:
“A couple times when I’ve swung and missed this year, I’ll feel a little something in the back of my elbow, but it never has bothered me throwing,” deGrom said. “Then when I went back out there it was more in that biceps — like I felt a little something — so I think [I] erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t getting worse, but it didn’t feel good, so I decided to say something.”
How deGrom feels during and after his catch session on Friday and bullpen session on Saturday will determine whether he does indeed take his turn, though the prudent thing would probably be to stash him on the 10-day disabled list. The Mets certainly hope all is well, because deGrom has been one of the biggest keys to their strong first month, and one of the league’s top pitchers thus far. He’s currently tied with Max Scherzer for the league lead in WAR, second in FIP (2.13), third in strikeout rate (32.0%) and tied for fourth in K-BB% (25.4%). Furthermore, he owns a career-high swinging-strike rate of 15.2%, and when he left Wednesday’s game, he was riding a streak of 18.1 consecutive scoreless innings via two starts against the Braves sandwiched around one versus the Padres.
Since his emergence amid the Matt Harvey-less void in 2014, deGrom has been the rock of the Mets’ rotation, making 114 starts, 19 more than any other Met (Bartolo Colon is second) and compiling 18.0 WAR, exactly as much as the more celebrated and controversial Harvey (5.8) and Noah Syndergaard (12.2) combined. He did his time on the DL in late 2016 due to an ulnar nerve problem that required surgery, but other than that, his availability has rarely been a concern.
Alas, after deGrom’s departure on Wednesday night, the Mets wound up being swept by Atlanta on their own field, losing 7-0 and then getting thumped 11-0 on Thursday, surrendering first place in the NL East in the process. They’re now 17-12, having more than leveled off after an 11-1 start. The rotation hasn’t been the only culprit in their slide, but aside from deGrom and Syndergaard (3.10 ERA, 2.30 FIP, 1.3 WAR), it’s been a very mixed bag, ranking 12th in the league in ERA (4.24) but a more respectable sixth in FIP (3.67) and fifth in WAR (2.8). Aside from the performances of the two co-aces, the most positive development has been that of Zack Wheeler, who made just 17 starts over the past three seasons due to — you got a minute? — Tommy John surgery, a flexor strain, a nerve injury, biceps tendinitis, and a stress reaction. Thus far, the 27-year-old righty has pitched to a 4.09 ERA and 3.69 FIP, with three good starts out of four.
The rest of the rotation situation has not been as good. On the heels of a disappointing 2017 season that was abbreviated by a nerve issue in his elbow, 26-year-old lefty Steven Matz has pitched more than four innings just twice in five turns and owns a 4.98 ERA and 5.45 FIP; he’s given up more than two homers per nine innings. Lefty Jason Vargas, whom the Mets signed to a two-year, $16 million deal this winter, was hit by a comebacker on March 17, suffering a nondisplaced fracture of his hamate that required surgery, and has been dreadful in his two turns thus far. He was lit for nine runs in 3.2 innings in his debut on April 28, then allowed another six runs in 4.2 innings on Thursday, but hey, he at least trimmed his ERA from 22.09 to 16.20 (alas, his FIP rose from 9.97 to 10.87).
And then there’s Harvey. For whatever optimism there may have been in early March — or even early April, after his five-inning, one-hit outing against the Phillies on April 3 — that’s gone now. Cuffed for four homers and 14 runs in 16 innings over his next three starts, he was pulled from the rotation after his April 19 turn, and he hasn’t worn the move to the bullpen well. Leaving aside the off-field stuff that fuels the city’s tabloids — and that only intensifies the microscope under which he’s placed himself — he’s had just one scoreless relief outing out of four. On Thursday, he was thumped for five runs in two innings of garbage time, and he’s now wearing a 7.00 ERA, 5.71 FIP and 2.0 HR/9. Via Pitch Info, his average fastball velocity is down 1.5 mph from last year (from 94.3 to 92.8), his out-of-zone swing rate has dropped from 27.3% to 21.1%, the league’s third-lowest rate among pitchers with at least 20 innings (Matz, at 19.1%, has the second-lowest), and his swinging-strike rate is a meager 8.2%
As a unit, the Mets bullpen has been merely middle-of-the-pack in terms of ERA (3.98, ninth) and FIP (4.16, 11th). Closer Jeurys Familia owns a 1.69 ERA and a 27.7% strikeout rate, but he’s blown three of his last five save chances, all of which the Mets wound up losing. More promising have been the workhorse efforts of Paul Sewald and converted starters Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo — all three of whom have thrown at least 16 innings, putting them on pace to exceed 90 — helpful on a team that’s not getting a lot of deep starts. Gsellman’s gained a tick of fastball velocity (from 93.6 to 94.5, via Pitch Info) and his swinging-strike rate has shot from last year’s dismal 7.4% to a robust 12.2%. Lugo’s throwing his high-spin curveball a hefty 28.5% of the time (up from 17.4%), and his strikeout rate is at a career high 21.4%. Sewald’s secondary stuff has become more effective, and he not only has a 29.2% strikeout rate but a 3.1% walk rate. Sewald and Lugo entered Thursday tied for the major-league lead in outings of two innings or more, with six.
As for the Mets’ offense, which scored just two runs in three games against the Braves, it’s been feast or famine since the end of that 11-1 stretch, with 25 of their 68 runs since coming in a pair of blowout wins agains the Nationals and Padres; in the rest, they’re scoring just 2.9 runs per game. We’ll save that story for another day, however. For the moment, despite the drubbings by the Braves and the fall to second place, they’re in better shape than they were last year at this time (13-15), and they’ve still got deGrom. In an NL East that’s almost been turned upside-down by the emergence of the Braves and Phillies, and by the sluggish start of the Nationals, they’re still in this thing.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.