When Jazz Chisholm Faced Jacob deGrom

To begin, I want you to take a look at this screenshot from Saturday’s game between the Mets and Marlins at Citi Field. What do you think happened? What might have been the outcome?

First things first: That’s Jacob deGrom on the mound. He’s the best pitcher on Earth, as well as other inhabited worlds we have yet to discover. And as expected, he’s been mowing down the Marlins. In the first inning, he dismantled Corey Dickerson on four fastballs that went 99.9, 99.8, 100.4, and 100.1 mph. Next, he struck out Starling Marte with two fastballs, both above 99 mph, and a wicked slider. Could Jesús Aguilar, the next batter, save face for his team? Nope; unable to keep up with deGrom’s heater, Aguilar popped out to Pete Alonso in foul territory.

After deGrom retired two more Marlins — both on strikeouts — we’re back to the moment in the screenshot. In the batter’s box is Jazz Chisholm, one of Miami’s many promising young players. Today, in addition to manning second base, he’s tasked with facing a pitcher who has been dominant thus far. It won’t be easy.

But before I talk more about Chisholm, there’s a detail in the screenshot worth elaborating on: the count. With a called strike and a swinging strike under his belt, deGrom has his opponent in a corner, 0–2. How good is this for a pitcher? Last year, the league-average wOBA was .320; in 0–2 counts, that plummets to a measly .165. The advantage belongs to the pitcher, which deGrom himself is perhaps aware of; his own 0–2 wOBA was .100. What’s more impressive, though, is his performance in all two-strike counts, not just that specific one. Here’s a list of pitchers who threw at least 1,000 two-strike pitches between 2018 and ‘20 and allowed the lowest wOBAs. deGrom’s appearance here shouldn’t be surprising:

Best Pitchers on Two-Strike Counts, 2018-20
Pitcher wOBA
Josh Hader .139
Kenta Maeda .172
Jacob deGrom .173
Chris Sale .173
Walker Buehler .176
Justin Verlander .179
Yu Darvish .180
Gerrit Cole .181
Clayton Kershaw .184
Hyun Jin Ryu .186
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This could also be (and is) a list of some of the league’s best pitchers. After all, the ability to arrive at two-strike counts and not waste them is one of the requirements for being one. So, without knowing much about Chisholm, you’d probably think he’s in trouble. Without knowing much about either Chisholm or deGrom and just looking at the count, you’d also think the same.

But Chisholm is no ordinary player. Signed by the Diamondbacks as an international free agent but traded to Miami in mid-2019, he garnered recognition for his sheer raw power. In that offseason’s Marlins farm system ranking, our Eric Longenhagen and former FanGraphs writer Kiley McDaniel tabbed him as the team’s best prospect and noted about his offense:

“…the power is real (a 91.4 mph average exit velo would put him in the top 40 of the majors, while 48% of his balls in play being over 95 mph would be in the top 30), the lift is there (he has a career groundball rate in the low 30% range and a 17 degree average launch angle according to a source)”

Those are impressive numbers, especially considering that Chisholm was 21 at the time. With monstrous power, however, came a noticeable flaw. As Longenhagen and McDaniel wrote, Chisholm “whiffed in 30% of his career plate appearances, partially a product of a sophomoric approach to hitting and otherwise due to him arguably being too explosive for his own good.” There was the upside of a superstar, but also a real risk that he would strike out too often to ever become productive at the major league level.

When the Marlins called up Chisholm in 2020, some of those concerns began to manifest. In 62 plate appearances, his strikeout rate was 30.6%, and his O-Swing and SwStr rates were both above league-average. He also experienced a power outage: A disappointing hard-hit rate of 29.7% placed him 339th out of 438 hitters with at least 25 batted ball events that season.

Still, Chisholm showed glimpses of his potential. The bat speed required to pull a 97-mph fastball in on the hands for a home run is no fluke:

Now, back to the future. Through seven games, Chisholm is off to a hot (or at least power-filled) start, slashing .200/.346/.500 for a 130 wRC+. But he’s a hitter who whiffs often in the crosshairs of a pitcher who’s known for eliciting whiffs.

Let’s pick up the story from here. This second screenshot is Chisholm in mid-swing:

Uh-oh. I mean, that’s gotta be a whiff, right? It’s a 100 mph fastball located upstairs — the perfect strikeout pitch against a vulnerable hitter. There’s no way Chisholm catches up to that. Even if he did, the damage inflicted would be mediocre at best. Up to that point, there had only been 19 home runs hit against 100-plus mph pitches in the Statcast era. And against those in the vicinity of where deGrom located his? Zero.

The situation isn’t completely hopeless, though. Chisholm might have plenty of swing-and-miss in his game, but he has fared surprisingly well against high velocity. I asked Eric Longenhagen about this, and his research revealed that Chisholm, who faced 59 fastballs thrown 95 mph or harder combined in 2019 and ’20, whiffed on only four of them. Plus, that home run I showed you earlier was hit off a difficult fastball, both in terms of velocity and location. The jump from 97 to 100 is huge, but if there’s a prospect who could withstand the might of deGrom, it might just be Jazz Chisholm.

There had been little variation in the game leading up to this at-bat, full of the rhythms and sounds familiar to fans of baseball. I watched the game, absentminded, as pitches landed with thuds inside gloves and thwacked against the tips of bats while commentators filled in the blanks with whatever seemed relevant. But when that monotony is disrupted without warning… that’s when the game flares to life. Like the outfielder who all of a sudden must track down a batted ball, our attention is captivated by the emergence of new, unexpected stimuli.

Top of the second, two outs, an 0–2 count. It seems like the unlikeliest of moments for a break in continuity. In this sport, though, you never know. Because this is what happened:

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

DeGrom’s body language of shock at the contact speaks for all of us