During his minor league career, Jacob deGrom had a 3.62 ERA and struck out batters at about a league-average rate. Those are OK numbers, but without the context of his actual stuff, it’s not surprising he’d never been featured on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list — or that he’d rated no higher on the New York Mets’ prospect list than Marc Hulet’s No. 7 ranking coming into this season.
Now that the pitcher with the hair and the command and the fastball and the changeup is dominating the major leagues, it’s fair to ask: How did we miss this?
The first answer is Tommy John surgery. At least that’s why the 26-year-old made his debut later than most pitchers. Surgery claimed his 2011 and kept his innings down, which lengthened his development process. Age-at-level analysis would have questioned whether deGrom was an older pitcher beating up on younger competition.
The rest of the answer is more complicated, but there’s a common theme that will emerge quickly. “I was still learning in rookie ball,” deGrom said before a game against the A’s. “I am still learning.”
A big part of the process has been his changing pitching mix. Coming out of Stetson University, deGrom showed mostly fastball gas as a converted closer and shortstop. He only racked up 83.1 innings for the Hatters. “I threw a fastball, slider and change,” deGrom said of his college experience. “But the change was different then.”
He didn’t get to pitch much before surgery, but during rehab, he talked to a legend and learned two very important grips: Johan Santana taught deGrom his two-seam and changeup grips one day. That was a big deal for deGrom, as you can hear from the clips on the excellent Mostly Mets podcast on the subject.
Since then, deGrom has made some changes to Santana’s vaunted change. “I messed with it, made it mine,” he said. “I still work on it all the time because I get under it.” You can still see he hangs it from time to time, but when it’s on, deGrom said “it’s a fun pitch to throw.” It ranks 12th among starting pitchers in swinging strike percentage (21.2%).
Working on the fastball and changeup, deGrom got a lot of easy outs in A-ball. His ERA that year was a combined 2.43, and his ground-ball rate was slightly above average. But his strikeout rate was only around league average, and he was still old for his level.
Last year brought a new pitch. Pitching coordinator Ron Romanick thought it was time for a different breaking pitch, and started working with the pitcher on a curve. He told Toby Hyde about the moment the idea struck:
“His slider, I like it more as a curveball. The last time I was in Vegas, he threw some on the side – basically, the same grip, but just throw it like a curveball. And deGrom, he threw it, and I’m like, “that’s a curveball, I like how that comes out of your hand. It looks natural.”
Then deGrom spent the season getting a handle on his new mix of breaking balls. By his own account, he didn’t throw the curve this spring, and then began throwing it again in Triple-A at the start of the regular season.
His mechanics made him both well-suited for the pitch, but it also made the pitch difficult for him. Hyde said deGrom “drives hard toward home plate, but his forearm is tall (almost vertical) near his release,” which sets him up for a good curveball release. And yet, the pitcher thinks his release point makes it difficult sometimes. “I’m kind of a three-quarters guy,” he says. “Whenever I was learning the curve, it was tough for me to stay on top of it. I kind of cast it up and get underneath it.”
The pitch has come a long way, even this year. It currently ranks eighth among starters in swinging strike rate with a 17.6% number.
Maybe we should have noticed this pitcher with mid-90s velocity, great command, a strong changeup and a developing curve in the high minors — especially since his ground-ball rate surged, from around league average to 55% in Las Vegas this year. Still, he didn’t have the strikeout rate he’s shown in the big leagues.
The missing piece might be his slider. It’s changed along with the rest of his mix. “It’s been quite a bit harder than it has been,” deGrom said. The slider now hums along at 87 mph to 88 mph instead of 84 mph to 85 mph. “I’m fine with the slider being that hard, it’s almost like a cutter. It’s still different from my fastball speed-wise.”
What that last development has given him is five pitches with different movement and different velocities: two 93 mph fastballs, an 87 mph slider, an 84 mph change and a 79 mph curve. Since his four seam (9.8% whiffs), curve and change are all above-average when it comes to swinging strikes, it’s (finally?) not surprising he has flashed a great strikeout rate (25th among starters).
We might have missed that Jacob deGrom had all of this upside. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Hyde remembers a shared beverage with the pitcher in 2012 when he told deGrom that the pitcher “didn’t know how special his right arm could be.” All it took to refine the natural athleticism and command was his dedication to a learning process that tweaked his grips and his mix.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.