How Jacob deGrom transformed into baseball’s most dominating pitcher
He looked at two batters. For the first time in a year and a half, Jacob deGrom had to delve into video to watch what he did not want to see. The Twins had overwhelmed him Tuesday: Three homers. Eight hits. Six runs. Just four innings.
The following day he cued up his worst performance since early September 2017. Except, in his estimation, the mechanics were good. So was the stuff.
“I was just missing in the middle.” He made the determination after two batters. “There is no reason to keep looking at this.”
He had his answer. Bad location. In 2017, a series of poor starts moved deGrom to live in the video room, trying to unearth the minutiae that would decode his problems. Until deGrom finally discerned that some days you just don’t have it.
If you are looking for reasons why deGrom navigated a year and a half of pitching without a clunker or how he graduated from very good to perhaps the best in the world, flushing failure is a place to begin.
“You stunk [Tuesday] night,” deGrom self-assessed. “It is over with. Now, it is time to get ready for the next one. That is just my mindset with everything that goes on.”
DeGrom had his streak of quality starts end at 26, leaving him tied with Bob Gibson (1968) for the longest ever. Appreciate the achievement.
No one had done it in half a century, and Gibson did it within arguably the best pitching season ever. Now that deGrom is done the longest current streak is five by Houston’s Gerrit Cole, Kansas City’s Brad Keller and Miami’s Trevor Richards.
“To do what he did over 26 starts, that is really hard to do,” an NL executive said. “That is [Mike] Trout from a pitcher. The best of the best at the peak of his powers.”
On Sept. 5, 2017, deGrom arguably had the worst start of his career — yielding nine runs (six earned) in 3 ²/₃ innings against the Phillies. Between that and Tuesday’s struggle against the Twins, the righty made 37 starts. He had a 1.62 ERA. The next best for anyone with even just 20 starts was 2.02 by Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell. The slash line against was .194/.242/.276, which is similar to the career batting mark of Charlie Morton (.197/.240/.269). Charlie Morton is a pitcher. DeGrom spent more than a season turning opposing hitters into Charlie Mortons.
This from a guy who was a shortstop until his junior year at Stetson, had Tommy John surgery in the minors and arrived to the Mets in 2014 as the “other guy” to Rafael Montero. But also within deGrom’s first two major league seasons, there was a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, a Division Series Game 1 start and a Cy Young seventh-place finish.
In the two years after that, there would be an eighth-place Cy, but another elbow surgery and more valleys than he had produced in 2014-15. The totality was still above average. He did not stay above average. His next step was to history. To a Cy Young, and a $137.5 million extension, and the quality-start run, and a level of excellence that conjured Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver.
“I’m really impressed at what he has done and how well he has done it,” deGrom’s father Tony said. “He didn’t even pitch until he was a junior in college. He was learning on the go.”
So this is about the education of Jacob deGrom: How did he get from there to here?
So much begins with natural gifts. When the Mets test players’ health and performance in spring, deGrom’s results were “off the charts,” according to Brodie Van Wagenen, deGrom’s agent turned his GM. DeGrom is lean, agile, quick twitch. His father speaks about his ability to pick up any sport quickly, not just baseball, but golf, basketball, bowling.
Pitchers who are athletes — think Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera — derive advantages over time. They can repeat their motions over and over, which generates consistency in locating pitches. They have body awareness so they can self-correct within a game — often within an at-bat — when they feel something off in their mechanics, as opposed to the majority who have to wait until a between-start film review or side throwing session to be tutored by others.
“I have been a pitching coach for 11-12 years, and you would be surprised at how few guys can do that [in-game fixes on their own],” Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “He has the tremendous ability to adjust and self-correct on the fly.”
Eiland became Mets pitching coach before the Cy Young season. He noticed in film deGrom’s tremendous arm speed, the power fastball, the ability to pitch up in the zone. But there was inconsistency down and away to righties. DeGrom tended to have his frontside drift, leading to him getting under especially his breaking balls and changeups. So rather than driving downhill and, thus, having the pitches bite downward, there was often lateral movement, which stays better in a hitter’s swing plane.
DeGrom knew it, felt it. Eiland recommended deGrom better gather over the rubber and get the ball out of his glove and into a throwing position quicker. Being such a good athlete, deGrom got the balance portion quickly and also can now feel even after one errant throw if something needs amending.
The results were overt. The extension created by working downhill, added more life to his fastball (it averaged a career-best 96 mph last year and is 96.5 this season). He was able to hit both low and away corners of the plate, giving the ability to now go successfully (with high velocity) to all four quadrants of the strike zone. Suddenly, he also could pitch hard inside to lefty hitters more efficiently.
The strongest gains came in the full repertoire.
Keep in mind that, for example, in the 2015 Division Series, the Dodgers all but eliminated deGrom’s secondary pitches, seeing them as inconsistent — and deGrom dominated Los Angeles anyway. His slider velocity has ticked up every season since 2016 (88.6 mph) to 91.1 last year and 92.5 mph so far this season. His usage of the pitch went from 16.9 percent from 2014-16 to 23.9 percent last year, moving one scout to say, “You can make an argument that the 2018 version of his slider was the best pitch he has ever had.”
DeGrom’s changeup usage climbed from 12 to 16.1 percent. The depth and consistency of both pitches improved.
“You are talking about a pitcher with the best precision on his fastball maybe in the majors and throwing at 95-plus going from inconsistent changeups and sliders — don’t get me wrong, they could be really good pitches at times — to above-average changeups and sliders,” a scout said. “When they are all on like they were last year, what does a hitter even look for, what can he do?”
Daniel Murphy, who played behind deGrom and has also had to face him, provided this hitter’s scouting report: “Jake has been able to develop a pretty devastating cutter/slider to go with an exploding four-seamer and a disappearing changeup. He can throw it by you or send you in two different directions at two different speeds with the cutter/slider and the changeup. He makes you cover the entire zone at different velocities and shapes to his pitches. Not to mention his misses are very small and competitive — there are no easy takes.”
So what does that leave Murphy feeling?
“I did prefer playing behind him more than I do facing him,” he said.
Blessing in disguise
DeGrom “just didn’t feel good” in 2016, his “arm was hurting.” He would undergo surgery that ended his season early, having a nerve in his elbow moved so that it did not brush up against scar tissue from his Tommy John surgery.
Yet, now deGrom describes 2016 as “the year I really learned to pitch.” The league knew him better, and he was operating without his best fastball.
“That year I knew I was not going to be overpowering,” he said. “But I still had to throw strikes and throw it where you want. So, I was figuring out a way to do that with less velocity. Fortunately, the nerve was a pretty easy fix, and I came back and I was able to have success. But I think knowing I could pitch at that lower velocity and having done it, I do feel that helped me.”
His fastball was a career-low 93.4 mph on average in 2016, so deGrom fixated more on command and increased his use of breaking balls even before mastering them fully and pitched to a 3.04 ERA in 24 starts. It provided a cornerstone to build upon.
“Fastball command has deteriorated at the major league level at an alarming rate,” an advanced scout said. “Once deGrom matured into a pitcher could pinpoint his fastball, he began separating himself. Plus command of 92 mph helps you win, but plus command at 97 helps you dominate.”
The scout continued: “DeGrom has stayed true to what we hunt — long, loose, effortless arm actions. Strength training has not interfered with his upside as a pitcher, allowing his arm speed and extension to continue growing his fastball velocity and overall deception. His fastball would not have the freeze ability it currently has, if not for his loose/whip-like frontside extension.”
Another scout said, “A lot of the fire-breathers can throw fastballs up in the zone, but they have no idea where it is going. [DeGrom] can do it for a strike. One step after another he developed Noah Syndergaard’s stuff but with elite command.”
Eiland said not to be fooled by the serene exterior, particularly between starts. “This guy has an inner drive. He is an ultra-competitor. He wants to be the best. … His concentration is unmatched, and you look into his eyes when you make a visit to the mound you see the fire.”
Tony deGrom said because sports came so easily to his son, there was a little bit of letting natural skill carry him before the major leagues. “Now, he is really forced to work at it too and that makes him even better.”
Jacob deGrom is dedicated and a hard worker. Father and son begin playing catch by November each year to keep his arm fresh, and deGrom feels two side sessions between starts allow him to retain good feel for his pitches. The feel allows him to command, and hitters know to come out swinging because deGrom will be near the plate. So he begins 0-0 counts as if there are two strikes. It is his competitive zeal not to give in, to stretch for better. That is why, he insists the Cy Young and extension, will not impact him. Nor will the bad start Tuesday.
He watched the two Twin batters on video and moved along, carrying just one item from the outing.
“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” deGrom said. “I want to go out and start another one.”
Question: You mean another streak of 26 quality starts?
“That’s the goal.”
A look at some of Jacob deGrom’s impressive metrics during his ascent to greatness:
DeGrom posted a career-best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate and average fastball and slider velocity in 2018.
Year K/9 SwStr% FB mph Slider mph
2016 8.7 10.7 93.4 88.6
2017 10.7 13.2 95.2 89.3
2018 11.2 15.1 96.0 91.1
Despite his increase in velocity, deGrom has used his fastball less in each of the past two years focusing more on his slider. He also used his change-up at a career-high rate as well in 2018.
Years Fastball% Slider% Curve% Change %
2014-16 61.0 16.9 10.1 12.0
2015 55.4 22.7 9.5 12.4
2018 52.1 23.9 7.9 16.1
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