AnalysisNL East

Jake deGreat: Chronicling his big-league career

Jacob deGrom entered the ballpark with long, brown hair flowing as he stepped on the mound at Citi Field for his major league debut against the New York Yankees in the Subway Series. He was filling in for the injured Dillon Gee, a journeyman starting pitcher who stayed atop the then-Mets rotation anchored by Jon Niese and Bartolo Colon. Ironically enough, the 26-year-old late-bloomer was facing off against Yankees rookie Chase Whitley, who was also making his MLB debut. Before he even took the mound, deGrom had cemented himself into New York baseball history, as he and Whitley became the seventh and eighth players, respectively, to make their debuts in the Subway Series. It was time for deGrom to take the national spotlight — something that he would have to learn to get used to.

A Stetson University graduate, Jacob deGrom was a shortstop on his college baseball team; that is until his coaches urged him to learn how to pitch because of his strong throwing arm. After this move began to pay dividends for Stetson, deGrom impressed scouts by pitching against then-Florida Gulf Coast University ace and current Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, a game in which deGrom famously hit a home run off of the A.L. Cy Young Award winner-to-be. The Mets took notice, and selected deGrom with the 272nd pick of the 2010 M.L.B. Draft, a start of a long and arduous journey to reach the big leagues.

Following UCL reconstruction surgery in 2010 and a season on the sidelines to recover in 2011, deGrom began to show his big-league potential, pitching to a 2.43 ERA for the Class A-Advanced Savannah Sand Gnats in 2012. deGrom quickly ascended the ranks of the Mets’ farm system, ending the next season in Triple-A, where he was added to the 40-man roster following the conclusion of the season to prevent him from being eligible for the Rule 5 draft that Winter. One month in to 2014, it was showtime for deGrom, receiving a long-awaited call to the big leagues.

In a classic deGrom game, the Yankees beat the Mets 1-0, with the only run coming on a two-out, RBI double by slugger Alfonso Soriano. Other than that one earned run, deGrom struck out six and walked two in seven innings pitched, exiting the game after 91 pitches. After a rough stretch in June of that season, deGrom began to solidify himself as the future ace in the second half. But it was on a cold night at Citi Field in mid-September where deGrom would truly begin to display his greatness, striking out eight consecutive batters in a game against the Miami Marlins, tying a major league record.

Following the conclusion of the regular season, deGrom became the fifth Mets player to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award, winning the NL Rookie Triple Crown by leading all qualified rookie pitchers in earned-run average, wins, and strikeouts. Moreover, deGrom set a Mets’ rookie franchise record by pitching 67.1 innings without giving up a home run.

In 2015, deGrom took to the national stage as a National League All-Star, dominating by striking out three American League batters on just 10 pitches. He finished the regular season with a 2.54 ERA and placed seventh in NL Cy Young Award balloting; however, he would prove to be key in the Mets postseason push that October.

Facing Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, deGrom struck out 13 Dodgers batters in game one of the NLDS over seven shutout innings, allowing five hits and one walk in a 3-1 Mets victory. When the series came down to the wire in a decisive game five, deGrom faced off against another ace in Zack Greinke, giving up two runs in six innings pitched: another quality start. Thanks to his heroics on the hill, the Mets won the game 3-2, and advanced to the NLCS against the Chicago Cubs.

After a lengthy postseason run that ended in heartbreak for the Mets, deGrom came out with a vengeance in 2016, allowing just two earned runs over three starts that April. After finishing the season’s first half with a 2.61 ERA, deGrom tossed a complete-game shutout against the rival Philadelphia Phillies with seven strikeouts and one walk. However, deGrom would endure a stormy rest of the summer, ending the year conceding 16 earned runs over his final three starts. In early September, it was announced that deGrom would be out for the remainder of the 2016 season with right elbow discomfort and finger numbness. He underwent ulnar nerve surgery to alleviate the distress, and aimed to be ready for Spring Training in 2017.

While 2017 had some bright spots for deGrom, including tying a franchise record by collecting wins in eight straight starts, stealing his first career base, and hitting his first career home run, deGrom had arguably the worst season of his career, finishing with a 3.53 ERA in 31 starts. Furthermore, he enjoyed a fully-healthy season as he eclipsed the 200-inning mark for the first time in his big-league career.

Whether it has been intended or not, deGrom’s average fastball velocity has been on a steady climb since his major league debut in 2014. The 2017 season resulted in deGrom’s largest jump in velocity since his debut, throwing his fastball at an average of 95.2 miles per hour, significantly up from 94.0 mph the year before. Additionally, deGrom’s spin rate proliferated, going from 2297 to 2362 revolutions per minute. With these changes, hitters were beginning to have considerable difficulty hitting deGrom’s now-signature pitch, whiffing on it in 32.3% of plate appearances.

During the shortened 2020 season, deGrom’s fastball clocked in at an average of 98.6 miles per hour, accounting for just over 43% of his total strikeouts on a whiff rate of 36.8%. Like the fastball, deGrom’s slider and changeup velocity and movement have steadily risen since 2014 and were at the top of the league in terms of velocity last season among starting pitchers. Remarkably, deGrom’s velocity has increased with age, a trend that generally follows more of an inverse relationship among most starting pitchers. Perhaps this phenomenon can be attributed to deGrom’s lack of wear on his pitching arm, as he did not regularly pitch until his junior year of college — or the fact that deGrom decided to cut his long, brown hair prior to the 2018 season.

Prior to the 2018 season, several changes took place with deGrom, most conspicuously, his new short haircut. Aside from becoming tired of having to maintain it, deGrom believed the move could add a few miles per hour to his fastball. More on that later. DeGrom also made it publicly known that he was setting an individual goal to win the NL Cy Young Award that season, after placing in the top 10 the last three years prior. Fast-forward to the end of the season, and the narrative completely shifted.

Jacob deGrom dominated Major League Baseball throughout 2018, finishing the season with the third-lowest single-season ERA since the mound was lowered in 1969. However, that 1.70 earned-run average, along with 0.41 HR/9, a career-high 269 strikeouts, and a league-leading 218 ERA+ and 1.98 FIP, was supplemented with a 10-9 win-loss record, genuinely amplifying the debate as to whether a pitcher’s win-loss record should be considered in award voting.

It turns out deGrom had transformed into so much of a master of his craft that season, that he nearly won the NL Cy Young Award unanimously, receiving 29 of the 30 first-place votes. The 2018 National League All-Star’s 24 straight quality starts, 11 consecutive of which he allowed one run or fewer, overtook the approximately 3.5 runs per game the Mets offense was providing him in each start, the second-lowest run support figure in the majors. The 2018 season was even more historic for the 30-year-old ace, as he became just the second player ever to win a Cy Young Award with an ERA under 2.00, at least 250 strikeouts, and less than 50 walks in a single season. Furthermore, his 10 wins also set a record as the fewest by a starting pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in the modern era. It was a season like none other, one Major League Baseball may never see again.

The next season, deGrom added another award to his trophy case, becoming just the 11th pitcher in major league history to win a Cy Young Award for a second consecutive year. Still, though, he was unable to win the award unanimously, again receiving 29 of the 30 first-place votes. Despite deGrom’s difficult beginning to the 2019 season in which he posted a 4.85 E.R.A. over the month of April, he was still able to earn another all-star appearance and posted a 2.07 ERA over his final 27 starts. By season’s end, deGrom was leading the National League with 255 strikeouts, second in Major League Baseball with a 2.43 E.R.A, and making space in his trophy case for another historic honor.

DeGrom put up another stellar season in 2020, achieving an E.R.A of 2.38 in 68.0 innings pitched with an MLB leading 104 strikeouts. While he finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting during the pandemic-stricken season, deGrom continued to maintain his reputation as one of baseball’s most effective starting pitchers.

In 2021 thus far, deGrom has been far-and-away baseball’s most effective starting pitcher. The Mets’ ace took home NL Pitcher of the Month honors by posting a 0.51 ERA over 35.0 innings pitched, and became the first pitcher in major league history to strike out 50 or more batters in his first four starts. The man they call the deGrominator returned Tuesday night from a 10-day injured list stint due to right side tightness. He was limited to five innings of work on 63 pitches, striking out nine and giving up one earned run. deGrom’s next scheduled start is Sunday, May 30 against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field.

Featured Photo: Twitter/@mets

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