Jacob deGrom Is On The Tightrope
8:58 AM EDT on August 8, 2022
On the 65th and 66th pitches of Jacob deGrom's start against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday afternoon, Braves outfielder Michael Harris II did something that none of his teammates had managed to do over the previous five-and-a-third innings, which was put his bat on one of deGrom's sliders. Before Harris gamely sporked those two sliders foul, the Braves had missed all 18 sliders they'd swung at. When deGrom finally struck Harris out a few pitches later, he did it with a fastball.
Because of where deGrom was on his return from injury—this was his second start after missing more than a year with various vague upper-body injuries, the most recent of which had to do with his shoulder blade—Manager Buck Showalter was going to have to take him out sometime soon. Because deGrom was pitching just about as well as any person has ever pitched at the time, he couldn't. He'd struck out 12 of the 17 batters he had faced to that point. None of those hitters had reached base, or even managed to do anything against deGrom that could have been construed as a significant threat in that regard.
Think about how good a pitcher would have to be to do that sort of thing, let alone to a team that had been winning games at something like the same clip as the 1927 Yankees for the last two months. Pitchers have done this before, of course. Perfect games happen, and in the last three years, both Chris Sale and Jesus Luzardo have also struck out 12 hitters while using the 76 pitches deGrom wound up throwing on Sunday. The point is that no one could hit him. No one on one of the very best teams in the sport was even coming close.
Anyway, deGrom was that good on Sunday. Better, by a lot, than he had been in his first start in 390-odd days last week, in which deGrom looked like an infinitesimally more human version of the vengeful godhead that he was before he was shut down last July. When deGrom's body finally broke under the relentlessly fine-tuned force of his virtuosity last summer, he had a 1.08 ERA after 15 starts. He had allowed 53 baserunners in 92 innings, and struck out 146; his WHIP was 0.55, and he was striking out 13.27 batters for every walk he issued.
There have been a lot of numbers in this story already, but also there is baseball every day and it can be difficult to keep this all in perspective and while the numbers give a sense of the scope and scale, if not quite the shape. Look at those numbers and then try to think of a pitcher who might be able to produce them over the course of even half a season. Now think about what it might be like if that pitcher had been pitching like that for five years, whenever he was healthy enough to do so.
When deGrom gave away his perfect game in the next at-bat by walking nine-hole occupant Ehire Adrianza, and then lost his no-hitter and shutout in the subsequent at-bat by serving up a homer to Dansby Swanson, that bad news felt something like a gift. At least the Mets could take him out, so at least this wouldn't be the game in which he'd break, again. The Mets went on to win, 5-2, which improved their record against the Braves to 8-4 on the season and their lead in the National League East to 6.5 games. The Mets were, over the course of five games in four days against their foremost divisional rival, both very good and very lucky, to the point where they had the best starter on the defending World Series champions sputtering like Jerry Lundegaard.
That all matters, to the extent that any baseball-related thing matters in early August, but it wasn't what mattered most. "The process has been very slow," deGrom said after the game, "and I was trying not to do too much, but I felt good the whole time." On its merits, this is just the sort of zero-calorie column-filler that pitchers issue to the assembled press when they are coming back from injuries. Because Jacob deGrom is so manifestly unlike other pitchers, it is impossible to read it that way.
Jacob deGrom had carried a perfect game into the sixth inning before, which is not important but seems worth noting here. That was in 2015, and a 36-year-old Clint Barmes, who was spending his final big league season spelling Alexei Amarista and Yangervis Solarte as needed, broke it up. It was June, and the Mets didn't look anything like the team that would make a run to the World Series that fall, but deGrom already seemed like a good bet to figure in whatever improvement might come. He had already won Rookie of the Year and was about to make his first all-star team, but he was not the team's ace; that honor, or that curse, belonged to Matt Harvey. At the time, deGrom was 27, a ninth-round draft pick already made good and a towering scouting victory for an organization institutionally averse to such things. He was still figuring things out, but also already well on his way to figuring out things that very few big-league pitchers ever figure out.
He has since figured all that out, and also some other stuff, and so become uncanny in turn. The human body is not meant to throw a baseball as a general rule; people who are shaped like Jacob deGrom, who has been listed at 6-foot-4, 180 lbs. for a long time and still more or less looks it, should not be able to throw fastballs at 101 miles-per-hour and (vicious, objectively preposterous) sliders at 94 under any circumstances, let alone in the sixth inning of a Major League Baseball game after missing more than a year with various injuries related to the stress that doing all that has put on his body. There are a number of additional "let alone" clauses that could fill the space this sentence is filling instead, but if you are reading this you already know what Jacob deGrom is like. He is not like other pitchers, or anyway no other pitcher is like him.
Max Scherzer, the Mets' 37-year-old co-ace and the man that deGrom will certainly supplant as the sport's highest-paid starting pitcher in the offseason, is the exemplar of a specific type of contemporary pitching excellence, but he isn't really like deGrom, either. Scherzer, who comports himself like a slightly less-chill version of Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Predator whenever he is on the mound, is paradoxically much more normal than deGrom. He is identifiably the apex version of a Very Good Pitcher, and punches and counterpunches masterfully as such, whereas deGrom seems to be doing something much stranger, and riskier.
Even gods age, and the work of a deity-tier ace in the back third of their career is mostly about being judicious with the lightning they've got left. It's not a coincidence that the few pitchers who ever get to this level often also spend a few years getting punted around the league; they have in them something much bigger than themselves, and then have to figure out how to use it. Scherzer's career, among many others, was shaped like that. It has been different for deGrom. He arrived late to the craft—he was, as every broadcaster is obligated to note, primarily an infielder in college—and has been absolutely laying waste to it ever since, thanks in large part to some idiosyncratic and independent training methods, and also the diet of a less-discerning 15-year-old. There are long videos you can watch in which people who think only about pitching try to figure out how deGrom retires to his Florida ranch every winter and comes back, in something like the same body, with something like (but not quite exactly like) the same mechanics, throwing ever faster and more luridly unfair pitches than he had before.
If there are answers to be found there, they're surely less interesting for the average baseball fan than the story deGrom tells from the mound every time his turn comes up. There is the story of how deGrom got to where he is, and the specifics of that—a tweak here or there, a tilt or fraction of a percent drilled into his muscle memory over the winter that pays out once the weather gets warm again—are what they are. If they are knowable at all, they are not really replicable. They are real, but they are definitely also magic. It's maybe best to leave them be, or just to watch them and applaud at the moments when it's appropriate.
But that's not the story, really, and wasn't what had a sellout crowd as quiet and as loud as they were on Sunday, as the circumstances dictated. That story also isn't the thing that makes every deGrom start so tightrope-walk tense. The Mets, as blessed as they look, have nothing much to do with that story, either. The thrill of watching Jacob deGrom is, by now, all about him, and what he is doing and trying to do with and even to himself. All that merciless improvement, year over year, every feat of untangling and refinement, led not just to what he did on Sunday but to a future whose outer boundaries still can't be seen. Beyond the greatness is the stubborn relentlessness of the man himself, and the tension that his signature inability to relent has introduced into it all. There is only so much that a body can do when it comes to throwing a baseball, and Jacob deGrom is doing exactly that much, and clearly plans on continuing to do it. In his second start in more than a year, deGrom already refused to do any of it at anything less than the maximum.
Because of deGrom's mastery, this isn't as reckless as it sounds. Theoretically, deGrom could do a little less, or just do what he does differently, and in so doing maybe make it possible to do it all a little longer. He does not really seem interested in that, though. He has figured out how to do the most, and how to push the idea of that ever further out; he seems determined to just keep on doing that, and more, for as long as his body will allow him to do so. All the reasonable counterarguments seem, somehow, to miss the point. It appears that Jacob deGrom is back, which means that he will just go on doing what he does, all of it and all out, until it is no longer possible. Do you have a better idea?