Jacob deGrom’s rise from light-hitting college shortstop to one of the best pitchers in the world is well documented, and the story will get its next chapter on Wednesday when the NL Cy Young Award winner is revealed.
But before deGrom’s historic ascendance this year, before his two All-Star appearances, before his Rookie of the Year season out of nowhere, before the Tommy John surgery at the outset of his pro career, before Mets scouts found him at a tiny Florida university, there was a pitching prologue that — if nothing else — shows how hilariously unpredictable life can be.
For about three weeks in the summer of 2009, playing for his hometown DeLand Suns and former Mets manager Davey Johnson in a wood-bat summer league, deGrom was a pitcher. And he hated the experiment so much that he quit the team.
“I felt bad, because I had never quit anything in my life,” deGrom said with a laugh and the benefit of hindsight, noting that he hasn’t quit anything since. “But at the time I was thinking, what am I doing here? I felt like it was pointless. Why do it?”
The background: deGrom was turning 21, fresh off a sophomore season at Stetson University in which he was the starting shortstop and batted .258. He had one random relief appearance that spring. A year later, the Mets chose him as a righthanded pitcher in the ninth round of the 2010 draft.
DeGrom signed up to play for DeLand, a member of the Florida Collegiate Summer League, which has few relevant major-league alumni. The Suns played at Stetson in DeLand, where deGrom lived, so it was all very convenient. Johnson — a veteran big-league manager who guided the 1986 Mets to the World Series championship — was the Suns’ new manager, almost a decade removed from his most recent pro managerial gig.
Stetson’s coach, Pete Dunn, called Johnson with a bit of deGrom direction: Dunn planned to try him as his closer, and he asked that deGrom be used as a pitcher over the summer.
When deGrom showed up, he was, let’s say, surprised. And unhappy.
“I didn’t really know I was going there to pitch. That was news to me. So I wasn’t too thrilled about it when it happened,” deGrom said. “I kind of said, ‘Hey, I still need to get ground balls and still need to be able to hit.’ That wasn’t really the plan.”
Or as Johnson put it: “He played short. He didn’t want to pitch, and he made that very clear.”
How did deGrom make that clear?
“He told me [repeatedly],” Johnson recalled via phone from his home in Winter Park, Florida. “He said he wanted to be an infielder, and I understood that. This is the kind of guy that wants to play every day instead of every fourth or fifth day, you understand? So it didn’t bother me.”
DeGrom grudgingly went along with it for a while. He didn’t want to be too stubborn, he said. And he turned out to be pretty good. In five games, he allowed one run, which was unearned, in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out six, walked none and allowed six hits.
Turns out, future Cy Young finalist Jacob deGrom was a natural on the mound.
“I saw him throw the ball and how he pitched, I said, man, he needs to pitch,” Johnson said. “He had some talent, boy.”
Jimmy Nelson, now a Brewers pitcher, saw it too. Hanging out with the hurlers, deGrom got to know Nelson, a tall righty from the panhandle drawn to the Suns by Johnson’s presence, and they remain friends.
Nelson was always on the pitcher track — to that point, he was mostly a reliever for the University of Alabama — and thought deGrom should join him.
“He started throwing and it looked pretty natural from the get-go,” Nelson said. “It was impressive, man. At [6-4], the speed at which he picked up pitching was pretty impressive.”
Wildly talented and bursting with potential, deGrom was unconvinced about the whole pitching thing.
DeGrom threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings on June 20. That was his last game of the summer. He doesn’t remember that appearance or any of the others particularly well. “I wasn’t really into it,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing there.”
He left the Suns to work out on his own, hitting in the cage and taking ground balls to prepare for Stetson’s fall season. But Johnson didn’t hold it against him. He suggested that the tenacity that made deGrom want to remain a shortstop is the same quality that helped him go from non-prospect to Cy Young favorite.
“When somebody has the talent, that’s one thing. But it’s makeup,” Johnson said. “He was hard-headed, and that’s a good sign. If you’re hard-headed, you can put your mind to work and you can put your body to work. And that’s a great combination. His makeup was off the charts.”
The next spring, deGrom indeed started the season at shortstop, mixing in a few relief appearances. Dunn quickly decided he needed to be in the rotation. The rest is history, but not without some hiccups.
A half-dozen mostly bad games into his minor-league Mets career, deGrom found out he had a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. It required Tommy John surgery and cost him a year and a half of development time.
That leaves deGrom with one of his life’s greatest what-ifs: What if he had pitched more that summer? Might he have blown out during his junior year of college instead of shortly after going pro?
“Then you redshirt your senior year, then you’re a senior draft pick,” deGrom said. “It was a huge what-if, but at the time that wasn’t my thought process — to save my arm — because I hadn’t had any arm problems. I was in the infield.”
THE NL CY YOUNG FINALISTS
G Rec ERA IP K
Jacob deGrom, Mets 32 10-9 1.70 217.0 269
Aaron Nola, Phillies 33 17-6 2.37 212.1 224
Max Scherzer, Nats 33 18-7 2.53 220.2 300
Only five Cy Young Awards have gone to starting pitchers with better earned-run averages than Jacob deGrom in 2018. How deGrom would rank among the elite:
Pitcher Year, Team ERA
Bob Gibson 1968 Cardinals 1.12
Dwight Gooden 1985 Mets 1.53
Greg Maddux 1994 Braves 1.56
Maddux 1995 Braves 1.63
Dean Chance 1964 Angels 1.65
Jacob deGrom 2018 Mets 1.70
Sandy Koufax 1966 Dodgers 1.73
Pedro Martinez 2000 Bosox 1.74
Ron Guidry 1978 Yankees 1.74
Koufax 1963 Dodgers 1.88
Martinez 1997 Expos 1.90