PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For as good as Jacob deGrom has been the past two years, there was a stretch during the first half of 2019 when a second consecutive NL Cy Young Award was far from a given. Even when he got beyond an April slump, deGrom was good but not great, a perfectly acceptable degree of effective but something less than his historic dominance from a season prior.
Then came a conversation with Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Famer and bona fide pitching legend, at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Martinez, now an analyst for MLB Network (as well as a special assistant for the Red Sox), said he had been watching deGrom from afar and noticed he seemed more annoyed on the mound lately.
And so Martinez imparted some wisdom: lighten up.
“He noticed I was getting more frustrated than I have in previous years and said, ‘Hey, calm down out there and just have fun,’” deGrom revealed Wednesday afternoon, after Mets pitchers and catchers’ first official workout of spring training. “I do feel like it helped. I was getting frustrated not taking it one pitch at a time.”
What happened next was thoroughly chronicled: a 1.44 ERA in the second half (including a 1.29 ERA in September and 23 consecutive scoreless innings to end the year) and a second straight Cy Young in another landslide vote.
DeGrom and Martinez met again in January, when Martinez presented deGrom with his plaque at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards dinner, and the current Mets ace made sure to thank the former Mets ace for that midsummer tip. It was not until that night at a Manhattan hotel ballroom, deGrom said, that the impressiveness of his feat set in. He really did win a second Cy Young in a row, an accomplishment matched only by Martinez and nine others.
As deGrom prepares to defend that title again — beginning with an unremarkable bullpen session in front of Fred Wilpon, Brodie Van Wagenen, Luis Rojas and others Wednesday — he does so with a clear goal: winning the award for a third straight time. The only pitchers to do that are Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux, who each won four in a row.
“Any time you’re at your best personally, you’re going to help the team,” deGrom said. “You set personal goals, and I’ve said that the past couple of years, that [the Cy Young] is definitely another personal goal in mind. But most importantly, it’s a team game and I want to win a World Series.”
DeGrom said he began building a relationship with Jeremy Hefner, his fourth pitching coach in almost six years in the majors, by talking “quite a bit this offseason.” Among deGrom’s early questions, because he just had to know: On April 9, when the Twins touched him up for six runs in four innings to begin a poor three-start stretch, was deGrom tipping his pitches?
Hefner, then the Twins’ assistant pitching coach, said no.
“That was the first team to score quite a few runs off me,” deGrom said. “He said they had nothing on me. I said I didn’t think they did, because when I looked at the video, everything looked the same to me. My misses were just over the middle of the plate.”
Stinking — a relative term — last April will help deGrom as he sets out on defending his Cy Young again, he said. Last year he was wary of, but still succumbed to, the pressure of his own great expectations. He hopes to have learned his lesson, with a little help from Pedro.
“I was trying to be too perfect,” deGrom said. “I was getting frustrated and kind of let things spiral on me, versus taking it one pitch at a time and going from there. I think going through that definitely will help this year.”