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What can Jacob deGrom do for an encore this season?

How does Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom hope to improve on a career season in which he was the best in baseball?

An illustration of Mets ace pitcher Jacob deGrom.

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A half-year later, the numbers and the memories remain stunning.

The 1.70 ERA. The 24 consecutive quality starts. The .196 average — and .244 on-base percentage — from opposing batters.

The gutsy complete game in Philadelphia, after a rain delay and 100 pitches in the first eight innings. The dozen strikeouts against the Red Sox, the eventual World Series champions, at Fenway Park in an abbreviated duel with Chris Sale. The feisty fist pump after his last strikeout, No. 269 on the year and No. 1,000 in his career, in his last start, an eight-inning gem against the Braves for his 10th win.

Jacob deGrom’s 2018 was exceptional — NL Cy Young Award exceptional, once-in-a-generation exceptional, he-can’t-do-that-again-can-he? exceptional.

Therein lies the challenge this season for the Mets’ ace, who ascended from great pitcher to best in the world for at least a year. DeGrom already is where every pitcher wants to be. Now what?

Try to stay there.

“Last year is over,” deGrom said. “We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to as a team, and you set some personal goals. I was able to achieve one. I said it before, that that was a goal of mine, win the Cy Young. I would like to do it again.”

So, how can deGrom stay on top? What can he do for an encore?

WHAT THE METS THINK

Brodie Van Wagenen, last year deGrom’s agent and this year his boss as Mets GM, wants to be clear: “When players reach that level of performance, you’re not asking them to be better.”

That’s true for deGrom, for Brandon Nimmo and his .404 OBP, for Zack Wheeler and his 1.68 second-half ERA and so on. As much as manager Mickey Callaway and others talk about how they want to “get better every day,” at a certain point it’s not a practical goal. Merely sustaining is acceptable.

To Van Wagenen, sustaining is what got deGrom here to begin with.

“What made Jacob a Cy Young winner is his consistent mentality,” Van Wagenen said. “Jacob never lost his cool, or very rarely did. Certainly didn’t publicly. His success from the time he showed up in the big leagues is really predicated on his consistency and his unwillingness to give in to his opponent. That’s not going to change.”

Callaway’s best reference point for this sort of career arc is Corey Kluber, his pupil as the Indians’ pitching coach.

Kluber won the AL Cy Young in 2014, a breakout year and accomplishment that Callaway said launched Kluber to all of the success he’s had since. After underwhelming in his encore season (a still-good 3.49 ERA), Kluber has had three straight top-three finishes in Cy Young voting, including winning in 2017.

“What it does is gives you a confidence to have this stretch of three, four, five years that you’re going to be pretty good because you won an award like that,” Callaway said. “The confidence (changes). You just know. ‘Dude, I won a Cy Young. I was the best pitcher in baseball last year.’ That confidence gives you the ability to build on what you did the year before.”

The winner gets confidence (and a new contract worth $137.5 million), his opponents get motivation. Dave Eiland, the Mets’ pitching coach, knows that feeling from when two of his teams, the 2009 Yankees and 2015 Royals, won the World Series.

You come back the next year and expectations are different. You’re a wanted man, a wanted team.

“You got that target not only on your back, but on your front, too, and on your forehead,” Eiland said. “‘We’re coming for you.’ To be the best, you got to beat the best. And they’re going to come for Jake. But Jake’s the kind of guy, the competitor he is, he’s going to be ready for it.”

What can deGrom do for an encore? Eiland thinks that’s the wrong question.

“What can Jacob deGrom do to help this team win a world championship?” Eiland said. “That’s my answer. And that’s how I feel. You got your Cy Young. Go get a World Series ring. That’s what it’s all about.”

GOODEN: YOU’RE ALWAYS AWARE

Dwight Gooden remembers the trap well.

In 1985, he was like 2018 deGrom but better: 1.53 ERA, 16 complete games, eight shutouts — at age 20, following his Rookie of the Year season with a Cy Young season. When he came back in ‘86, as the Mets were on their way to their most recent World Series title, Gooden for the first month or two felt the pressure to match his own accomplishments, a practically impossible feat.

“I was trying to duplicate that because you’re aware of the big crowds, you’re aware of all the hype,” Gooden said. “You’re aware that opposing hitters, they’re locked in (against him). You can still be good — great — but not be a career year.”

Gooden’s advice to deGrom: Realize that a career year is a career year for a reason. Everybody else will compare all of his future seasons to 2018, but that doesn’t mean he has to, especially in the moment.

“He can’t let that affect him,” Gooden said. “1.70? That happens once in a generation. Even if he has a 2.50, that’s still outstanding.”

For Justin Verlander, who won his Cy Young (and MVP) in 2011, and Max Scherzer, who nabbed his first CYA in 2013, being the best brought a difference in the way opponents approached them.

Verlander saw the change in the other team’s starting pitcher.

“They tend to lock it in,” said Verlander. “I pitched just as well (in 2012) as I did in ’11, or close to it. And my record was not nearly as good as it was the year before. A lot of it has to do with that other guy really bearing down to beat you, not lose to you, to prove himself against you.”

Verlander remembers a similar feeling when he faced Roger Clemens, Josh Beckett and CC Sabathia as a young major leaguer. “You know runs are at a premium,” Verlander said. “There’s no [expletive] around. You give up a two-spot, you’re probably going to lose.”

Scherzer saw it the other way: Batters, not pitchers, giving him their all. That included approaches to counteract Scherzer’s strengths, seemingly more game-planning from hitters and hitting coaches. It’s that classic cat-and-moues game players so often reference, but at a higher level. “They’re really going to come after you,” he said.

These pitchers are world-class athletes and world-class competitors, never lacking in confidence. For some, though, being acknowledged as the best takes them to another level.

“You’d be stupid not to feed on that,” Verlander said. “You should feel that, you should relish that. You worked so hard. You’re the best pitcher in baseball. You should be happy about that. You should walk in with some swagger about it. You’re not being complacent or not trying to get better, resting on your laurels. But, man, this is pretty awesome.”

Scherzer, who won the 2016 and 2017 NL Cy Youngs and would have three-peated if not for deGrom, takes the complete opposite approach.

“Every time you step on that mound, you have to be 100 percent confident that you’re going to go out there and have success,” Scherzer said. “Whether you have the award or not absolutely means zero to what’s going on between your ears when you’re actually out there on the mound.”

WHAT DEGROM THINKS

In the immediate aftermath of the best season of his life — while baseball’s top teams were still playing and he was not yet named the Cy Young winner — deGrom was tempted to just . . . keep going. Don’t let the season end. Keep throwing. Keep pitching. Keep those feel-good mechanics in place until April.

“I got hung up with that this offseason, getting ready for this year. How do I repeat what I did? Or even make it better?” deGrom said. “I felt really good last year. Should I keep throwing? Almost pitching, to keep it? But there’s a time when you got to let yourself rest and get ready for the next season.”

Convention prevailed. DeGrom settled for a two-week break before casually starting in October to play catch again with his father, Tony, long his offseason throwing partner. His goal in the months since, including the dog days of spring training, has been to replicate the preparation from the year prior, to re-lay the foundation for routine dominance.

He’ll repeat the process, if not the results.

“Now it’s just preparing for this year,” deGrom said. “It’s done. I can’t do better than that year. I can’t do worse. It’s preparing for this year. That’s done, that’s not changing.”

Asked what he can improve on from last year, deGrom paused for four seconds, then said, “That’s tough. Looking back, kind of a crazy year.” No kidding. He paused for seven more seconds, trying to come up with something, anything. “Probably control the running game,” he said. And that’s coming from a guy who barely allowed baserunners to begin with, his 0.91 WHIP tied with Scherzer for the best in the NL last year.

As Verlander highlighted, when you’re as good as deGrom was last year, any improvements come in the margins, such as keeping your body running smoothly or fine-tuning fastball command.

It all brings deGrom back to the same simply stated, difficultly done objective he had this time a year ago.

“I said last year the goal was to win a Cy Young,” deGrom said. “So, hopefully win again. And help this team get to where we want to be.”

 

Illustration by Newsday's Neville Harvey

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