WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When Jacob deGrom calls up video of what he considers to be one of his masterpieces, what he always notices first is how he made it all look so effortless.
He dominated the Cardinals that afternoon two years ago, allowing a hit to the second batter of the game, and then nothing more. He struck out 11 in eight shutout innings, dispatching the final 23 hitters in order. Not once did he appear to strain.
Since then, it has become his template, a useful reference whenever he’s searching for answers. Last season, one rife with turbulence, he watched it often.
“For some reason, in that start, everything looks like it was nice and free and easy,” deGrom said on Tuesday after another encouraging outing in the Mets’ 2-1 Grapefruit League victory against the Astros. “And I wasn’t really fighting myself. So, I kind of compare that one to some of the others from last year.”
With every outing this spring, deGrom has added more and more distance between himself and last year, when his fastball wasn’t quite the same and his season ended with surgery to correct a nerve issue in his right elbow.
The latest evidence of his newfound health came against the Astros. In four innings, deGrom struck out six. His fastball topped out at 97 mph, well ahead of where he was at this point last year. But more important the righthander generated that power with seemingly little effort, in stark contrast to last season.
“The main thing is mechanics,” deGrom said. “The ball is coming out better than it did last year and it did feel like there was less effort level. So, the big thing for me is to try to stay smooth and repeat my delivery.”
On Tuesday, deGrom’s only sin was grooving a 3-and-1 fastball that Brian McCann hammered onto the bullpen walkway behind the rightfield bullpen at the gleaming new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. It’s a mistake he likely wouldn’t have made in the regular season, when the righty would have been fine with issuing a walk.
Otherwise, deGrom was brilliant, giving the Mets another reason to believe that the pitching staff has bounced back from a season of bumps and bruises.
“Right now, they’re all healthy and they’re showing us why,” manager Terry Collins said. “They’ve got great stuff. They can take over a game.”
If deGrom wasn’t blowing fastballs by batters, he was finishing them off with a nasty slider, as he did with McCann to end the first inning. By the end of his start, he threw 52 pitches, putting him on track to be stretched out by Opening Day.
“It’s just like a video game with him, especially when he’s on,” catcher Kevin Plawecki said.
A year ago, the 28-year-old deGrom went 7-8 with a 3.04 ERA, showing a measure of guile as he pitched around the flickering velocity on his fastball. Surgery had brought on more doubt.
“After you have a surgery, you’re curious of what you’ll be able to do,” he said. “You like being able to throw hard. I think it helps. But at the same time, I pitched pretty well whenever I didn’t have my velocity so I think that was a big learning point for me.”
Pitching without his best stuff, deGrom paid closer attention to sticking with game plans. He honed in on locating his pitches. From the mound, he based some of his pitch selection by reading the swings he enticed from opposing hitters.
Now that his fastball is back, he looks much closer to the pitcher in that game film from May 21, 2015, deGrom hopes to put last year’s lessons into play once more. He wants to take something from his struggles.
Said deGrom: “I actually think that probably will help me in the long run.”