Many consider Jacob deGrom to be the perfect machine for demolishing hitters.
Long, lean, with a near-flawless delivery, deGrom is creating unprecedented spikes in velocity more frequently than anyone in history could imagine, never mind replicate every five days. His body is basically a 6-4, 180-pound slingshot.
"That’s exactly right," pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said.
But at what point does deGrom’s freakish ability to stretch the limits of generating torque and speed turn on its master? Are we seeing deGrom’s own brilliance — combined with a relentless pursuit of greatness — ripping him apart at the seams this season?
You have to wonder now that deGrom has sustained yet another injury and was forced to exit Wednesday’s 6-3 victory over the Cubs after three innings because of what the Mets described as "right shoulder soreness." That’s a new one for deGrom, who was trying to overcome flexor tendinitis in his right elbow since last Friday’s start and landed on the injured list in mid-May with right lat muscle tightness.
But because this is deGrom, he still struck out eight of the nine Cubs he faced, and 10 of his 51 pitches were 100-plus mph (nearly half were sliders, a rarity for him). Overall, his max velocity was 100.7 and his four-seam fastball averaged 99.6.
On the surface, deGrom mostly appeared fine in lowering his ERA to 0.54, but afterward he admitted not feeling right at the top of the third inning, curiously after his two-out RBI single. He remained in the game anyway, struck out the side then disappeared into the dugout tunnel — kicking something at the top of the stairs on his way down. DeGrom’s first two MRIs were clean, but now he’s headed for a third Thursday afternoon.
"This is getting old," deGrom said. "I want to be out there competing, and coming out of these games with these little things, hopefully this turns out to be nothing."
DeGrom has been registering 100 mph on the gun since the Grapefruit League in March, and through 11 starts, he’s thrown 138 pitches at 100-plus this season. To put that into perspective, no other starting pitcher had as many as 20.
But here’s the catch. Like any ultra-performance machine, the strain on deGrom’s anatomy has to be significant. And deGrom isn’t getting any younger. He turns 33 on Saturday — not old, but enough to have some wear and tear on the moving parts. And since he’s throwing harder than anyone else in the sport, more often, does he suspect that could be the trigger to these pressure points popping up?
"I don’t know the answer to that," deGrom said. "It’s frustrating and I don’t know where to place the blame. I don’t know where it came from, honestly."
The Mets seemingly took a calculated risk in returning deGrom to the mound only five days after the flexor tendinitis appeared, but both he and manager Luis Rojas dismissed the idea that these three injuries, over the span of three weeks, are interconnected. Even so, regardless of what Thursday’s MRI reveals, it’s clear that deGrom needs another 10-day stay on the IL, minimum, if only to let his body fully repair itself for the next time out.
Another factor to consider: DeGrom’s four-seam fastball averages 99.2 mph, steadily climbing from 96.9 mph in 2019 to 98.6 last season, and he’s using it nearly 62% of the time, up from 40-45% in previous years (thanks BaseballSavant.com). All of that dominance apparently is coming with a steep physical toll, and the Mets weren’t sure of the boundaries.
"I don’t think that anyone really knows," Hefner told Newsday before Wednesday’s game. "But yes, there’s probably a line at some point where we’re red-lining too much. But he’s so under control, you watch him and think 95 .
"It can be tough for fans sometimes when we take him out after 80 pitches or five innings, but it’s incredibly tough overall — he’s the best pitcher on the planet. You want him to throw 150 pitches. But if we want to do the things that we want to do this year, that guy has to pitch as close to every five days as possible. That’s always in the back of our mind."
All the more reason the Mets must be extra cautious this time around, if they’re lucky enough to dodge serious injury for a third time with deGrom, who’s had numerous minor issues creep up in the decade since his Tommy John surgery in 2010. Before Wednesday, deGrom had only eclipsed the 100-pitch mark once this season (109 on April 23) and averaged 83.9 pitches per start. He has one shutout, but otherwise averages just over six innings, as the Mets look to prioritize his preservation over the long haul.
Now they have to hope — again — that deGrom hasn’t been too great for his own good.