PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Amed Rosario isn’t Dansby Swanson yet, and Gavin Cecchini trails Brandon Phillips by a dozen years in big-league experience. But we’re not sure the real Braves would have fared much better than the stand-ins the Mets deployed Saturday morning against the shaggy-haired dynamo that Jacob deGrom has turned into this spring.
With deGrom scheduled to face Atlanta next week at Citi Field, potentially against old pal Bartolo Colon on April 5, the Mets kept him back from Saturday’s two-hour trip to Orlando. No sense in letting the Braves get a late look at deGrom with the regular season right around the corner. It’s common practice in spring training.
But seriously, would another glimpse of deGrom really matter? If anything, the way he’s pitching right now, the Braves might have been demoralized knowing they’d be dealing with him when it counts up in Flushing in a few more days. Throwing 96-97 mph, with an improved changeup to complement his slider and curveball, what deGrom has done to the Grapefruit League is almost unfair.
“Yeah, I definitely feel a lot better this spring,” deGrom said after his 77-pitch outing at First Data Field. “Honestly, I think I feel better than I felt at any point last year.”
Coming off surgery to relocate the ulnar nerve in his right elbow, deGrom’s biggest worry this spring probably has been containing his hair in Florida’s tropical humidity. At this point a year ago, he was coping with the 2015 playoff hangover, trying to perk up after throwing 216 innings, including 25 high-intensity frames in October.
The fallout was a subpar season by deGrom standards. He lost a full whiff in his strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio (9.7 to 8.7) and his 1.20 WHIP was a noticeable jump from his 0.98 the previous year. He still pitched well through the fatigue until his final three starts, when he was ripped for 16 earned runs and 31 hits in 14[/DROPCAP] 2⁄3 innings. His next stop was the operating table.
“After you have surgery, you don’t know what to expect,” deGrom said. “With my Tommy John surgery [in 2010], I was fortunate enough not to have any setbacks, and my rehab went smoothly. Same with this nerve thing. Once I was able to throw, I just followed the program, and I felt good the whole time. I was fortunate in that way.”
The easy velocity this spring is a good sign. Last season, deGrom’s fastball averaged 93.4 mph and peaked at 96.7, according to Fangraphs.com. The year before, he was at 94.9 and 98.8. The fact that deGrom regularly has been reaching 97 this early, in exhibition games, means the anticipated adrenaline boost of the regular season should get him up to 98 again.
Saturday’s mission was to push up deGrom’s pitch total before his final spring training tuneup, which always is a scaled-back start. The unofficial count was three hits and five strikeouts in six innings, but some of those involved five outs to stretch deGrom’s stamina. The somewhat controlled environment also allowed deGrom to throw almost exclusively changeups during his last inning, a pitch that he’s upgraded during the past month.
“I think it’s right where it needs to be,” said Travis d’Arnaud, who was behind the plate. “It’s got a lot of depth to it, and with the same arm action, so he’s not tipping it to the hitters. When you’re throwing 96-97, a lot of guys are going to have to gear up for that, and that’s what makes that changeup so effective. It’s definitely an equalizer.”
After deGrom polishes the changeup, his long-term goal is the same as the rest of his rotation-mates: to extend their dominance over the course of a full season. Of all the Mets’ young guns, only deGrom has logged 30 starts — once, in 2015 — and not one has gotten to the 200-inning threshold before the playoffs. Before he even reaches Opening Day, deGrom is cognizant of what it’s going to take to get to the finish line.
“Yeah, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “That’s big. You got guys like Bartolo who do that, and stay around for a long time.”
Speaking of Colon, deGrom broke into a wide grin when he was asked about maybe seeing him in the batter’s box at Citi Field. Colon was a favorite among the Mets’ rotation, and that could be an interesting showdown — especially if either one can stop laughing.
“I don’t think I’ll buzz him,” deGrom said, smiling. “I just don’t want him to get a hit off me.”
From what we’ve witnessed this spring? No need to worry about that.