Jacob deGrom throwing 100 mph, as he did seven times during Sunday night’s first rehab outing for Class A St. Lucie, was great for back-page headlines and a nightmare for the desperately overmatched Jupiter youngsters.
Of far greater importance, however, is the Mets discovering some way to keep him as close to 100% as humanly possible. And if he continues to fire triple-digit fastballs at a rate no other pitcher in the sport can match, deGrom has yet to prove that’s an attainable goal.
This dichotomy is not lost on Mets officials, who no doubt are wondering — again — if deGrom’s supernatural ability to generate speed and spin can be harnessed by the physical limitations of a 34-year-old human. Over the past 15 months, based on deGrom’s myriad health issues, the evidence points to one conclusion: apparently not.
Buck Showalter, who hasn’t watched deGrom seriously compete since the dream team-up with Max Scherzer in a March 27 Grapefruit League game, seemed to echo the Mets’ apprehension when asked Monday about those unreal radar-gun readings.
“What are you going to do?” Showalter said.
That’s the reality with deGrom. He does what he does, and who can argue with back-to-back Cy Young Awards? His lean, wiry frame resembles a slingshot. And when deGrom is feeling strong, that propulsion system, with ridiculous torque, delivers a nearly untouchable fastball and a devastating low-90s slider.
But the Mets have known for a while now, mostly starting in 2020, that it could be challenging to push those boundaries year after year and remain intact. DeGrom has shared those concerns, too. Dating to July 2020, he has been diagnosed with 11 different ailments in 21 months, resulting in three stints on the injured list, the latest being the stress reaction of his right scapula (shoulder blade) that he’s currently working his way back from.
Last year, as deGrom struggled through a stop-and-start season that ultimately ended for him on July 7, I asked pitching coach Jeremy Hefner if his insane velocities — regularly topping 100 — were exacting too big of a physical toll.
“I don’t think that anyone really knows,” Hefner said back then. “But yes, there’s probably a line at some point where we’re red-lining too much.”
DeGrom not only was regularly topping 100 mph — the average speed of his four-seam fastball was 99.2, by far the highest of his career — but he was throwing it 57.4% of the time (h/t baseballsavant.com). Compare that with 98.6 in 2020 (44.9%), 96.9 in 2019 (48.1%) and 96.0 in 2018 (42.8%).
From the progression of those numbers alone, you could suggest a rather straightforward — if unscientific — formula: more velocity + more frequency = more injuries. But the Mets certainly have plowed through mountains of analytical data on deGrom, along with consulting their own medical experts, in an effort to fix any potentially dangerous flaws in his delivery.
Showalter hinted early in deGrom’s rehab process that the Mets were taking a closer look at his mechanics in the hope of coming up with some preventative medicine for their ailing ace. DeGrom also made a similar reference after Sunday’s start, when he struck out five of the six Jupiter hitters he faced over the 24-pitch outing.
“We’ve been working on some mechanical things that I saw were a little off in spring,” deGrom told reporters after striking out five of the six batters he faced in Sunday’s start. “And everything felt like it was in line tonight.”
Obviously, a positive development, but still a very small sample size. The true test can come only when deGrom is stretched over a period of weeks, and he’s expected to require at least another two or three rehab starts before maybe rejoining the Mets toward the end of this month (in the July 26-27 Subway Series at Citi Field perhaps?).
Last season, deGrom’s problems seemed to travel along the kinetic chain, from his lat muscle to the elbow to the shoulder. But even after eight months off to heal and recharge, deGrom couldn’t make it through spring training without his shoulder blade buckling from the strain of his March ramp-up (despite more 99 on the gun than past springs of 101).
A stress reaction is a precursor to a more serious fracture, so deGrom was fortunate to shut things down when he did. But it was a red flag nonetheless.
On the plus side, this season won’t be a marathon for deGrom once he gets back. Just two months of the regular season, with playoffs (presumably) to follow.
It will be the perfect length of time to audition for his next contract, as he already has said he’ll be opting out of the final two years of his $137.5 million contract with the Mets. He doesn’t need to throw 100 for that, but deGrom is all gas, no brake, even at St. Lucie.
“He’s just got a rested arm,” Showalter said. “What do you think he’s going to do when he comes up here? I don’t think he’s going to dial it back. So I guess he’s getting ready for what he’s going to be asked to do up here.”
DeGrom always takes care of business while on the mound. Staying there is the problem.