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Aug 02

Jacob deGrom: Underestimated to NL Player of the Week

Jacob deGrom isn’t supposed to be starting. Not at the Major League level. Not according to Baseball Prospectus. deGrom wasn’t included in the Prospectus’ listing of Mets’ top talents 25 or younger, and Jason Parks had this to say: “Sources aren’t sold that he’s a viable major-league starter, but he could find a home in the bullpen—where the 25-year-old arm could offer versatility, pushing the arsenal up a few ticks to work in bursts—or chew innings in a long relief/spot starter capacity.”

In all fairness to Parks, Baseball Prospectus, and these “sources,” deGrom probably never imagined he’d be a starter in the Majors either. As previously documented, he was primarily a shortstop at Stetson University before being converted to a closer1, missed an entire season in ’11 of learning due to Tommy John surgery, and prior to season’s start his fastball was clocking 92 instead of where it currently sits at 94-95.

Maybe deGrom belongs at the big league level, but he shouldn’t be consistently starting, and he definitely shouldn’t be posting numbers like the ones from July when he accumulated an eye-popping 1.4 fWAR, tied for fourth in MLB with Clayton Kershaw for pitchers and tied for seventh overall. To list personal bests notched in July would read like the headers in a CSV file, so I won’t even bother. You’re welcome. I will, though, show a few of them in a super fun table that makes these posts scream Amazin’:

Month ERA FIP WHIP K/9 K% BB/9
May 2.42 4.59 1.08 8.65 25.0% 12.0%
June 4.71 3.55 1.67 6.28 15.3% 9.2%
July 1.39 1.43 1.05 10.58 29.7% 5.5%

deGrom Pitching Splits

Umm, yeah. His K% for July actually does state 29.7%, which comes from striking out 38 of the 128 batters faced. For the first time in the not-quite Major League starter’s burgeoning career he struck out more than a batter per inning, and for the second time he struck out more than hits allowed for a given month.

How difficult was deGrom to hit this past month? He saw across the board jumps in whiff percentage for July for all of his pitches, most noticeably his fourseamer that saw batters miss 14.18% of the time and his curve where batters whiffed an absurd 28.85%. In case you’re wondering if he threw them less, therefore skewing the results, think again. He returned to throwing his mid-90s fastball nearly half the time, setting up his arsenal of breaking balls and offspeed to keep batters guessing.

Guns Blazing

When deGrom is at his best, his fastball paints the black at the knees with his slider more change of speed than hammer. His changeup has decent movement, darting away from lefties, though at times it seems to just hover there all meaty for a lefty to slap it into left field.2 His curve, which he rarely threw in June, has solid break to it and works well to induce batters to chase. Right now it’s his out pitch where his slider is for strikes. In fact, deGrom controls the slider so well that at first I mistakenly thought it was a Maddux-esque change that burrowed onto a right-hander’s shoelaces like a splitter. It’s a fine pitch. A pitch that anyone in the big leagues would be proud to throw and earn a called strike. Up until the start of July, the numbers bear that out as well. Batters whiffed 9.09% in May and 3.23% in June on the pitch. The first month, sure, you figure batters are learning what deGrom throws, and then in June, that’s when the trouble starts. It’s not a bad pitch. It just didn’t leave batters flailing.

In deGrom’s worst outing of the season, a mid-June outing against St. Louis, he allowed six earned runs on 12 hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings while striking out just two, his lowest outing of the season. Watch that game and witness a pitcher struggling to keep the ball down, missing his spots up in the zone. To lefties he particularly struggled, leaving his fastball high and outside, and though the first seven hits he allowed were all singles, the Cardinals batters were hitting ropes. Additionally with two strikes he couldn’t put batters away, and much of that was because his secondary offerings lacked bite.

His first outing in July was so-so, a five-inning affair where he struck out eight Atlanta Braves but allowed three earned. After that, though, is a pitcher who absolutely gets it. In his next four outings he struck out 30 in 27 1/3 innings while allowing just two earned on 21 hits and five walks. Smudge the line a little and take our history back to the end of June, and deGrom has allowed two of fewer runs in six of his seven starts, including three starts where he didn’t allow any runs at all. After his last such start against Milwaukee, he was named the co-National League Player of the Week along with Steve Cishek. For a guy who’s basically learning how to pitch, you can call that a pretty good month of on the job training.

Evolution of a Pitcher

So, how good has he been? Looking at all the rookie seasons in New York Mets’ team history, deGrom currently ranks 14th in total fWAR and K/9 and ranks 20th in FIP. He won’t near the lofty seasons of Dwight Gooden or Jon Matlack, but he shares a bit of company with Gooden in Mets’ annals. After striking out 11 Braves on July 8th, he joined Gooden and Nolan Ryan as the only Mets to strike out 11 or more twice in the first 11 starts.

It’s his start against Miami directly following that Braves game that illustrates how he’s grown as a pitcher. In that start deGrom used his curveball to great effect, relying on it more the second time through the lineup. If not for Eric Campbell misplaying a popup in the sun, I’d be mentioning zero runs allowed in three of deGrom’s last four starts and possibly the longest outing of his young career. He’s willing to throw any of his pitches in any count, which makes him increasingly dangerous to hitters as he perfects his craft.

deGromWhiffPerc

deGrom WHIF Percentage

No, deGrom isn’t going to maintain a near 30% whiff rate on curveballs, but don’t mistake an extremely high number as blind luck. He mixes his pitches well enough, that keeping hitters off balance shouldn’t be a major concern.

There are only so many innings left in deGrom’s soon to be abbreviated season, but he could sneak into the Mets top ten past notables Jon Niese and Rick Aguilera, and, while it’s a long shot, with 36 strikeouts he could slip past Dave Mlicki for 10th on the rookie strikeout list (he’s currently 18th). Not bad for a player better known for his floppy locks and looks like what would have happened had Joseph Gordon-Levitt been cast as Mitch Kramer in Dazed and Confused. No, he’s not Tim Lincecum either, though I originally referred to deGrom as the poor team’s version.

At first the association with Lincecum is natural, but he’s the wrong skinny right-hander. Too short. Lincecum is all arms and legs, leaping toward the batter as though to close the pitching distance by a solid ten feet. Watching deGrom more and more, I thought about Pedro Martinez, and there’s a comparison there in their respective repertoires as they both feature a fastball, a curve, and a change, not to mention the way they both cup the ball behind them and then whip their arms forward, but it was a tall, gangly pitcher that just so happened to wear 48 that finally clicked. The more I watched Pedro’s brother Ramon, the more convinced I was that I’d seen deGrom somewhere before.

Both players are 6’4, and while Ramon had a much higher leg kick, there’s this lift in their right legs as they begin their leg kick, this extension of their torso’s as they ready to hurl fire and electricity upon the awaiting batter.

I’ve read others compare him to Bronson Arroyo, Jered Weaver, and Ron Darling, so maybe there’s this fresh faced Everyman quality to deGrom that allows us to make of him what we will since he hasn’t made of himself a finished product just yet. I’ll keep to my Ramon comparison for right now.

Summary

Think of a rookie pitcher in New York this season, and you’ll likely think of Masahiro Tanaka first, linger there a moment with sadness, and then ruminate next on physics and the deadly curve of Delin Betances. Like “sources” in the Mets own organization, underestimate deGrom if you must, but you get the feeling it won’t be for long. For the moment, he remains the other guy drafted in 2010 behind Harvey, but for fans that haven’t had much to cheer about since Harvey’s ligament went snap, deGrom offers legitimate hope for a pitching staff that brings playoff games to Citi Field for the first time.

Chase Whitley and Betances may have stolen the headlines in deGrom’s debut3, shutting down the Mets 1-0, but the big stage didn’t faze him one bit: neither against the fancy pinstripes of the Mets crosstown rivals nor against a lineup of big names. He finished that start striking out six in seven innings while allowing one earned run on four hits and two walks. Impressive. Now, if the Mets could score a few runs for him, you’ll see a shiny, impressive W-L record to go with those K’s.

  1. People can say what they want about Omar Minaya and the state his regime left the Mets in, but that 2010 draft has already produced four Major League players for the team, including Matt Harvey, Matt den Dekker, and Josh Edgin, so, you know, there’s that.
  2. In deGrom’s debut, Yankees catcher Brian McCann did just that, lobbing a changeup that was a good 3-4 inches off the plate over Ruben Tejada’s head.
  3. It was Whitley’s debut as well.

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