I’m a Mets fan, so you’ll see random posts opining on various Mets minutiae.
But not minute is the ballad of Jacob deGrom. The hurler was the least known of the Big Five that was sure to lead the Mets to years of postseason appearances and World Series victories.
Among Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz, deGrom wasn’t much of a prospect, and hardly anyone predicted his eventual rise to superstardom.
Baseball works in mysterious ways, of course. Harvey crumbled and is now pitching in the baseball hinterland of Baltimore, having gone 21-36 with a 6.13 ERA since 2017. Syndergaard had one really great year, 2016, earning an All-Star selection by going 14-9, 2.60 with 218 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings – but he’s been hurt, underwhelming or both since, and hasn’t pitched since 2019.
Wheeler wasn’t bad with New York, but he was once a 6th overall pick – yet he pitched no better than a number three starter for much of his Mets tenure. In typical Mets fashion, now that he’s with a division rival, he’s pitching like a Cy Young candidate. And Matz never quite put it all together, sometimes bubbling under greatness before pulling the rug out from underneath our expectations. His Mets career culminated in a 0-5, 9.68 ERA showing in 2020, and the club said sayonara.
Then there’s deGrom, the unassuming 9th round draft pick who didn’t reach Triple A until he was 25, who turned no heads with a middling 4.51 ERA the year before his big league debut, who was already in his age-26 season by the time he pitched for New York.
Yet, he’s the one who became a two-time Cy Young winner. He’s the one who made a bunch of All-Star teams. He’s the one who averages nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings, who has never allowed more than 59 walks in a season, who is the envy of the league.
All that is surprising, sure. But not shocking is his sudden bout with injuries, and – I hate to say it – his impending, inglorious decline. He is a 33-year-old pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball more than any other pitch, at an average speed of nearly 99 miles per hour. The triple digit barrier doesn’t stand in his way, as 100-plus is a frequent occurrence.
All this on an elbow that already had a Tommy John surgery in 2010. All this on an arm that has been pitching professionally for more than a decade. All this on an arm – and a body – that is quickly exiting its physical peak years and entering baseball senescence.
Can anyone honestly say they didn’t see this coming? Some of the greatest pitchers of our era, when their decline started, fell off rapidly. Johan Santana rattled off nearly a decade of pitching magnificence, just to get hurt, miss a year, and be out of baseball one year after that. Brandon Webb made three All-Star appearances in a row, got hurt, pitched one more game, and was done. Roy Oswalt was humming along, until he wasn’t. After his age-33 season, he was just 4-9 with a 6.80 ERA, and that was it.
Santana collapsed after his age-31 campaign; Webb after age 29, Tim Lincecum after age 27, Roy Halladay after age 33.
deGrom will be no different. His demise is forthcoming, and it won’t be pretty. It won’t be enjoyable. Mets fans will be set to wonder what could have been.
Now, he could mount a late-career comeback. That’s not an impossibility, either. Dennis Martinez had a disastrous swoon, then returned to pitch over 2,000 innings and win 134 games. Swoon, too, did Bartolo Colon, and the legend of Colon is one that will live on in baseball lore for generations. He returned from baseball’s no-man’s land to toss nearly 1,400 frames, win almost 100 more games, and endear himself to sports fans the world over. Even CC Sabathia managed the feat – saving his Hall of Fame chances by doing so – pulling himself from his career’s nadir and tossing nearly 600 more innings.
But Martinez, Colon, Sabathia – sure at points they had passable fastballs, but none of them were flamethrowers. DeGrom is. He throws – or threw, whether he’ll continue remains to be seen – smoke … and the hotter you throw, the quicker you burn out.
Therefore, a crafty deGrom redux, with his injury history, his style of pitching, his advanced age, doesn’t seem likely.*
*But there is hope, still, as Frank Tanana went from throwing fire to tossing junk. But he made the transition in his mid-20s, not his early-to-mid 30s.
What does the future hold for deGrom? We can hope for the best. But a Hall of Fame ending doesn’t seem likely – his seven-year peak from 2015 to this year pretty well mirrors Santana’s from 2002 to 2008. Assuming deGrom returns a shell of his former self, and in the long run I think he will, his fate with Cooperstown will be the same as Santana’s.
Santana received 2.4 percent of the vote in his first and only year of eligibility. A player needs 75 percent to get in.
Appreciate what you have when you have, I guess, because before you know it … it’s gone.