By now, the story of Jacob deGrom’s rise is the stuff of legend. The late-blooming ace wasn’t even a pitcher when he played high school baseball and went to a small school as a shortstop to get playing time. He has overcome injuries and adversity in his career and thus has become an unlikely contender for one of the greatest pitchers in baseball. Nevertheless, it’s a certainty that deGrom will have his name listed as one of the greatest Mets of all time, and Mets fans will be wearing his jersey for many years to come.
Not Long for Shortstop
In all sports, people love an underdog story, and Jacob deGrom’s journey certainly fits that bill. Undrafted out of high school, deGrom was recruited to play for the Stetson University Hatters as an infielder, and spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as a light-hitting shortstop.
Intrigued by his rocket arm, Stetson’s coaching staff asked deGrom to serve as the team’s closer in his junior year. After 12 games, however, the Hatters weren’t winning enough to warrant appearances from their closer, so they moved deGrom to the starting rotation.
DeGrom got an assist from All-American Chris Sale to get on the scout’s radar. Jacob started two games against Florida Gulf Coast University that season, which meant MLB scouts were on hand to check out FGCU’s pitcher, future first-rounder and MLB star Chris Sale. Although deGrom lost both games and finished the season with a losing record, he made enough of a good impression for the Mets to draft deGrom in the ninth round of the 2010 draft.
Starts and Stops
After starting just six games in rookie ball, deGrom was diagnosed with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. He had Tommy John surgery that fall and missed all of the 2011 season for rehabilitation.
To make matters more daunting, deGrom had arrived in a New York farm system flush with pitching talent. In 2011, Baseball America ranked the team’s 15 best right-handed pitching prospects. DeGrom was No. 15.
DeGrom used his time in rehab to gain strength and overhaul his mechanics. He also picked up a new weapon, courtesy of two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury at the same time. During their time together at the Mets’ Port St. Lucie facility, Santana taught deGrom how to throw his legendary changeup.
Armed with the new pitch and throwing in the upper 90s, deGrom mowed through Single-A ball in 2012, winning nine games and posting an ERA of 2.43.
However, injury quickly reared its head again. While working on a neighbor’s farm during the offseason, a calf kicked and broke the ring finger on his left hand. “I looked down and my finger was facing sideways,” he told reporters. “It didn’t feel too good.” Though the injury was to his non-throwing hand, wearing a cast affected deGrom’s mechanics, leading to him struggling with a 4.51 ERA. Regardless, he managed to climb all the way to Triple-A in 2013.
In 2014, Baseball America bumped deGrom’s prospect rating up to 10th in the Mets’ organization, saying, “He has a ceiling as a No. 4 starter or better.”
The 7 Train to Flushing
DeGrom started the 2014 season on a roll. He went 4-0 in seven starts at Triple-A Las Vegas with a 2.58 ERA. True to form, when he finally got called up to the big leagues, he was not the main story. Mets fans were excited about a young pitching prospect making his big league debut. That prospect was Rafael Montero, who pitched the night before deGrom.
Despite the lack of expectations, deGrom impressed thoroughly in 2014, winning nine games and pitching a 2.69 ERA en route to the National League Rookie of the Year Award. True to his low-key reputation, deGrom was accustomed to riding the subway out to Citi Field each day, like any other commuter — until the other passengers on the 7 train started recognizing him.
World Series Bound
Going into 2015, long-suffering Mets fans found themselves in an unexpected position. With Harvey, deGrom, Wheeler, and the beloved Bartolo Colon returning, along with highly touted arms Steven Matz and Noah Syndergaard soon to make their big league debuts, the Queens faithful were forced to grapple with an unfamiliar sensation — hope.
That hope was rewarded, as the Mets won the National League East with 90 wins. DeGrom impressed once again, winning 14 games with a 2.54 ERA. He was named to the All-Star Game and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting. He also led the Mets in Wins Above Replacement with 5.5.
The Mets rode their lucky black alternate uniforms to a deep postseason run. They squeaked through a National League Divisional Series clash with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning 3-2. DeGrom powered them to two wins, allowing just two runs over 13 innings. The Mets had an easier time in the Championship Series, sweeping the Chicago Cubs 4-0, with deGrom notching another win in Game 3.
Unfortunately, New York’s fairytale season didn’t have a storybook ending. DeGrom lost his only World Series start in Game 2, and the Mets fell to the Kansas City Royals, 4-1. The series culminated in a gut-wrenching 12-inning loss after New York gave away a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning.
DeGrom shone again in 2016, but his season ended unceremoniously in early September due to elbow discomfort. Although the injury hurt his performance in his last few starts, deGrom still ended the season with a 3.04 ERA. The Mets announced that he would undergo surgery on the scar tissue surrounding his ulnar nerve on the same day that Citi Field ran a “Jacob deGrom Hair Hat” giveaway promotion. Although deGrom has since cut his hair, Fanatics has an amazing selection of memorabilia and sports collectibles from throughout deGrom’s career.
Despite losing deGrom, Matt Harvey, and David Wright to injuries, the Mets battled their way to a Wild Card berth. They lost the Wild Card Game to the San Francisco Giants, 1-0, and have yet to return to the playoffs.
2016 also marked the last year that Jacob deGrom would be viewed as a mere mortal. He returned from injury in a big way in 2017. DeGrom notched 15 of the Mets’ 70 wins that season, putting up a 3.53 ERA and finishing eighth in the voting for the National League Cy Young Award.
From that point on, deGrom staked his claim as the best pitcher in baseball. In 2018, the 30-year-old deGrom won the National League Cy Young award, was selected to his second All-Star Game, and finished fifth in the National League MVP voting. He led all of baseball with a 1.70 ERA. DeGrom finished the year with an ERA+ of 218, meaning he was 118% better than a league-average pitcher.
In 2019, deGrom repeated as the Cy Young winner, posting a 2.43 ERA and leading the National League in strikeouts with 255. He was once again named to the All-Star Game and finished 10th in the National League MVP vote.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, deGrom lowered his era to 2.38 and led the league in strikeouts with 104. He finished third in the National League Cy Young vote.
DeGrom blazed to an unbelievably fast start in 2021. After singling home two runs during a win in June, deGrom had actually batted in more runs as a hitter than he had allowed as a pitcher. DeGrom made the All-Star game for the fourth time, but unfortunately, forearm tightness ended his season on July 15. DeGrom posted a sterling 1.08 ERA, and, although he’d pitched in only 15 games, finished ninth in the National League Cy Young voting.
Building a Hall of Fame Case
Although deGrom’s dominance is acknowledged throughout all leagues, his resume is lacking in one major traditional statistic: wins. Despite being one of the top pitchers in baseball, DeGrom won just 10 games in 2018 and 11 games in 2019 in his Cy Young seasons.
The culprit was plain bad luck. The Mets couldn’t seem to score when he was on the mound. Last year, Baseball Prospectus calculated that over the 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons, the Mets offense was 20% worse on days when deGrom pitched. FanGraphs calculated that these offensive woes cost him 17 wins over the course of his career.
Although injuries and lack of run support have kept him from piling up counting stats, such as wins and strikeouts, deGrom still has a shot at ending up in Cooperstown. He’s MLB’s active leader in ERA, ERA+, and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). When he’s healthy, there’s no one you’d rather have on the mound. He has received Cy Young Award votes in six of his eight big league seasons, and his peak rivals that of any Hall of Famer.
The injury bug bit deGrom again earlier this year. A stress reaction to his scapula has kept deGrom on the shelf since spring training. The good news is that he has returned to live action in the major leagues with a great start and future ahead of him.
The Mets, also loaded with talents like Max Scherzer, Francisco Lindor, and Pete Alonso, have the best record in the National League and are considered World Series contenders. To make matters even more exciting, the Yankees have the best record in the American League, making a subway series a tantalizing possibility. With deGrom looking like he’ll soon be back in Queens, this might finally be their year.