John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On July 25, Jacob deGrom pitched seven shutout innings against the Padres to get his ERA under 3.00 for the first time since April, and afterward I cornered him briefly in the clubhouse to see if I could get him to confess that he'd been tipping pitches early in the season.
We went back and forth a bit, as he admitted he'd been made aware of something he was doing in his delivery that may have explained giving up 14 runs over three starts, yet insisted he was to blame for leaving too many pitches in the middle of the plate during that brief stretch.
Finally, I said to him, "Well, if it wasn't for those three starts, you'd have a good shot at another Cy Young Award."
At which point he gave me a look like he wished I was in the batter's box against him, then forced a smile and said, "I still have a shot. It's still a goal. I have a lot of starts left. And the way I'm throwing now, I feel like I did last year."
So, in a way, deGrom knew before anyone else. In truth, it took a little help from Max Scherzer's back injury and Hyun-Jin Ryu's late-season slump, but ultimately the Mets' ace was right.
By then, he'd found the magic again and wound up earning his second straight NL Cy Young Award with 2018-like dominance, pitching to a 1.44 second-half ERA and finishing with a Secretariat-like kick, throwing 21 shutout innings over his final three starts.
On Wednesday, it became official as deGrom was voted the first Met pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards, and only the 11th pitcher in Major League history to do so.
In addition, he became the only pitcher in Mets' history other than Tom Seaver to win multiple Cy Youngs. In doing so, deGrom passes Dwight Gooden and R.A. Dickey as the only others in franchise history to win the award once, and after two such brilliant seasons, you can't help but wonder what the future holds.
More Cy Youngs? The Hall of Fame?
To put such heady possibilities in context, it's worth remembering that deGrom's past makes his story especially remarkable.
As a college shortstop at Stetson University who pitched very little until his junior season, deGrom was a ninth-round draft choice in 2010 whose development on the mound was further delayed by the need for Tommy John surgery later that summer.
So there he was, two years later, pitching in low Class-A Savannah in 2012 at age 24, behind the clock already, to the point where his pitching coach that year, Frank Viola, remembers deGrom questioning his career choice.
"You could already see the talent," Viola, a former Cy Young winner himself, recalled by phone recently. "He was just coming out of extended spring training, after missing a year because of Tommy John surgery, and he was on a 75-pitch count the first time out. So he proceeds to throw seven innings in 72 pitches and punched out 10 guys.
"I'm thinking, 'This kid's got a great future,' and then a week later he comes up to me and says, 'I don't know if I should be playing this game right now. I'm 24 years old, I'm in low-A ball, what am I doing with my life?'
"I looked at him and I said, 'Listen, Jake, you might not see it right now but you've got what it takes. All I ask is you leave me a ticket when you make your first big-league start in a couple of years.' He just kind of laughed and said, 'Yeah, whatever.' So he was questioning himself but you'd never know it when he took the mound. He always pitched with great confidence and he was tough as nails mentally. That's a big part of what makes him great."
Now, seven years from wondering if he should be doing something else with his life, deGrom is on top of the world. And the only questions, at least from an individual standpoint, are how long can he stay there and will that be long enough to make a serious run at Cooperstown?
He'll be 32 next June, so some level of decline could be on the horizon, as well as increased chance of injury. Yet scouts I've talked to believe his athleticism and his loose-limbed delivery bode well for staying healthy and pitching at a high level for at least the next few years.
In that case, if deGrom could win another Cy Young, he'd match Seaver's total of three and put himself on quite an impressive list of pitchers with at least three such awards: Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, as well current starters Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
All of those pitchers are either in the Hall of Fame or on their way, with the exception of Clemens, whose exclusion is all about his alleged use of steroids.
With two such awards, deGrom all but assures himself of being a legitimate candidate, as long as he can stay relatively healthy over the next several years -- and voters don't hold his win total against him.
After all, over six seasons, deGrom has a superb 2.62 ERA, yet he has only 66 career wins against 49 losses. His Cy Youngs, in seasons where he won 10 and 11 games, respectively, are proof of how differently pitchers are judged these days. However, it's possible voters might hold onto a different standard for the Hall of Fame.
That's for down the road, however. For now, by going back-to-back, deGrom has stamped himself as one of the very best pitchers of his generation.
For that matter, if he hadn't been tipping pitches in those April starts against the Twins, Braves, and Brewers, when he gave up 14 runs over 13 innings to balloon his ERA to 4.85 at the end of April, deGrom might well have posted a second straight sub-2.00 ERA, something only Kershaw has done since the mound was lowered by MLB fifty years ago.
On the other hand, if someone in the organization hadn't alerted deGrom to how he was tipping those pitches, he might have found himself in a hole too deep. Instead, it turned out he had plenty of time to dig his way out.
Just as he pretty much said he would way back in July.