John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The way Jacob deGrom is blowing away hitters again, more and more you can't help but wonder if he may have cost himself a real shot at winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards with those three straight starts in April when he gave up 14 runs, in large part because he was tipping pitches.
As much as deGrom hates excuse-making, and blames himself for throwing "too many pitches down the middle" during that mini-slump, I got him on Thursday to acknowledge, sort of, anyway, that something funny was going on in those starts.
I'll get to that, but perhaps most importantly, even with those 14 runs skewing his overall numbers for the season, deGrom is feeling so confident at the moment, after throwing seven shutout innings against the Padres, that he feels he can still make a run at a second straight Cy Young.
"That's still the goal," he told me at Citi Field. "Just keep it going now. That's always been the goal. I've got a lot of starts left."
"And you feel like you're pitching at the same level you were last year?" I asked.
To which deGrom smiled in sort of a wink-wink way as he headed for the clubhouse door and said: "I feel pretty good."
His "pretty good" translates to 14 consecutive scoreless innings over his last two starts, and Thursday's 4-0 win lowered deGrom's ERA to 2.85, the first time he has been under 3.00 since he started the season with 13 straight scoreless innings.
And he continues to find ways to expand his dominance, lately counting more than ever on a slider that Mickey Callaway on Thursday called the "the best slider in baseball."
Justin Verlander might have something to say about that, but it's hard to argue after the way deGrom lorded that slider over the Padres. In fact, he threw a career-high 52 sliders of his 105 pitches, according to Brooks Brothers Baseball, which averaged 92.6 mph and induced 12 swings-and-misses.
Topping out at 94.5 mph on Thursday, in fact, the slider was a devastating weapon partly because, as deGrom said, "It looks just like my fastball when it's down and away (to RH hitters)."
Until it makes a hard left turn at the very last second -- so late that Todd Frazier said, "I would call it more of a cutter, to be honest, and that makes it really hard for a hitter because it comes in looking like a 97 mph fastball."
Remember, it was that souped-up slider, at a higher velocity than deGrom had ever thrown it, that turned heads during his first two starts of the season and had everyone thinking about a Cy Young repeat.
Then, out of nowhere, it seemed, he started getting tattooed, by the Twins, Braves, and Brewers the next three starts.
And if you watched closely, as shocking as all the hard contact was against deGrom, it was the takes against his usual array of high fastballs, biting change-ups, and wicked sliders that stood out as highly unusual.
Finally, after the start against the Brewers, according to a source, someone in the Mets' organization alerted deGrom to something he was doing in his delivery that was a clear give-away as to whether he was throwing his fastball or either his slider or change-up.
According to the same source, deGrom quickly made a point of changing his tipping action and immediately began getting results again, giving up three runs over 21 innings in his next three starts.
When I asked deGrom about that on Thursday, he said enough to make it clear there had been issue.
"I heard that I might have been (tipping)," he said. "I don't know if I buy it completely."
That sounded like as much of an acknowledgement as deGrom could bring himself to admit to.
Nevertheless, he made the case that his poor results for those three starts were more the result of too many mistake-pitches, and said, "I have a hard time believing it when I was still getting eight, 10 strikeouts in those games."
Actually, deGrom recorded three, nine, and seven strikeouts in those three starts, respectively, and I'm convinced that was more a tribute to his electric stuff than anything.
Indeed, on Thursday I checked back with an ex-MLB pitcher who told me at the time he thought something looked fishy, and he said, "I remember watching that Braves game (when deGrom had nine K's) on TV and thinking he had no-hit stuff. I couldn't believe some of the nasty pitches the Braves' hitters were laying off of."
It all makes too much sense to think those three starts were some crazy aberration, but in any case, deGrom knows how much they may have cost him. Since then he has pitched to a 2.36 ERA over 17 starts, and if you take those starts out completely, he would have a 2.09 ERA for the season.
"If you take those three starts out, I'm right where I would like to be," deGrom said. "That's what I did a good job of last year, not letting those happen, and I should have been able to slow things down and figure a way to get outs. That's what's frustrating to me."
The damage done in those starts will make it awfully tough to win the Cy Young Award, especially the way Hyun-Jin Ryu and Max Scherzer are pitching this season.
But deGrom has now climbed to fifth in the NL with his 2.86 ERA, and to see the way he overmatched the Padres' hitters on Thursday was to believe he indeed might yet make a run at Ryu, Scherzer and anybody else in his way.
More to the point, to hear the way deGrom said it is to be convinced he believes it.