“Hitters don’t hit his fastball.” In his brief outing in the 2015 MLB All-Star Game, that was all the announcers could talk about. The velocity, the extension, the rising effect. Back then, deGrom was only averaging 95.7 mph.
Harold Reynolds put it well as he witnessed deGrom K’ing the side on 10 pitches: “That’s why you can’t get lost on the radar gun either. It may say 96 or 97 – not every 96 or 97 is the same. His ball looks like it’s 100 miles per hour.” So what if he started throwing 100?
I said he was only averaging 95.7 mph in 2015 because last year he was just shy of averaging 99 mph. By continuously refining his mechanics targeting smooth, efficient velocity deGrom was able to just keep throwing harder. His fastball’s X factor scaled as did the rest of his arsenal. Combined with improving command, it was time to dominate the league.
In 2018, he came one vote away from unanimously winning the NL Cy Young in one of the stronger classes in recent memory. Jacob had elevated to deGod-levels and it was time to reconsider his arsenal. His sinker and curveball were not bad pitches, just simply not worth keeping. The three main offerings were so good, tertiary pitches were just holding him back.
Over the past few years the fastball-slider-changeup trio has been unstoppable. He’s shifted to a balanced three pronged approach against lefties while being more fastball-slider heavy against righties.
The bliss of watching him pitch was delayed due to some covid issues (thanks, Nationals), but I enjoyed watching nonetheless. Against the Phillies, deGrom did what deGrom does: Blow up twitter. Show up Ohtani with two hits, light up the radar gun, throw six scoreless innings; all in a day’s work. What had me freaking out was that he was doing it in a way he never had before.
For one, he started by just throwing fastballs. The first 24 pitches, 38 of the first 39 pitches – it was crazy to watch. The Phillies knew what was coming and were still missing fastballs down the pipe. deGrom was warming up to his secondary pitches and bought himself time by transforming into Jake McGee. By the end of the game he was back to a healthy dose of sliders, but not before setting a career high in four-seam fastball usage.
While the slider made an appearance, the changeup did not. Yes, another first. From 2018-2020, it was the 6th best changeup in baseball and he simply chose not to use it. Of course it is not gone – he threw six this spring against the Astros, all against lefties – but I could see him abandoning the pitch against righties.
Regardless of whether his lack of changeups was a fluke, this outing was special; a testament to deGrom’s ability to adjust. Sure he got bailed out of an early extra base hit and did not rack up strikeouts at his usual rate, but he found a way to make it work.
I do think it should spark a different conversation: What does the optimal pitch mix look like for deGrom? If his fastball keeps getting better, it would stands to reason its usage should increase. The same way his sinker and curveball got outclassed, maybe his changeup and slider usage get reduced. Not removed from the arsenal, just reduced. If he continues (somehow) building velocity, how could it not make sense to throw 50+% four-seamers?
Granted the increasing velocity improves his secondary pitches too, but that’s not the only way his fastball has been improving.
deGrom’s spin efficiency has never been great. Instead his fastball has had such success thanks to a flat vertical approach angle and elite command. That velocity and that extension combined with a vertically-oriented spin direction produces the X factor rising effect Harold Reynolds was raving about. In his 2021 debut his fastball was still jumping, but it was also running. It was running a lot.
The 10.5 inches of run he was averaging against the Phillies was 3.6 inches more than what he averaged in 2020 and 2.6 inches more than what would have been expected given his velocity and arm slot. His ~1 inches of vertical movement above average remained unchanged, it is just running now too. Baseballsavant has yet to published their 2021 active spin estimates, but it would stand to reason deGrom’s has increased quite a bit.
deGrom’s the best pitcher on the planet for a reason: He knows how to adjust. Each off season he seems to come back better. Each game he comes in with an attack plan customized for the opposing lineup. He is even making adjustments on the pitch by pitch level.
“If he makes a mistake or he misses a spot, he knows how to correct it on the next pitch. Whether it was mechanical, physical, mental – wherever the error was, he is able to correct it very quickly.” -Jeremy Hefner, Mets Pitching Coach
Not everyone has his level of natural talent or ability to adjust, but everyone can put in the work to be better. No matter what you do in life, pairing a growth mindset with a furious work ethic will go a long way in making you deGoat.