Why Jacob deGrom is Better Than We Thought

During his minor league career, Jacob deGrom had a 3.62 ERA and struck out batters at about a league-average rate. Those are OK numbers, but without the context of his actual stuff, it’s not surprising he’d never been featured on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list — or that he’d rated no higher on the New York Mets’ prospect list than Marc Hulet’s No. 7 ranking coming into this season.

Now that the pitcher with the hair and the command and the fastball and the changeup is dominating the major leagues, it’s fair to ask: How did we miss this?

The first answer is Tommy John surgery. At least that’s why the 26-year-old made his debut later than most pitchers. Surgery claimed his 2011 and kept his innings down, which lengthened his development process. Age-at-level analysis would have questioned whether deGrom was an older pitcher beating up on younger competition.

The rest of the answer is more complicated, but there’s a common theme that will emerge quickly. “I was still learning in rookie ball,” deGrom said before a game against the A’s. “I am still learning.”

A big part of the process has been his changing pitching mix. Coming out of Stetson University, deGrom showed mostly fastball gas as a converted closer and shortstop. He only racked up 83.1 innings for the Hatters. “I threw a fastball, slider and change,” deGrom said of his college experience. “But the change was different then.”

He didn’t get to pitch much before surgery, but during rehab, he talked to a legend and learned two very important grips: Johan Santana taught deGrom his two-seam and changeup grips one day. That was a big deal for deGrom, as you can hear from the clips on the excellent Mostly Mets podcast on the subject.

DeGrom went from Johan’s four-seam change to his own two-seam change because he throws a two-seam fastball so often.

Since then, deGrom has made some changes to Santana’s vaunted change. “I messed with it, made it mine,” he said. “I still work on it all the time because I get under it.” You can still see he hangs it from time to time, but when it’s on, deGrom said “it’s a fun pitch to throw.” It ranks 12th among starting pitchers in swinging strike percentage (21.2%).

That change.

Working on the fastball and changeup, deGrom got a lot of easy outs in A-ball. His ERA that year was a combined 2.43, and his ground-ball rate was slightly above average. But his strikeout rate was only around league average, and he was still old for his level.

Last year brought a new pitch. Pitching coordinator Ron Romanick thought it was time for a different breaking pitch, and started working with the pitcher on a curve. He told Toby Hyde about the moment the idea struck:

“His slider, I like it more as a curveball. The last time I was in Vegas, he threw some on the side – basically, the same grip, but just throw it like a curveball. And deGrom, he threw it, and I’m like, “that’s a curveball, I like how that comes out of your hand. It looks natural.”

Then deGrom spent the season getting a handle on his new mix of breaking balls. By his own account, he didn’t throw the curve this spring, and then began throwing it again in Triple-A at the start of the regular season.

Very similar finger placements, deGrom’s slider (left) and curve (right) produce very different movement based on mechanics.

His mechanics made him both well-suited for the pitch, but it also made the pitch difficult for him. Hyde said deGrom “drives hard toward home plate, but his forearm is tall (almost vertical) near his release,” which sets him up for a good curveball release. And yet, the pitcher thinks his release point makes it difficult sometimes. “I’m kind of a three-quarters guy,” he says. “Whenever I was learning the curve, it was tough for me to stay on top of it. I kind of cast it up and get underneath it.”

The pitch has come a long way, even this year. It currently ranks eighth among starters in swinging strike rate with a 17.6% number.

chart (19)
Next stop: no more high curves.

Maybe we should have noticed  this pitcher with mid-90s velocity, great command, a strong changeup and a developing curve in the high minors — especially since his ground-ball rate surged, from around league average to 55% in Las Vegas this year. Still, he didn’t have the strikeout rate he’s shown in the big leagues.

The missing piece might be his slider. It’s changed along with the rest of his mix. “It’s been quite a bit harder than it has been,” deGrom said. The slider now hums along at 87 mph to 88 mph instead of 84 mph to 85 mph. “I’m fine with the slider being that hard, it’s almost like a cutter. It’s still different from my fastball speed-wise.”

Watch the velocity on deGrom’s slider rise this year.

What that last development has given him is five pitches with different movement and different velocities: two 93 mph fastballs, an 87 mph slider, an 84 mph change and a 79 mph curve. Since his four seam (9.8% whiffs), curve and change are all above-average when it comes to swinging strikes, it’s (finally?) not surprising he has flashed a great strikeout rate (25th among starters).

That curve.

We might have missed that Jacob deGrom had all of this upside. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Hyde remembers a shared beverage with the pitcher in 2012 when he told deGrom that the pitcher “didn’t know how special his right arm could be.” All it took to refine the natural athleticism and command was his dedication to a learning process that tweaked his grips and his mix.

Print This Post

Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

32 Responses to “Why Jacob deGrom is Better Than We Thought”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. quinceleather says:

    sweet! nice job Eno!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Napes says:

    He’s also the best hitter on the Mets.

    +24 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • FeslenR says:

      they should try him back at shortstop while he doesn’t pitch, wouldn’t that be something to watch?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Dan the Mets fan says:

        He does look like a real batter at the plate. I have to say, I have wondered from time to time if he was moved off of SS too quickly.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Johnny says:

    Good job, Toby Hyde.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. atoms says:

    He hasn’t flashed a great strikeout rate, or he *has*?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. yaboynate says:

    I love this stuff. This, to me, is the finest part of baseball. It has the allure of a good mystery novel with a classic protagonist.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Johan Santa says:

    I wish I was in this article.

    +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Jacob Degrom's luscious hair says:

    Great article Eno! Hopefully Jacob can keep it up!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Carl says:

    The Mets’ number 3 starter for years to come. Harvey, Wheeler and deGrom. Wow.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Justin Lauf says:

      Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, deGrom, Montero
      Now that’s the future right there

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Anthony Rescan says:

      It’d be nice if Wheeler could throw strikes consistently. That high walk rate scares me quite a bit. He’s got the stuff that, if the overcomes it, he’s a TOR arm. But, I’m not ready to make that concession.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Dovif says:

        His last 8 starts has been dominant. The issue will be keeping pitch count down, if he can do it that is a killer rotation

        Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Brock Paperscissors says:

          The bullpen has a chance to be a real asset too, which could help soak up some innings when Wheeler can’t go 7.

          Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Daniel says:

      He’s my #2 behind Harvey next year. Wheeler is still the #3.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Hjrrockies says:

    Eno, you are simply a really, really good writer.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Kody says:

    That curve, indeed. Nice late break.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Steve Schafermeyer says:


    You have really stubbled into something very good. Your pitching analysis has become top of the line stuff. I suspect in time you will come up with more ways to rate pitchers and become the all time pitching guru! Keep up the awesome work! Love it!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Iron says:

    The 1000 Pitches of Jacob deGrom.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. fone says:

    Jacob Degrom throws strikes And Doesn’t Implode under pressure. Degrom would make a great closer. Good thing he is starter though because Degrom as a 3 would be ridiculous. Harvey, Wheeler, Degrom, Montero and Syndergaard is going Teri make up a very effective rotation. Now all the Mets need is a veteran power hitter next year preferably at shortstop.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Za says:

      deGrom’s easily the #2 over Wheeler. He’s more polished and has hit 97 this year, so it’s not like he’s a finesse pitcher.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Ernie14 says:

    Love that Eno actually uses his BWAA access to venture into clubhouses to give us players’ perspectives. It’s a nice balance to some other FG writers who mostly do their jobs — and take pot-shots at players — while holed up in their bunkers in the wilds of North Carolina and Oregon.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. Farkle says:

    Another good example of why more weight needs to be given to the recent performances than many “experts” lead us to believe in terms of projecting a true talent level.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Daniel says:

    I liked deGrom more than Montero and people thought I was crazy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. Analyst says:

    What we don’t know is if his recent performance is replicable, both this year when he comes back, and in the future. That’s not a criticism of Eno, it’s just a fact. Sabermetrics needs more research in that area, or more comparison of similar changes in pitcher performance before we can project that deGrom is going to be a #3 (or whatever) going forward. Until then, we still have to give significant weight to previous years’ performance.

    But fantasy players sometimes have to gamble, and I’d certainly gamble on deGrom while his ride lasts.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Dave42 says:

    Great article! At the end, it mentions his dedication. I think another intangible that has helped him have great success thus far is his calm. He always looks like he’s thinking about the next pitch and not the last one.

    Vote -1 Vote +1