At The End Of Jacob deGrom’s Season, Thoughts Of The Fleeting Magic Of Late Spring And Early Summer
Everyone reading these words probably remembers magical periods of time in the late springs and early summers of their youth, when unforgettable memories were forged in moments that seemed to possess limitless potential and the ability to last forever.
In reality, they were flashes of brilliance, ethereal moments worth savoring precisely because of a finite nature we were, in retrospect, subconsciously aware of in real time.
Like Jacob deGrom’s 2021 season.
What has long been assumed finally became fact Tuesday, when Mets manager Luis Rojas said deGrom — who hasn’t pitched since July 7 due to right elbow inflammation that may or may not have been something far more serious — felt fine after throwing a bullpen Monday but would not pitch for the sub-.500 Mets during the final week of the season.
“At this point, it just doesn’t make any sense to have him go out there and compete,” Rojas said.
Thus ends a season that began with unprecedented promise and deGrom doing things — throwing 102 mph fastballs and 93 mph sliders and 91 mph changeups while hitting .364 and gliding around the bases like he was winning a 400-meter sprint — that just aren’t supposed to be done on a diamond.
He opened the season with a record 50 strikeouts in his first four starts, the last of which was a 15-whiff, no-walk shutout of the Nationals Apr. 23 in which he delivered as many hits at the plate (two) as he allowed on the mound.
“He has to be from a different planet, because he just does things that seem out of this world,” centerfielder Brandon Nimmo said afterward.
DeGrom entered the season as one of two pitchers — some guy named Nolan Ryan is the other — to strike out eight straight batters twice. He did it twice more — against the Rockies Apr. 17 and the Braves July 1.
The three runs he gave up in the latter start lifted his ERA above 1.00 for the first time since Apr, 10, a span of 69 consecutive innings. He had as many RBIs (six) as earned runs allowed through 13 starts as well as the lowest ERA in history for any pitcher after nine starts (0.62), 10 starts (0.56), 11 starts (0.54) and 12 starts (0.50). His ERA after 13 starts soared to 0.69, second-lowest ever through 13 starts and as close as humanly possible to the record-holder, Dutch Leonard (0.68 in 1914).
As the first half ended, deGrom was challenging Bob Gibson (1.12 in 1968) for the lowest ERA in the live ball era while remaining on pace to post the lowest WHIP (0.55) and greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio (13.27) and strikeouts per nine inning (14.3) in history. He was the overwhelming favorite to win a third Cy Young that would have all but cemented his plaque in Cooperstown as well as a real candidate to win the MVP — a candidacy that might have actually been bolstered considering how the Mets have cratered in his absence.
The sublime start to the season established a previously connection between the public and deGrom, who is absent from social media, uninterested in merchandising deals and typically detached bordering on standoffish in his public comments. Increasingly large crowds serenaded deGrom with “M-V-P” chants at Citi Field, where those in attendance rose and clapped for every two-strike count.
DeGrom appeared to relish what he was doing almost as much as those watching it. His spring training conferences bordered on jovial, at least by his standards, and hinted at the special performances to come.
On the eve of Opening Day, he fielded a question about his Hall of Fame credentials and wrote the headlines with his answer. When it was relayed to him that catcher James McCann said deGrom is so competitive he wants to not just win but also “…take your heart and your soul in the process,” deGrom said that was “…part of competing,” but only after offering a cat-ate-the-bird grin that indicated McCann’s words might have undersold deGrom’s desire.
His most recent extensive public comments following his start against the Brewers July 7 offered a similar sense of promise and blissful optimism that the magic of late spring and early summer might carry well into autumn. While he didn’t rule out the possibility of pitching on short rest in the first half finale July 11, deGrom said he’d skip the All-Star Game in Coors Field in order to rest and prepare for the rest of the season.
“Knock on wood, I can run out there every fifth day in the second half,” deGrom said. “Hopefully we’re out of the woods with that.”
“That” were the injuries — described as minor by deGrom and the Mets — which limited him to 92 first-half innings. A sore right side cost him a start against the Cardinals in early May and forced him to the injured list after throwing five innings of one-hit ball against the Diamondbacks on May 9. He tossed six innings of one-hit ball against the Padres on June 11 before exiting due to a right flexor tendinitis. Five days later, he struck out eight in three perfect innings against the Cubs but left with a sore right shoulder.
Such a litany of injuries would typically temper the optimism for anyone’s second-half outlook. But who has ever wanted to ponder the possibility that the memories and moments of late spring and early summer were unsustainable and perhaps permanently in the rearview mirror? Here, in the midst of a second straight summer decidedly less pleasant than most, it was more fun to accept the idea deGrom’s flexor ailment was a one-time flareup and his side and shoulder injuries a result of the movements he made while batting.
The last 84 days — filled with delays in the resumption of deGrom’s throwing program, few glimpses of the pitcher and the increasing probability he would not perform again this season — were reminders of the finite nature of his spring and summer performances.
Now, early autumn brings with it time to ponder how baseball reality may impact the remainder of deGrom’s career. Rojas said deGrom should be fine for spring training (another baseball reality: with a work stoppage looming, nobody really knows WHEN spring training will begin), but the only way to know if deGrom is really healthy is when he next pitches in a competitive situation.
Human beings — especially 33-year-olds — aren’t meant to throw baseballs as hard as deGrom threw them this season. He’s more than a decade removed from Tommy John surgery, a point at which a pitcher’s “new” UCL is just as vulnerable as anyone else’s “old” one. Mets president Sandy Alderson said the elbow inflammation was actually a sprain or partial tear of the UCL that has healed, which probably doesn’t sound nearly as optimistic as he hoped.
Even if the UCL remains intact, deGrom is at an age when non-freak of nature pitchers (looking at you, Max Scherzer) begin their decline. Does deGrom have time to win the third Cy Young he needs for his Cooperstown case?
The deGrom who next takes the mound is unlikely to do so with the buoyancy he displayed this season. If his three brief press conferences since July 7 are any indication, deGrom, reminded this season of his frailty, will be more reserved and reticent while further honing his focus for 2022 and beyond.
Once evaporated, the magic of late springs and early summers are hard to replicate, eventually fading into lasting memories that are talked about with a reverence bolstered by their brevity. Making more magic and memories from the mist of this spring and summer would be deGrom’s greatest feat yet.