Maybe there’s something really wrong with Jacob deGrom. It happens, you know. Pitching is such a precise craft that any
number of things can go wrong in the delivery of a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches away. It doesn’t even have to be anything as
sinister as a bum shoulder or a barking elbow, as both deGrom and an MRI tube insist is not an issue.
It doesn’t even have to be anything quite so scientific as the various and sundry mechanical issues the Mets are presently investigating. Look, pitching is a fickle mystery sometimes. Start with the absurdist word used as a catch-all for all things
pitching: stuff. Baseball has existed for 150 years and pitchers still haven’t been able to verbalize what they do better than that?
Better than “stuff”?
In truth, it could well be a hard fact of life that deGrom could be an excellent pitcher for the next few years and never again match what he did in 2018. That could be the outlier year, and it would make sense that it was the outlier year because sometimes athletes simply do otherworldly things. And pitchers know that as well as anyone.
Look, Tom Seaver won 311 games in his career. He was the best pitcher of his generation and he had many fine seasons. But he never had another year quite like the one he had in 1969, when he was 24.
Ron Guidry won 65.1 percent of his decisions for the Yankees and won 20 games two other times, but he never
again had a year to match 1978, when he was 27.
ain had a year to match 1978, when he was 27. In some ways, what deGrom is going through is entirely predictable. If you look at the other three dominant New York pitching seasons going back to Seaver’s in ’69 — throwing Doc Gooden’s 1985 into the mix — you see that even just following up a year later isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Start with Seaver. In ’69 he was 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA and 208 strikeouts in 2731/3 innings. He was the face of the Amazin’
Mets but also their muscle. When he was on the mound that year, Cleon Jones said not long ago, “We felt invincible. We felt bulletproof. We felt like we started up 2-0 in every game he pitched.”
In 1970, Seaver started out looking like he might replicate, if not surpass ’69. In his fourth start of the season, he famously
struck out 19 Padres, including the last 10 in a row. By May 15 he was 7-1 with a 1.96 ERA. He won his 16th game on Aug. 1 and seemed bound for 20 again. But from there forward, with the Mets in a heated pennant race, Seaver collapsed. He was 2-7 down the stretch. His ERA his last 11 games was just under 4.00. If talk radio had existed in 1970, for two months there would have been but one topic: What’s wrong with The
Guidry’s 1978 was every bit as dominant as Seaver’s ’69: 25-3, 1.74, 248 whiffs in 2732/3 innings. And his ’79 follow up wasn’t awful: He finished 18-8, though his ERA was a full run worse (2.78) and he struck out 47 fewer hitters. But he was rocked his first
two starts in ’79, allowing seven runs in 12 innings in a loss to the Brewers and a no-decision to Baltimore.
He actually volunteered for bullpen duty after Goose Gossage broke his thumb in a clubhouse fight with Cliff Johnson, though that was a brief experiment. Guidry actually made the All-Star team despite being just 6-7 at the time, and after the break he
was terrific, winning 12 of 13 decisions (though his ERA was still 3.11 for that stretch).
Gooden’s ’86, of course, comes with an asterisk because it is almost certain he had started falling into bad personal habits by
then, and though he was nowhere near the pitcher he was in ’85 (24-4, 1.53, 268 strikeouts) in ’86 (17-6, 2.84, 200 Ks), the Mets won every day, so that obscured some harsh evidence— and camouflaged one especially troubling 12-game stretch from mid-June to mid-July when he was pitched to a 4.27 ERA (which was itself camouflaged by the fact the Mets won seven of those starts and he was 5-2).
It’s never easy living up to your best self. Pitchers know that truth as well as anyone. DeGrom is learning that more and
more every fifth day.