Jacob deGrom, the Elite MLB Ace Who Never Wanted to Pitch

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 28, 2015

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)   Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets looks on against the Chicago Cubs during game one of the 2015 MLB National League Championship Series at Citi Field on October 17, 2015 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cubs 4-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

KANSAS CITY — Jacob deGrom's right arm is a weapon, all right.

Take the time a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles when, sitting down at the head table to meet the press with scorching-hot teammate Daniel Murphy, deGrom did some quick work with the chair that was about to hold his teammate.

The second baseman sat down, and plop! The chair immediately lowered under his weight, causing Murphy to jump and deGrom to grin.

So score another one for the New York Mets' breakout star and World Series Game 2 starting pitcher: deGrom is the only pitcher to handle Daniel Murphy this October.

"Jake's a trip," says Murphy, who acknowledges that he's yet to exact revenge for that prank. "I love Jake.

"What you get with Jake on the mound is a low heart rate."

You've seen the 96 mph fastball, the Bugs Bunny changeup, the All-Star Game punchouts and, of course, the flowing hair.

But one other thing about this guy: As commanding as he is on the mound, that's how unassuming he is off it.

"He's got a sense of humor," veteran teammate Michael Cuddyer says. "He enjoys being one of the guys. He doesn't try to be a superstar. He comes in wearing beat-up jeans, beat-up shoes. He's got his long hair."

Ah, the hair. Everybody in the Mets clubhouse has a favorite deGrom hair story, and each one offers some perspective on what makes him tick.

Hair-owing Moment No. 1: "Last year, they had a poster for him," Cuddyer says. "This year, they had a T-shirt."

The outfielder arches an eyebrow and grins.

"He looks like a cocker spaniel, a little bit," Cuddyer says, chuckling.

But oh, does he pitch like a big dog. The way he's going, maybe he doesn't necessarily aim for it, but deGrom is zooming straight toward superstardom.

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

It didn't quite begin that way. At Stetson University in Florida, deGrom started out as a shortstop. Who knows how far baseball may or may not have taken him had he stayed with that?

Know this, though: In 2010, during a game against Florida Gulf Coast, deGrom drilled a home run off a skinny left-hander throwing lightning bolts who soon would be starring for the Chicago White Sox.

Chris Sale.

"True story," deGrom says. "He hit my bat."

Understated. That's the way deGrom, 27, has plowed through life, overachieving and underselling.

Under then-general manager Omar Minaya, the Mets picked him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft after a junior season in which he went 4-5 with a 4.48 ERA in 82.1 innings over 17 appearances.

Talk about a small sample size. DeGrom was exclusively a shortstop during his first two seasons at Stetson. Light-hitting, mostly. As a sophomore, he batted .258 and led the team with six sacrifice bunts.

He didn't transition to pitcher until the fall of his junior season and, even then, Stetson kept him at shortstop and picked spots to use him as its closer. The move caught the eye of Mets area scout Les Parker, who loved the kid's arm.

Midway through his junior season, the Hatters weren't winning and the coaches called deGrom into their office with a plan. They wanted to move him into the starting rotation.

So he did exactly what you figure a kid in that spot would do.

"I asked if I could still play the infield," he says.

For a time, he did continue at shortstop. But his best asset there was his best asset on the mound. Steve Nichols, another Mets area scout, joined Parker in raving about this kid who was new to pitching.

The Mets were intrigued, because what they were looking for at all points, from the mound to the infield to the outfield, was one thing: an athlete.

Former Mets GM Omar Minaya
Former Mets GM Omar MinayaKathy Willens/Associated Press

"He had a real nice arm, nice and easy delivery, very easy," Minaya says. "The ball left his hand nice, his velocity was somewhere between 92 and 93."

Hair-owing Moment No. 2: "He says it helps him hide the ball," Mets infielder Kelly Johnson says, looking skeptical. "I don't know."

His teammates love him, and not simply because he roared back from Tommy John surgery in October 2010 to earn National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.

"He's super humble," Johnson says. "He wants to laugh. He wants to keep it loose.

"We saw it when he made Murph's chair drop in L.A."

"Yowzers!" a surprised Murphy exclaimed upon his descent, a word that continues to reverberate around the Mets clubhouse three weeks later, still eliciting giggles.

As loose as he likes to keep it in the clubhouse, that's just how taut he keeps things for rival hitters when he's on the mound.

"To be a Mets pitcher you've got to have long hair and you've got to throw 100 mph, it seems like," Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer quipped Monday.

Add "breathe fire and blow smoke" to that description, for many hitters.

In Cincinnati in July, he struck out all three hitters he faced on 10 pitches in his first All-Star Game. He devoured Oakland's Stephen Vogt and Cleveland's Jason Kipnis on fastballs clocked at 97 mph, then downshifted to an 81 mph curveball to Detroit's Jose Iglesias for a third strike.

CINCINNATI, OH- JULY 14: National League All-Star Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets pitches during the 86th MLB All-Star Game at the Great American Ball Park on July 14, 2015 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The American League defeated the National League 6-3. (
Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

"The thing I remember watching at the All-Star Game is that it looked like he could throw his fastball to get everyone out, then he threw a first-pitch [curve] just to show the world that he has one," Hosmer said.

The dominance has extended into this postseason. He is 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in three starts, with 27 strikeouts and five walks in 20 innings pitched.

"He's always had a good, clean delivery," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen says. "He has a little bit of a front shoulder lean that he has to remember when the adrenaline is going. The first inning really has been his bugaboo inning most of the year. Once he gets into his groove and relaxes, he locates extremely well.

"He uses his sinker down in the zone, he can elevate and he has off-speed stuff that is quality and that he can throw for strikes."

Normally, adrenaline is no match for deGrom, either. His past two starts were Game 3 of the NLCS in Wrigley Field, in which the Cubs had him on the rocks early, and Game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, when Los Angeles scored two runs and banged out four hits in the first inning.

But deGrom got better and better as the games went on, limiting the Cubs to two runs total over seven innings and stiff-arming the Dodgers the rest of the way to clinch the NLDS.

Oct 21, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) celebrates after defeating the Chicago Cubs in game four of the NLCS at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

"Because he's able to breathe," Warthen says, in referring to deGrom's ability to slow the game down. "He's able to focus. Even when you watch him get behind in the count, I've watched him umpteen different times where he'll get 3-and-0 or 3-and-1 and he'll be able to come back and get quality pitches from that count.

"At any given time, he can throw a 3-1 changeup or a 3-0 breaking ball and get back in the count. His command of the fastball and, more than anything, his ability to focus on that individual pitch [is key]."

Hair-owing Moment No. 3: "Mr. Met had a hat with the hair popping one time," Mets leadoff man Curtis Granderson says. "Which was really cool because every step he took, it was bouncing in the background.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 15:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)   New York Mets mascot Mr. Met wears a wig in honor of Jacob deGrom #48 before a game against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field on September 15, 2014 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

"The fact that we dress Mr. Met up not only in the camouflage uniform and the blue and white uniform, but that they even did a Jacob deGrom hair day for Mr. Met is pretty good."

It does not shock his Mets teammates that he started out as a shortstop because he is so tall and rangy.

"That's the thing," Johnson says. "You start realizing the longer you play that some pitchers were the best athletes. They play point guard in basketball, shortstop or center field in baseball in high school, quarterback on the football team.

"It's not surprising. It makes a lot of sense that he repeats his mechanics so well."

Yes, deGrom played basketball in high school.

"We have to hear how he's the best basketball player on the team," Johnson says. "With zero validation."

He also golfs, but not nearly as much as he did before the Tommy John surgery. He golfs right-handed, so he extends his pitching arm, which, especially in the immediate aftermath of the surgery, wasn't the best idea.

Johnson first encountered deGrom on May 15, 2014, when he was playing for the Yankees and the Mets gave deGrom a spot start. It was deGrom's first major league start, and he surrendered one run and just four hits in seven innings in a 1-0 loss.

"I walked back to the dugout shaking my head, telling the manager [Joe Girardi] that's the best pitcher I've ever seen," says Johnson, who struck out and walked that night. "He was impressive. His fastball jumps on you. He's tough to time."

And it isn't simply because he hides it in his hair during the delivery, as deGrom likes to say.  

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 17:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Michael Cuddyer #23 of the New York Mets in action against the Chicago Cubs during game one of the 2015 MLB National League Championship Series at Citi Field on October 17, 2015 in the Flushing neighbo
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

"He kind of jumps at you," says Cuddyer, who faced deGrom last year while playing for Colorado. "It's not a comfortable motion.

"He's able to spot both of his fastballs, the two-seamer and the four-seamer, to both sides of the plate. So that's like you have four pitches."

This arsenal is why, from an incredibly talented young staff of Mets power arms that also boasted Game 1 starter Matt Harvey—and features Game 3 starter Noah Syndergaard and Game 4 starter Steven Matz—deGrom has become the breakout star of October. At 3-0, he has become the first Mets pitcher with three postseason victories since former closer Jesse Orosco in 1986.

"He's a lot of fun, he's easygoing, he's easy to talk to," says reliever Tyler Clippard. "He's becoming a superstar in this sport, but you'd never know it. He's so humble.

"He's had to earn everything he's gotten in this sport."

That includes, sometimes, upgrades on those beat-up jeans he favors.

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 26:  Curtis Granderson #3 of the New York Mets addresses the media the day before Game 1 of the 2015 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and Mets at Kauffman Stadium on October 26, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo b
Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

Last year in Cincinnati, Granderson pulled some sort of joke on David Wright, who blamed it on deGrom because he saw deGrom laughing.

"So David cut Jacob's pants," Granderson says. "And Jacob had to wear his pants home, which had turned from jeans into Daisy Dukes. And he just wore them home like nothing's wrong, pockets flapping out both in the front and back.

"And he knew I did it, but he bit the bullet and didn't snitch on me."

As for Murphy's revenge from the chair incident, it hasn't happened yet. But deGrom isn't exactly shaking in his cleats.

"No," he says, grinning. "I'm looking for my next opportunity."

Hair-owing Moment No. 4: Hold your breath.

"I do want to cut it," deGrom says of his hair. "I don't know if I'll cut it all off or just get a trim. I've always gotta wear a hat."

"I think everybody on the team's told him that's a terrible idea," Clippard says. "I think there are a lot of opportunities for him out there. Pert Plus or Head & Shoulders."

Granderson, 34, shrugs. The 12-year veteran has seen it all before.

"We'll see what happens," he says. "I saw Magglio Ordonez when he cut it. You never know. Andrew McCutchen did it this year.

"Change is always a good thing."

Always? Which haircut would shock the baseball world the most: Ordonez's, McCutchen's or deGrom's?

"Probably because of people knowing about it as we've gone along, a lot of people have a lot of knowledge of deGrom," Granderson acknowledges. "But a lot of people say that Cutch looks so different without the braids now.

"So I think it would be a tossup between the three of them."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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