During spring training of 2017, Jacob deGrom stood in front of his locker after making a start on the road in West Palm Beach. He was working his way back from the offseason elbow surgery he underwent to repair a damaged nerve, and all was going according to plan for his return. His fastball was already in the high 90s, his mechanics were sound and he was able to repeat his delivery exactly as he wanted.
If you've ever talked to deGrom for even a minute about pitching, you'll know how much he values the mechanics of his delivery.
At the time, that lineup was loaded with fireballers. Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler were supposed to be a group of five aces that would lead the New York Mets back to the World Series. We now know that didn't happen and the injury-prone pitching staff fell apart, but at the time there was still hope.
Someone made a joke about deGrom being the "soft-tosser" of the group. Hitting 97 MPH was relatively soft compared to Syndergaard's 100. I made a joke to deGrom, asking him why he wasn't throwing harder. He laughed and said he's tried to throw harder, but 97-98 was all he could hit.
It turns out, the joke was on us. And maybe the joke was on all of the hitters of the National League, because now, four years and two Cy Young Awards later, deGrom is hitting 100. He's better than ever in his age-33 season, a year in which most pitchers are on the decline.
We are firmly in the era of the pitcher right now with offenses on the decline and no-hitters being thrown on what seems like a weekly basis, but even in a group with so many brilliant hurlers, one could reasonably make the argument that deGrom is one of the best, if not the best, in the game.
"Pitching Ninja" Rob Friedman said deGrom is the best he's seen in his life.
Going into Friday night's duel with the San Diego Padres and their ace Blake Snell, deGrom has the lowest ERA in baseball (0.62), and he's striking out 45 percent of batters faced.
How is this even possible?
DeGrom has always worked primarily off of his fastball and slider, but he's throwing more fastballs than ever in his career. He's throwing them 63.4 percent of the time and using his slider less. His average speed is up to 99.1 on his four-seamer. It's pretty overpowering, it can have some explosive late movement, so it only makes sense to use it more often.
He is defying the odds by throwing harder and harder each season. This research by FanGraphs shows that while pitchers have been getting better at maintaining their velocity into their 30s, they tend to lose about 2 mph from age 26-32.
His slider tops at about 92, and it's exceptionally difficult to pick up. Just look at this overlay, again by Rob Friedman. Out of his hand, it looks no different than his fastball.
The arsenal goes beyond those two pitches. He throws a lot of changeups because he is a master of deception. He's laid off the curveball in recent seasons, but he knows when to throw it. He can also throw a sinker, because there really isn't much he can't do on the mound. Hitters chase his secondary stuff because he can locate with precision just barely off the plate.
DeGrom has an exceptional feel for pitching and mixing speeds. It's almost innate, not something that can be taught. No disrespect to some of the others on the Mets' staff or around the league, but he knows how to pitch like few do.
Inevitably, every pitcher runs into bad outings and bad stretches throughout the season. After a strong start to that 2017 campaign, deGrom stumbled in May, putting up a 4.95 ERA.
Seeking answers, he ran into John Smoltz in San Francisco when the Mets were in town for a series with the Giants. Smoltz was in the broadcast booth with FOX Sports, and deGrom made it a point to talk to the Hall-of-Fame Atlanta Braves ace who suggested he split his workload up into two shorter bullpen sessions and two shorter side sessions. It helped him be able to repeat his delivery and throw more on-the-line, which consequently allowed him to locate the ball better.
This story gets to the root of who deGrom is as a pitcher. The former college shortstop didn't even move to the mound until his junior season at Stetson, but was drafted because of the way he could control his body, his delivery and his pitches. He seeks out information from other greats. He studies pitching and deliveries meticulously.
It's different from the way someone like 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer does. Bauer, a former engineering major at UCLA, studies pitching like a physics professor. It's like he's a mad scientist using facilities like Driveline and the big league mound as his personal labs.
DeGrom is more like a philosophy professor, in demeanor and execution.
And here's where deGrom is differing from not only Bauer but many other pitchers in the game today: He's pitching clean. Or at least, his teammates say he is, having leapt to his defense on Twitter last week when a user accused him of going to his glove for what he believed to be some sort of sticky mix.
The controversy surrounding the use of sticky stuff to increase spin rates and help pitchers gain a competitive advantage has hit a fever pitch. Of course deGrom was going to get dragged into this debate because very few pitchers will be spared.
Much like in the steroid era, when someone is head-and-shoulders above the rest, foul play is suspected, which is unfortunate, but that's what happens when the league allows such widespread cheating.
Here's the other thing you should know about deGrom: He's genuine. He has been honest about his frustrations with the Mets' inability to produce offensively behind him. When rumors have circulated about where he supposedly does and does not want to play, he has gone to reporters to set the record straight. He developed a close bond with former captain David Wright and has taken on a leadership role within the clubhouse.
He is genuine in his desire to win and his desire to continually get better, and he means it when he says he's proud to put on the Mets uniform.
So let's leave deGrom out of this argument, at least until any concrete evidence presents itself. The greatest pitcher in the modern game puts on a show every five days that you won't want to miss.