The Jacob deGrom of 2021 was a synthesis of exceptional athleticism, acumen, competitiveness and analytics, and it stands to reason that what he was last summer -- before he was sidelined with an elbow issue -- was the best starting pitcher we will ever see. He accounted for 10 runs as a hitter, scoring four and driving in six, and as a pitcher, he allowed 11 earned runs in 92 innings. Opponents had one extra-base hit against him with runners in scoring position.
But there's one question that has been quietly kicked around by evaluators: Would he and the New York Mets be better off if the best pitcher on the planet backed off just a little bit?
More specifically: Would deGrom benefit from dialing down his record-setting velocity and instead work more consistently at a speed that doesn't require his body to redline on each delivery?
In his 15 starts last year, deGrom's average fastball velocity was 99.2 mph, the highest for any pitcher with at least 200 fastballs thrown as a starter (dating back to 2008, the start of the pitch-tracking era).
That deGrom achieved that terminal velocity in his age-33 season reflects his own growth in understanding how to use his body most efficiently -- how to best apply his long legs, arms and fingers as he catapults baseballs. According to Mets staffers, deGrom regularly asks about the state of his velocity, understanding it's a really good barometer for how he uses his body.
But as fastball speeds have climbed among all pitchers in recent years, there is a corollary conversation -- whether pitchers heighten the chances for breakdowns as they strive to throw harder. Among the fastballs deGrom threw last season, 61.9% were clocked at 99 mph or higher. The last pitch he threw in his start July 7, to Milwaukee's Jace Peterson, was 100.2 mph. And he didn't throw another in a game in 2021.
For years, the standard operating procedure among many elite pitchers, from Pedro Martinez to Roger Clemens to Justin Verlander, was to save their maximum-effort fastballs for big moments, punching up their velocity as they tried to close out a rally, an inning. Former Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka did this routinely, usually throwing his fastball at 89-91 mph before spiking upward to 94-95 mph when needed, like a long distance runner making a late kick to the finish line.
Would deGrom be better off pitching at 93-95 mph, relying less on velocity and more on his exceptional command?
Last year, deGrom was still a great pitcher even when he wasn't throwing 99 mph or higher. Paul Hembekides dug out these numbers, adding: "As you can see, his fastball does not need to reach triple digits in order for him to be incredibly effective."
His velocity actually might be his second-best weapon. DeGrom's utter domination of that sliver of space above his glove-side corner of the plate -- outside to right-handed batters, inside to lefties -- was difference-making. As Hembekides noted, he allowed an OPS of .329 in 2021 on outer-half pitches. That is comparable to how pitchers hit leaguewide last season (.293 OPS). Nearly an automatic out.
One former Mets staffer who knows and admires deGrom believes that for the right-hander, the notion of dialing down is, well, unthinkable. "He's as competitive a player and a person as I have ever been around," the staffer said. "I don't know if he's capable of backing off, even if it might be for his own good."
And that sort of adjustment is more complicated than it sounds. A rival executive noted how pitchers in this generation train their bodies to work at higher velocity. "He's been throwing at that velocity, and his body is conditioned to throw at that velocity," the official said. "You're applying X-energy, with X-efficiency -- and you could actually add to the stresses on the various parts of his delivery if you change to work at a lower velocity. Your body responds differently to different forces and torque. When you change how your delivery works, it doesn't mean a breakdown is definitely going to happen, but it could happen."
DeGrom's status for the start of the 2022 season is unclear. But he demonstrated last year that when he's on the mound, he is the best there is, maybe the best there ever was.
The top 10 starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, based on the input of industry evaluators, followed by the top 10 relievers: