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Shtickless Wonder

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Guess who’s back
Back again

—Eminem

When you are lacking it, few pitches are more alluring than boring old competence. Consider a few politicians who’ve seized on the idea of knowing what they were doing and then went fairly far in their endeavors.

• “I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, its head high, a diverse and vital nation, moving into its third century with confidence and compassion and competence,” Jimmy Carter envisioned in June of 1976 en route to the Democratic presidential nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

• “After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?” Ed Koch’s TV commercials asked as the congressman from Manhattan’s Silk Stocking District successfully ran for mayor in 1977.

• When Michael Dukakis addressed the 1988 Democratic National Convention as its nominee, he framed the upcoming election as “about competence”. True, he wasn’t elected, but his numbers shot through the roof after that speech.

Getting the job done carries a timeless appeal. Jacob deGrom has been getting the job done since 2014. And nobody’s more appealing to us today.

A century after Warren Harding rode the promise of a “return to normalcy” to the White House, baseball belatedly enters 2020 utterly beyond the norm. Opening Day, that perennially hailed harbinger of springtime renewal, arrives today, July 24. One-hundred two fewer games than normal will be played in the regular season. Six teams more than normal will make the playoffs. Players are regularly sidelined by a malady you’d never heard of when the most recent World Series ended.

But if you need something approximating normal, look to the pitcher’s mound at Citi Field around 4:10 this afternoon. Barring a tightening of the most valuable back in Queens, you’ll see Jacob deGrom [2] throwing a baseball on behalf of the New York Mets.

[3]

Let’s get this long-delayed, ill-advised party started!

It doesn’t get much more normal nor competent nor reassuring than that. If recent history is to be trusted, it doesn’t get any better. And if you’re looking for a pitcher to see you through to the most unforeseen Opening Day imaginable, well, why not the best?

***
Long before we stumbled into this apparently godforsaken decade, several years before he officially ascended to the heights of the last one [4], Jacob deGrom was promoted from Triple-A Las Vegas to help fill out the Mets’ bullpen. Before he could fire one pitch in major league relief, he was tabbed instead to start a ballgame. The date was May 15, 2014. The opponent was the Yankees. The result was predictive: deGrom was effective and the Mets lost [5].

It took eight starts for Jake to get a win [6], yet we could already be fairly certain we had a winner on our hands. He had stuff. He had command. He had poise. The wins — whether for him as a pitcher or us as a team — would come eventually. They had to. An award came in November. Jacob deGrom, whose debut materialized with minimal fuss, was named National League Rookie of the Year. He snuck up on it like he snuck up on the rest of us who were waiting for others. Waiting for Matt Harvey to return from Tommy John surgery. Waiting for Zack Wheeler to accelerate his development. Waiting for Noah Syndergaard to get his shot.

When the Mets stand feet apart from one another along the first base foul line, there will be no sign of Harvey or Wheeler or Syndergaard on the premises. Also missing will be the usual 44,000 fans Opening Day draws, but that’s 2020 for ya. Regarding the elements more directly connected to the Mets, Harvey is reportedly en route to Kansas City, Wheeler has taken the money to run to Philadelphia, and Syndergaard is rehabbing from his own TJS, presumably down in PSL, though who can tell these days? DeGrom, the Met who didn’t attract a scintilla of the attention those talented fellows did when they were rising onto our radar, is wearing No. 48 in New York and will be for as much foreseeable future as these days can possibly contain.

Within his generation of Mets pitching prospects, nobody went further, and he ain’t goin’ anywhere.

***
Ideally, all the Mets pitchers we pictured forever starring for us when we were dreaming our pitching dreams circa 2014 — including Rafael Montero, who was considered a bigger star in the making upon his concurrent-with-deGrom promotion — would still be starring for us at the dawn of the 2020s. It hasn’t worked out that way. Little deal was made of Jacob deGrom, yet nobody’s been the bigger deal or has signed one, for that matter. He’s been certified the best pitcher in his league two years running. He’s clearly the signature arm of a franchise that fancies itself legendarily pitching-rich. He’s carved himself a niche on the Mets’ version of Mount Pitchmore alongside Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Jerry Koosman, and is maybe not too many innings from joining Tom Terrific in elevating their dual status to twin peaks.

[9]

At first glance, hair was deGrom’s defining characteristic. These days it’s excellence.

Unlike contemporaries of his who are or were delighted to cultivate alter egos for themselves, mature 32-year-old Jake doesn’t actively evoke comic book exploits. He’s content to be a marvel in the black and white universe of Baseball-Reference. There was a time when he had colorfully long hair. He trimmed it. His last name is spelled unconventionally, but it’s not as if someone courting the spotlight goes the lower-case route. His Players Weekend nickname of choice two years running has been “deGrom”. The first year it was Jake, which he explained was chosen for him because he didn’t know he was supposed to pick one.

On another pitcher, such a modest profile might come off a bit on the dull side. On Jacob deGrom, it fits beautifully. Underrate him a tad. Overlook him as you instinctively praise others elsewhere first. If it bothers him, he’ll take it out on the strike zone. Let his All-Star associates collect notices. He collects outs. That’s plenty charismatic.

Speedy Billy Hamilton was thought to be running away with the 2014 Rookie of the Year prize. DeGrom steadily picked up ground [10] on the veritable hare and won it (basically clinching it [11] when he struck out the first eight Marlins he faced on September 15…before his bullpen blew the game for him). Legendarily stellar Max Scherzer placed a presumed death grip on the 2018 Cy Young by midseason. DeGrom went about his business, lowering his ERA start by start, and won it. Hyun-jin Ryu was sparkling deep into summer and was clearly on his way to the 2019 Cy Young. DeGrom derailed him and won it. You would have had to have bet on Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to have taken the first and last games of the 2015 NLDS. You would have lost both times because the lesser-hailed deGrom won each game.

Told ya he was a sneak.

Jacob may not ostentatiously point to himself, but he doesn’t deflect pressure. The easygoing righty was regularly asked all winter and extended winter if he’s up for earning a third straight Cy (what else are ya gonna ask at this point?). He dependably replied, in so many words, sure. “I don’t like giving up runs,” he told reporters this week, a sentiment that could have gone without saying. In 2018 and 2019, he gave up barely more than two of the earned variety every nine innings over the 421 innings he worked. When I consider deGrom’s relationship to allowing runs, I think of how the reverend tried to calm an embarrassed Mary Richards in the classic “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mary had been laughing uncontrollably at Chuckles the Clown’s funeral. It was OK to laugh, he said, because “tears were offensive to him, deeply offensive.”

Mary proceeded to burst into tears. Us? We burst into applause just about every inning Jacob departs the mound.

***
Maybe Jacob deGrom isn’t the perfectly pleasant sort he comes off as behind the scenes. Maybe he spent his quarantine revealing a boastful bent [12] to his Central Florida neighbors from a safe distance: “I am Jacob deGrom, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.” More likely, when he wasn’t taking advantage of a rare summer hiatus with his family, he was throwing baseballs at whoever or whatever was available in his backyard, trying to improve himself at his craft. We’ll see, when he faces the Braves, how much better he’s gotten since we last saw him. He couldn’t get much better, you’d figure. Of course you can’t figure much with this surreal season at hand.

I figure deGrom will go out there and be deGrom. I figure deGrom will beat himself up if he gives up more than a run or two. I figure deGrom will stick to his business. I don’t figure we’ll see a lot of commercials starring Jacob deGrom unless they’re commercials for Jacob deGrom pitching. The only product I remember him endorsing was insurance [13], which was totally on brand because every Mets fan sleeps better known Jake from Flushing is on call.

SNY did air a campaign commercial [14] on his behalf at the end of 2018 — spoofing the ominous-toned scare tactics particularly devious politicians have regularly used to run a tank over more competent opponents. For deGrom at the time, the goal was to poke holes in the “wins” debate. Two years ago around now, the Mets weren’t scoring for Jake, just as they hadn’t been in 2014, and as a result, Jake wasn’t winning. He was just getting batters out. The out party carried the day. Now we don’t hesitate to recognize a pitcher who does all he can to propel his team to victory, even when his team doesn’t return the favor. Jacob deGrom has won 21 games over the past two years — ten in 2018, eleven in 2019. He’s been the practically unanimous Cy selection both times.

[15]

Every delivery figures to bring Jake closer to another Cy.

Having witnessed how Jacob rings up opposing hitters and gets shortchanged by his own — his lifetime ERA is 2.62, yet he has only 66 wins to show for it — we don’t question the won-lost equation. I have to confess I wish I could watch deGrom pitch more ninth innings. Part of that comes from a sensible desire to not see any other Met replace him late, part is the romantic in me that adores aces going the distance. Jake has made 171 starts since 2014. He’s completed three of them. I know, I know…it’s a different era; they count pitches diligently and derive conclusions from them stubbornly; he’s struck out more than nine batters per nine innings in five of his six seasons, more than ten each of the past three, so given what we understand about preserving pitchers’ arms, it would be lunacy to continually push him out there for the sake of an anachronistic metric.

But the paucity of complete games is the only reason I’m hesitant to already declare deGrom second to only Seaver in the Met pitching annals. Gooden, even when he wasn’t operating at quintessential Dr. K form, threw his share of complete games, posting 67 as a Met from 1984 to 1994. Koosman, mythic second banana to apple-cheeked Seaver, went all the way 108 times between 1967 and 1978. Seaver (1967-1977; 1983) had 166 CGs before being shipped to Cincinnati and five the year he came back from Midwestern exile. Tom was 38 that last season in New York. Not surprisingly, deGrom’s Mount Pitchmore peers compose the Top Three among Mets in complete games. Jake? He’s down in the valley, tied for 47th with, among others, Pedro Astacio, Mark Clark, Eric Hillman and Hank Webb.

I know, I know. It doesn’t matter. But it’s all I have in the way of articulating an imperfection here. Otherwise, I’m good with everything the übercompetent Jacob deGrom has done, does, and is likely to do. Therefore, Madam Chairwoman, if it please the convention, I bring forth the following motion that we suspend the rules and nominate Jacob Anthony deGrom of the Metropolitan Baseball Club from the great Empire State of New York for every high office available to him!

Ace by acclamation? AYE!
Cy Young for a third term? AYE!
DeGrom for President? Uh…

Technically, Jake won’t be old enough until the election after this one, but goodness knows we as a nation could do a lot worse than handing the ball to the absolute best.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [16]: Richie Ashburn
1964 [17]: Rod Kanehl
1966 [18]: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969 [19]: Donn Clendenon
1970 [20]: Tommie Agee
1972 [21]: Gary Gentry
1973 [22]: Willie Mays
1977 [23]: Lenny Randle
1978 [24]: Craig Swan
1981 [25]: Mookie Wilson
1982 [26]: Rusty Staub
1990 [27]: Gregg Jefferies
1991 [28]: Rich Sauveur
1992 [29]: Todd Hundley
1994 [30]: Rico Brogna
1995 [31]: Jason Isringhausen
1996 [32]: Rey Ordoñez
1998 [33]: Todd Pratt
2000 [34]: Melvin Mora
2002 [35]: Al Leiter
2003 [36]: David Cone
2005 [37]: Pedro Martinez
2008 [38]: Johan Santana
2009 [39]: Angel Pagan
2012 [40]: R.A. Dickey
2013 [41]: Wilmer Flores
2019 [42]: Dom Smith