WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The college pitching coach, looking to help his charges, tapped an old connection for some wisdom.
“I wanted to see if I could take a nugget to pass along to these kids,” Mike Pelfrey, working at his alma mater, Wichita State, said in a recent telephone interview. “Jake’s at the top of his profession. I noticed how much his velocity has increased. I asked him, ‘What are you changing?’ ”
Yes, even one of Jacob deGrom’s fellow Mets Opening Day Pitchers Club members wants to know: What’s the key to the amazing spike in his four-seam fastball velocity?
On Saturday, at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, deGrom made his 2021 Grapefruit League debut and rode a bunch of fastballs, most of them clocking 99 miles per hour, to a pair of shutout innings, picking up the win in the Mets’ 6-1 defeat of the Astros. He allowed one hit, walked one and struck out three over 29 pitches. The ballpark’s radar gun measured one first-inning pitch to Yuli Gurriel at 100 mph, although a second gun on site did not.
It served as just another work shift for deGrom, officially and unshockingly tapped by Mets manager Luis Rojas on Saturday as the starter for the April 1 season opener in Washington. His four-seamer averaged 98.6 mph last year, remarkably the fourth consecutive season the 32-year-old has turned up the gas, dating back to his jump from 93.9 mph in 2016 to 95.1 mph in 2017. As MLB.com reported last year, no other pitcher has sniffed such a dramatic velocity elevation, especially to such heights, since the birth of pitch-tracking data in 2008.
“If I knew how to keep increasing it, I think I would keep trying to increase it even more,” a smiling deGrom said on Saturday after his outing.
The two-time National League Cy Young Award winner added: “I honestly think that it’s being more comfortable with my delivery. … For me, it was really learning my delivery and being able to repeat that. For me, it’s trying to stay as smooth as I can on the mound.”
Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner agreed with that analysis, saying recently, “All of the things you attribute to his velocity, add on the ability to repeat his delivery.”
The ability to expertly repeat one’s delivery can stem from natural gifts, mental work and physical work. DeGrom checks all three boxes. Start with his athleticism. Much like Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, whom the Yankees often jokingly called their best center fielder, deGrom, a college shortstop, faces an easier task than many because of his gifts.
As Hefner said of deGrom’s pretty mechanics, “Some of them, he knows some he does naturally.”
Then move to his self-awareness of his delivery. Said Hefner: “I think just in general, Jake is an expert at his mechanics. He continues to get better.”
DeGrom noted on Saturday: “My first live [batting practice] and my second live I threw [this spring], I didn’t feel like this. And instantly, I could tell that I was a little off.”
The physical commitment to such delivery mastery requires the most time and effort and might carry a velocity bonus. For years now, deGrom has been throwing off a mound twice between starts, defying the current conventional wisdom and honoring the belief system of Cy Young Award winners and Hall of Famers from a generation ago.
“For practical purposes, if the mound is our office, Leo used to say, ‘If you want to work, get in your office,’ ” John Smoltz, the MLB Network and Fox analyst, said in a telephone interview. “ ‘Don’t pound the pavement.’ ” Smoltz was referring to Leo Mazzone, the longtime Braves pitching coach who, following the wisdom of his mentor, Johnny Sain, oversaw the rise of Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux to a total of six NL Cy Young Awards (Maddux also won one with the Cubs) and three Cooperstown inductions.
“If I pitched on a Monday, then Wednesday and Thursday were my side sessions,” Smoltz said. “I’d throw 10 minutes for each side session. I got familiar with all of my pitches and connected with my mechanics.
“You felt like you were pitching in a four-man rotation because you were fresher. When I got out there on that fifth day, that helped me throw strikes. I had to hone in and get my athleticism back on the mound in repetitive fashion.”
Smoltz and deGrom discussed this a few years ago.
“I explained to him what we had done and the purpose of what we did. It was obviously a different set of standards back then,” Smoltz said. “The premise is, any pitcher that can repeat his mechanics has the opportunity to get better as time goes on. That’s what Jacob does so well.”
Two days after a start, deGrom throws only fastballs, usually 10 of them, to the glove side (outside to a righty hitter). The next day, he clocks a more traditional full bullpen session.
DeGrom mentioned this routine to Pelfrey, and when Pelfrey asked deGrom how this routine made him feel come the dog days of August and September, deGrom replied, “I’ve never felt better.”
“Throwing twice in between starts works for some guys and for others maybe not,” Hefner said. “For Jake, he certainly found the recipe to be a generational pitcher.”
If modern-day baseball science doesn’t authoritatively support the notion that throwing off a mound more leads to better velocity, “The mental side of finding the routine that works for you, the comfort in that, has got to be something,” Hefner said. “Baseball players are very ritualistic. The more they can stay in their routines, that freedom can help them be more athletic when the lights turn on.”
The lights will turn on April 1, as will the radar guns. DeGrom, good health permitting, will get to work on both his personal and team goals. And if his fastball ticks up some more? It’ll make his saga all the more compelling, the buzz around each start all the more tantalizing and the secrets to his success all the more intriguing to others desiring to tap into his magic.