For his entire adult life, Jacob deGrom has thrown hard. When the right-hander broke into the big leagues in 2014, he averaged 94 mph on his fastball. That figure remained within a reasonable standard deviation over the next three seasons, until something funny happened.
In 2018, en route to his first National League Cy Young Award, deGrom began throwing harder. He set a new personal best with an average four-seam fastball velocity of 96 mph, before upping it to 96.9 mph the following year. Then, last season, deGrom averaged 98.6 mph on his fastball, becoming the second-hardest-throwing starter in baseball behind the Dodgers' Dustin May. In his final outing, deGrom hit 102.2 mph, tied for the fastest pitch in the Majors in 2020.
“He’s aging like fine wine,” Mets first baseman Pete Alonso said. “It’s so fun to watch, because every year, he just keeps getting better and better.”
All of which led to Thursday evening in West Palm Beach, Fla., where the 32-year-old deGrom again topped out at 102 mph in the Mets' 1-0 win over the Astros. Tuning up for the regular season, deGrom routinely hit triple digits on the radar gun against a Houston lineup composed mostly of bench players and Minor Leaguers, striking out seven of the nine batters he faced.
“Totally dominated,” said a scout in attendance.
“He looked like a Hall of Famer out there,” added Alonso.
If not for the filthiness of deGrom’s repertoire, his performance might have required a sizeable grain of salt. Playing under the lights at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the Astros included only one regular -- light-hitting catcher Martín Maldonado -- in their starting lineup. The rest of manager Dusty Baker’s card was filled with prospects and veterans competing for bench roles -- and, in some cases, not even that.
But the way deGrom was throwing, nine Mike Trouts might not have fared much better. Coming into the game, deGrom planned to work mostly on his fastball command. That plan changed when he liked his slider enough in pregame warmups to feature it. So in addition to his fastballs sitting at 100-102 mph, deGrom kept the Astros off-balance with a series of benders that came in as hot as 94 mph. He needed only 35 pitches to complete three perfect innings, prompting some in the dugout to joke that manager Luis Rojas shouldn’t take him out.
Alas, Grapefruit League game plans are inflexible for a reason.
“He knows his routine,” Rojas said. “He’s gone through Spring Training before and these Opening Days now. … He knows what to do out there.”
Few know it better than deGrom, whose year-by-year velocity jump has resulted in a 2.10 ERA over the past three seasons, with an increased strikeout rate in each of the past four. Asked how he’s managed to keep throwing harder, deGrom tends to shrug and say he can’t really explain it. He’s long-tossed his whole life, which most pitchers find important. He throws essentially all year round, with barely any break in November. Most critically, in deGrom’s eyes, he has gained a mastery of his own mechanics.
During a recent batting-practice session, deGrom noticed his front side was misaligned, so he simply corrected it. Just like that. Some pitchers fail to fix mechanical issues for weeks, months or even entire seasons. deGrom can do it pitch to pitch.
Given all that, it seems natural to wonder if deGrom's velocity increase can continue. Since Statcast began tracking in 2015, the fastest pitch on record is a 105.8 mph fastball by Aroldis Chapman -- likely the hardest in Major League history. deGrom’s 102.2 mph pitch last September tied for the fourth fastest by a starting pitcher, only 0.4 mph off the record set by Yordano Ventura in 2013. It seems reasonable to think deGrom can challenge that mark this season.
And from there?
“I don’t know,” deGrom said with a smile that seemed one part sheepish, two parts wry. “I honestly don’t know. I guess we’ll find out.”