deGrom's quest for 3rd straight Cy begins

February 12th, 2020

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- At the All-Star Game last summer in Cleveland, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez approached with a piece of advice. deGrom, Martinez noticed, seemed more frustrated than usual on the mound. He advised the younger pitcher to calm down, relax, have some fun out there.

Six months later, deGrom crossed paths with Martinez again, this time at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual awards dinner in New York City. As one of only 11 pitchers in Major League history to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards, Martinez was there to present the plaque to the latest member of that club: deGrom. The two got to chatting.

“It was funny, because when I saw him, I actually thanked him,” deGrom said. “I do feel like [that talk] helped. … I try to learn from whoever I can.”

For deGrom, such lessons have given way to historic results. When he arrived at the Mets’ Spring Training facility earlier this month, deGrom did so with a clear individual goal: to win a third consecutive Cy Young Award. Not even Martinez managed that during his Hall of Fame career. (Only Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson did, and both went on to win a fourth straight plaque en route to Cooperstown).

Is a third consecutive National League Cy Young Award for deGrom statistically improbable? Perhaps. But, at this point, anything seems possible for a pitcher who is 31 years old, still squarely in his prime and hellbent on leading the Mets back to the postseason.

“That’s how he is,” manager Luis Rojas said. “That’s why he’s so good.”

Growing up in Central Florida, deGrom spent so much time outside that he didn’t watch much professional baseball. His time was spent playing the game, working on a cattle ranch or riding dirt bikes around his rural surroundings. When he did flip on baseball, deGrom focused mostly on position players. As a college shortstop, he looked up to hitters, not pitchers.

Only recently, as he began ascending various lists of baseball royalty, did deGrom gain a fuller understanding of Major League pitching history. People began comparing him to Tom Seaver. To Dwight Gooden. To Jerry Koosman. And that was just in-house. Outside of New York, deGrom earned comparisons to Martinez, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and others.

When legends offered advice, deGrom listened. During a rough patch in 2017, Hall of Famer John Smoltz told deGrom about his habit of throwing two bullpen sessions between starts instead of the usual one. deGrom adopted that into his routine to significant effect. He has soaked up plenty of knowledge over the years from Gooden, who presented deGrom with his first Cy Young plaque, and more recently from Martinez. As good as deGrom is -- and he’s very, very good, with an MLB-leading 2.05 ERA the past two seasons -- he continues to seek an edge.

“I think it’s just a respect for the game and the guys who paved the way for us, played before us and were really good,” deGrom said. “If they can help me at all, that’s a plus.”

In deGrom’s eyes, he’s not yet in the same orbit as Hall of Famers like Martinez or Smoltz. The reality is that he’s rapidly closing ground, with a machinelike work ethic that he’s tweaked to near-perfection. As usual, deGrom barely took any time off after the 2019 season, resuming games of catch with his father, Tony, mere weeks after returning to his home in Deland, Fla. When deGrom reported to Spring Training, one of the first things he did was hunt down new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, an assistant with the Twins last season.

Minnesota was one of the few teams to hit deGrom well, scoring six runs against him in his third start of the season. That began a run of three poor outings for deGrom, along with murmurs of pitch-tipping. Because he didn’t believe it at the time, deGrom felt vindicated when Hefner assured him the Twins had nothing on him.

It is that attention to detail, that willingness to adapt despite his historic run of success, that makes deGrom capable of even more. Unlike last spring, deGrom has no contract concerns -- he’s entering the second season of his five-year, $137.5 million extension -- nor undue pressure to prove he’s not a fluke. Regardless of whether deGrom wins it, contending for a third straight Cy Young Award seems probable as he continues his merciless pursuit of success.

“I would like to think there’s better to come, but who knows?” deGrom said. “You’ve got to go out there and play.”