deGrom or Gibson? There's no comparison

June 30th, 2021

Because of the brilliant way has pitched this season, when deGrom has been healthy enough to pitch, there has been a lot of talk about .

As deGrom prepares for his next start on Thursday against the Braves, his ERA is 0.69 across his 13 starts this season, and no one has ever had an ERA that low this late into a baseball season. And so you bet we have spent a lot of time looking at what Gibson did in 1968, in a different time in baseball and a different world for starting pitchers, when he went through an entire season with an ERA of 1.12.

In the world where elite starters like Gibson were expected to finish what they started, Gibson threw 13 shutouts that year, pitched 28 complete games and gave up a total of 49 runs in 304 2/3 innings. deGrom, of course, because of injuries and because of the way relief pitching has changed the sport, has pitched just 78 innings in 2021, giving up just six earned runs. But when he has had the ball, it is fair to say that he has dominated Major League hitters the way Gibson once did.

So I called the man who caught Gibson in the 1960s, and who became his best friend for the rest of Gibson’s life, the great Tim McCarver, who understands just what we are seeing from deGrom as well as anybody.

And in the Memphis drawl that became so familiar to us all across McCarver’s wonderful Hall of Fame television career, the first thing he said was this:

“It would be silly for me to compare anybody to Bob.”

After that, we just talked about what he saw from Gibson at his best and what he is seeing, in real time, from deGrom at his best.

“[deGrom] doesn’t need to be the second Bob Gibson or anybody else,” McCarver said at one point. “Let’s just all of us appreciate him being the first Jacob deGrom.”

I asked how much he thought Gibson, who passed away last October from pancreatic cancer, would have appreciated what we are all seeing from deGrom.

“Bob would savor it,” McCarver said, “the way only he could do.” Then he paused and said, “The way deGrom pitches might have appealed to Bob’s pitcher’s intellect most of all.”

Then he was back to talking about the effortless way that deGrom seems to throw baseballs, and repeatedly, at 100 mph.

“Think about that,” he said. “'Effortlessly' and 'one-hundred miles an hour' aren’t supposed to go together. But that’s what deGrom is doing. He’s getting those words all tangled up. But having said that, I also have to say that the injuries disturb me. All pitchers have injuries, I know, and they’re all disturbing. They just disturb you more with an absolutely special pitcher like this.”

He was referring to side soreness deGrom has experienced this season, shoulder soreness and a problem with deGrom’s flexor muscles. These are the only things that have -- briefly, up to now -- slowed down those effortless 100-mph fastballs. Again: deGrom has pitched only 78 innings going into the start against the Braves. In Gibson’s day, 78 innings would have meant 8 1/2 starts. It is why you don’t compare.

I asked McCarver what it was like to catch Gibson when Gibson was at his very best, never better than he was in his grand season of 1968.

“My responsibilities made me somewhat of a minimalist,” he said. “Swing and a miss, strike three. Swing and a miss, strike three. Throw the ball around. Then another swing and miss.”

I said to him, “Well, you did have to put down one finger or two, didn’t you?”

Tim McCarver laughed.

“There were no fingers with Mr. Gibson,” he joked.

But he caught Gibson, and he was broadcasting for the Mets when the young Dwight Gooden’s starts became the kind of events in 1985 that deGrom’s starts have become now, at home and on the road. That was the season when Gooden went 24-4 and finished with an ERA of 1.53.

“It was like that for Doc,” Tim said. “The way it was like that for Nolan Ryan, and a lot.”

Ryan was built to last the way Gibson was. Sandy Koufax was not. Two years before Bob Gibson’s luminous 1968, Koufax retired because of chronic pain in his pitching elbow, after four seasons when his won-loss record as 97-27 and he had ERAs under 2.00 three times. Koufax was two months short of his 31st birthday when he did. deGrom, pitching better than he ever has before when healthy, and better than anybody in baseball, is 33.

He goes on Thursday night. This is a time in baseball of special talents, most notably Shohei Ohtani, who hits three home runs in two nights against the Yankees before pitching against them at Yankee Stadium, across the street from what was known as The House That Ruth Built. We thought deGrom might pitch there on Friday night against the Yankees, but he will go the night before in Atlanta instead.

I asked Tim McCarver if he will be watching.

“Oh my, yes,” he said.

He sounded as if he wished he were calling the game. All this time after he caught the one and only Bob Gibson, he will watch the first Jacob deGrom.