NEW YORK -- Jacob deGrom doesn’t argue. He doesn’t attempt to negotiate. When pitching coach Jeremy Hefner delivers the news of how many pitches the Mets will allow deGrom to throw in a start, deGrom simply accepts it. He understands what it would look like if he successfully lobbied for more and then hurt himself again. So for now, deGrom keeps quiet.
On Saturday, that meant pitching only six innings in a 1-0 win over the Phillies at Citi Field, despite featuring near-unhittable stuff for the third time in three outings since returning from the injured list. It meant throwing only 76 pitches -- the same amount he did six days earlier against the Braves -- and then watching from afar as relievers Seth Lugo, Trevor May and (an uncharacteristically shaky version of) Edwin Díaz did the rest.
Mets officials insist there will come a day later this season when the limitations on deGrom disappear. deGrom himself believes it can happen within his next couple of starts.
For now, he’s following the plan intended to keep him healthy into November.
“You want to be out there, but at the same time, it took that long to get back,” deGrom said. “You don’t want to do anything to jeopardize being here for hopefully the push we go on, and hopefully into the World Series.”
Saturday, that meant prudence for deGrom despite the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s continued efficient excellence. After allowing a one-out single to Rhys Hoskins in the first inning, deGrom retired 16 consecutive Phillies until Bryson Stott’s sixth-inning single, relying almost exclusively on his fastball and slider. Early in that stretch, deGrom struck out five batters in a row, displaying his usual freakishness with a fastball that reached 102 mph and a slider that averaged 93 mph.
Since returning from the IL, deGrom has 28 strikeouts and one walk in 16 2/3 innings. His ERA is 1.62. His WHIP is 0.42. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 22 consecutive home starts, a Major League record. He’s the only pitcher in the modern era (since 1901) to produce a three-start stretch that saw him strike out at least 50 percent of batters while having four times as many strikeouts as baserunners.
“He’s deGrom,” said Stott, as if that explained everything.
“He’s on another planet,” Díaz clarified. “He’s the goat.”
Preventing runners from reaching base is an easy recipe for efficiency, so it was no surprise that deGrom was able to complete six innings in just 76 pitches. Nor was it a complete shock to see Lugo warming almost immediately after deGrom left the field.
This has been the deal for deGrom since his long-awaited return on Aug. 2, when he threw 59 pitches in his first Major League outing in over a year. The Mets are stretching deGrom out on the fly in the big leagues. More than that, they’re doing it slowly. Typically in these situations, teams add one inning and about 15 pitches to a starter’s workload every rotation turn. The progression with deGrom has been noticeably more conservative:
Start No. 1: 5 IP, 59 pitches
Start No. 2: 5 2/3 IP, 76 pitches
Start No. 3: 6 IP, 76 pitches
deGrom said the soft limit on him for Saturday’s start was 80 pitches, whereas for a typical starter it would have been around 90. That’s a concession not only to deGrom’s injury history, which includes a lengthy bout of right elbow inflammation last summer and a stress reaction in his right scapula this spring, but also to the fact that MLB innings are taxing. Because the Mets are stretching deGrom out at the highest level, they don’t have the benefit of giving him extra days of rest between every start.
“Am I shackling him?” manager Buck Showalter mused after the game. “I’ve got a governor on him, how’s that? We’ll see. We’ll take each start as it comes.”
It helps Showalter’s cause that the Mets are winning, which affords him the luxury of caution. Although Phillies starter Aaron Nola was nearly as sharp as deGrom on Saturday, Pete Alonso continued his career-long success against Nola with an RBI single in the first inning. At the time, Alonso said, he didn’t expect one run to hold up. But deGrom remained unhittable, Lugo continued his own strong midseason run and May looked dynamic in his highest-leverage appearance since returning from injury.
The only late-game stress for the Mets occurred when Díaz walked two batters in the ninth en route to his 200th career save, snapping his run of 50 consecutive batters faced without a free pass. It’s the type of statistic that typically is associated with deGrom -- and that can be again if the Mets’ plan to keep him healthy works.
“I think it’s looking at the long-term goal here,” deGrom said. “You’ve got to take a step back and try to be smart about it.”