There was a time with the Mets, briefly, when we talked about "Harvey Day" when it was Matt Harvey’s turn to pitch. That was before Harvey’s right arm let him down, when he was still young and strong, and good enough to start an All-Star Game at Citi Field and pitch brilliantly there in a World Series game against the Royals one Sunday night when he was trying to keep his team’s season alive. Harvey, called the Dark Knight of Gotham City, had come along at a time when Mets fans needed a star the way they needed Tom Seaver once.
But now we have "Jake Day" with the Mets because of Jacob deGrom, who has been the best starting pitcher in baseball the past two years, with back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards to prove it. It is deGrom, now past the age of 30, who pitches the way Dwight Gooden did when he was 20. It is deGrom who has become the heart and soul of the Mets the way Seaver once was, in the late 1960s especially, when he came along and changed everything at old Shea Stadium and became “The Franchise.”
Jake deGrom’s starts -- his next one is set for Wednesday against the Red Sox -- have become the kind of event that Seaver’s starts once were, and then Gooden’s later on. After a scare with a bad back the previous week, deGrom started the new season as if he had come straight to his team’s Opening Day from last September. He pitched five one-hit innings against the Braves, the only hit off him a bouncer up the middle by Ronald Acuña Jr. deGrom's fastball averaged 98 mph. His slider wasn’t all that far behind at 92 mph. Of course, when he left the game it was still 0-0. It meant his team had begun the 2020 season not scoring for him, either. For Mets fans, it was like a movie they had seen plenty of times before.
There is never any margin for error with him. It never matters to him. He continues to be a joy to watch when the baseball is back in his right hand every fifth day. Over 2018 and '19, the two Cy Young years, the Mets averaged 3.8 runs per game for deGrom. It is the worst run support in the sport for any pitcher who has started at least 50 games in that time.
So it was no surprise that the game was still scoreless when he left the mound at Citi Field on Friday. But even less of a surprise that the Braves, with all that stick in their batting order, had just the one hit against him, and spent most of the afternoon looking helpless.
“That was Jake,” deGrom’s manager, Luis Rojas, said after the Mets had finally won the game on a Yoenis Céspedes home run.
That was Jake, who is even better than you think the more you look at the numbers. Harvey didn’t last because of injuries. Gooden didn’t last, not really, because of problems on the field and off. It is deGrom who has become the heir to Tom Seaver for the Mets, despite the fact that his combined win-loss record in those two Cy Young seasons was just 21-17.
Jake deGrom made 64 starts over the past two seasons. His combined ERA was 2.05. Only three other pitchers in the past 50 years have had an ERA under 2.10 over a two-season span in which they made at least 60 starts: Gooden, who was at 2.00 in 1984-85; Greg Maddux, who had a 2.01 ERA in ’93 and ’94; and Clayton Kershaw, who has done it twice, 1.80 in 2013-14 and 1.96 in 2014-15.
In Gooden’s two magic years when he was a kid, 1984 and ’85, he was 41-13 with that 2.00 ERA and struck out 544 batters in 494 2/3 innings. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in ’84 and the NL Cy Young Award winner in ’85. Seaver in '72 and ’73 had a record of 40-22 to go with a 2.48 ERA and struck out 500 men in 522 innings. He was fifth in the Cy Young voting in ’72, won it in ’73. And deGrom? In addition to the win-loss record, he has struck out 524 batters in 421 innings.
It was business as usual for him on Friday. He extended his scoreless innings streak to 28 going back to last season. And again, the scoreboard looked completely familiar to him with all those zeroes on it: Friday was the 35th time in his career that deGrom held the other team scoreless through the first five innings of a start. He got no-decisions in 12 of those. The Mets’ record in games he started on the way to being voted the best pitcher in the league twice was, wait for it, 28-36.
He just keeps going after hitters, keeps throwing in the high 90s -- and even throwing 100 mph multiple times, the way he did against the Braves. This is about both genius and consistency. He once had 26 quality starts in a row. He has a chance to be that rare professional athlete, the one who completely changes his place in the history of his sport after the age of 30. When he was dealing the way he was against the Braves, he was as much a reminder as anyone about what we missed by not having baseball over the past five months.
He goes again on Wednesday. Jake Day at Citi Field.