deGrom's Cy quest built on calm character

Quick to ignite as a child, Mets ace now known for level-headed dominance

September 10th, 2018

NEW YORK -- In two minutes last month, the wall that has spent a decade building cracked.

One moment, deGrom was taking a half-hop off the pitcher's mound, believing he had painted an inning-ending, called third strike across the ceiling of the zone. The next, he was whipping his head over his shoulder, screaming at Tony Randazzo, berating the home-plate umpire for missing a call.

No matter that Randazzo was blameless for the three additional balls deGrom threw to walk Nick Hundley, innocent of the ensuing pitch he grooved to . This was a portrait of who deGrom used to be -- a Minor Leaguer so afraid of failing that he habituated his mind to the notion, a child so prone to ill-tempered fits that he once pushed his sister through a window. (Seriously.)

Through experience and force of will, deGrom has mostly teased those qualities out of himself, becoming the stoic, often expressionless pitcher who, with four starts remaining, is the odds-on favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award. He relishes the idea that people might find him boring. When told he can seem robotic, he grins and answers, "Yeah." If not quite a reluctant superstar, deGrom is a simple one -- in his own words, "a normal person, a normal guy that can throw a baseball pretty hard where I want to."

Within the ordinary is born the extraordinary; deGrom's ability to throw a baseball is testing him again in a career that has already seen him win the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Award, score two top-10 Cy Young finishes and, in '15, drag his team to the World Series via the signature performance of his career: a six-inning nerve-melter in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. A Cy would cement deGrom's place as one of his generation's best pitchers.

deGrom just needs to keep his head screwed on to his neck for three more weeks.

One day when deGrom was a child, he was playing with his cousins when the group decided to pile into a golf cart and motor off to some other location. He asked them to wait. They ignored him. Incensed, deGrom grabbed a pine cone off the ground and hurled it -- even back then, pretty hard where he wanted to -- off his cousin's head.

"I was so mad," deGrom said as he sat in the Dodger Stadium dugout before a game last week. He snapped his fingers. "Little things, I'd go pretty quick."

There was the pine-cone incident and the time he shoved his sister and other childish stuff that, eventually, "I just kind of grew out of." On the pitcher's mound, though, deGrom maintained a propensity for occasional lapses, if a call or a pitch or a game didn't go his way.

An infielder who switched positions late in his college career, deGrom initially managed to keep himself in check by being better than everyone else. That changed when he reached Double-A Binghamton in 2013, posting a 6.61 ERA over an early three-start stretch there. Nearing his 25th birthday, already old for his place on the developmental curve, deGrom feared a demotion back to Class A.

"Do you think you belong here?" pitching coach Glenn Abbott asked him one day that summer, as deGrom recalled the conversation years later.

"Yeah," deGrom responded. "I think I do."

"Well then, go out there and throw the ball where you want to," Abbott told him.

From that point forward, Abbott said, his pupil "never panicked" on the mound, and as deGrom reached the Majors and won NL Rookie of the Year honors the following season, the conversation stuck with him. Only a few imperfections remained. Late in 2016, deGrom underwent an operation to reposition the ulnar collateral nerve in his right elbow. Having also undergone Tommy John surgery early in his career, deGrom convinced himself that his arm issues were rooted in mechanics.

Never an overly studious type, deGrom established residency in the video room. His ERA increased. He logged more hours in front of a screen to find a fix. One night in late May 2017, deGrom gave up seven runs to the Brewers. Six days later, he allowed eight to the Rangers.

Having seen enough, then-pitching coach Dan Warthen banned deGrom from watching any more film and once again, the clutter fell from his brain. Since that day, deGrom has posted a 2.16 ERA; following that start against the Rangers, he tossed a complete game against the Cubs, allowing one run on five hits with six strikeouts.

"He knows how good he is, how good his stuff is and how many different weapons he has," the Mets' pitching coach, Dave Eiland, said. And now? "He believes it. He trusts it."

When Eiland took over this spring, he set about the task of further refining deGrom, who had achieved his earlier success despite a reticence to pitch over the inner third of the plate. This year, deGrom is throwing inside 20 percent more often to right-handed batters and 83 percent more often to lefties, according to Statcast™ data, which Eiland believes is the key to his league-best home-run rate -- just 0.4 per nine innings.

The results have been historic. With three weeks left in the season, deGrom leads his primary Cy Young competitors, Max Scherzer and , by more than half a run in ERA. Although deGrom's 8-8 record has some questioning whether the Mets' poor season will affect his case, modern voters have demonstrated an increased willingness to look past wins and losses. And the electorate grows more progressive by the year. While Scherzer's edges in innings, strikeouts and WHIP are difficult to ignore, deGrom has proven transcendent enough in run prevention -- he leads the Majors in ERA, adjusted ERA and runs allowed per nine innings -- that nothing else may matter.

"The way he's kept runs from scoring," Mets manager Mickey Callaway said, "he's been the best pitcher in all of baseball."

From childhood until age 24, deGrom spent long hours working on his neighbor's cattle ranch in DeLand, Fla., riding horses around the property and using dogs to round up cows. It's the type of thing he figures he'll do again when he retires, using his money to purchase a ranch of his own.

"It's really something the way he's ascended to the top from this little town here," said Kim Conaway, the ranch owner and longtime family friend who supervised deGrom's "cowboying" work.

While deGrom isn't uncomfortable with the New York City spotlight, he doesn't crave it the way some of his teammates do. So famous for his hair that it once spawned both a Mets marketing campaign and an Axe sponsorship deal, deGrom cut it last offseason because he didn't care for the maintenance.

It's not as if he needs the extra cash. Those close to deGrom say he would have been happier to talk money with the Mets earlier in his career, valuing lifetime security over the possibility of holding out for an even richer score. Now that deGrom, 30, is under team control for merely two more seasons, the equation is changing. The club has never tried to negotiate an extension and, "at some point," deGrom said, "it becomes, do you bet on yourself? … I'm not going to sign some crazy, cheap deal."

If nothing else, arbitration raises in 2019 and '20 will make deGrom an even richer man as he pursues his quiet life. He wants to own cattle and some acres as his own. He wants to share his formative experiences with his two-year-old son, Jaxon, and infant daughter, Aniston. As often as possible during the offseason, deGrom goes fishing on his 21-foot Back Country boat, speeding onto the water with Jaxon and his father, Tony. They don't typically discuss baseball.

"Usually, it's just about trying to catch a fish," Tony deGrom said, laughing.

Just the other day, Jacob and Tony, his longtime offseason catch partner, were chatting when the topic of the Cy Young race happened to come up. Discussing it within the prism of "what's really important," the two kept circling back to faith and family and suddenly, the whole idea didn't seem so big.

Such is the outlook that has helped a fully matured deGrom ignore outside noise, shrugging off adversity better than he once did. Consider: After walking Hundley and allowing a run-scoring double to Bumgarner that August day at Citi Field, deGrom did not allow another runner past first base. His next two starts, deGrom gave up two runs over 14 innings against perhaps the NL's two best offenses in Chicago and Los Angeles, widening his presumed lead in the Cy Young race.

Next scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the Marlins, deGrom will proceed, as Eiland says, "laser-focused on finishing this thing." The wall that he spent a lifetime building appears firmly back in place, sturdier than before, at this point needing only a capstone.