deGrom on baseball prime, family time and more

April 13th, 2020

NEW YORK -- For , the reality and gravity of the current world situation sunk in at various points over the past month -- when NBA star Donovan Mitchell Jr. tested positive for COVID-19, when Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training games, when deGrom made the two-hour drive north to his house in DeLand, Fla. When it struck him most of all, however, was the morning of March 26, less than two weeks after his arrival back home.

“The weirdest day for me was when it was supposed to be Opening Day,” deGrom said on Monday in a phone interview. “I hadn’t been home all that long and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m supposed to be pitching today.’ I just miss the competition. I miss being around the guys.

“I was kind of like, ‘Ah man, I really wish we were playing.' But at the same time, it’s hard to even think that way because people are losing their lives over this. The whole situation, nobody wants to be in this. We’re not able to play the game, but there are more important things.”

Every thought deGrom has had during the pandemic has been with that in the back of his mind -- that his concerns ring trivial compared to those of others. And yet, as more and more weeks tick by without games, deGrom understands he is losing a chunk of his prime that he can never reclaim. Entering this year as the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner, deGrom had delivered six Major League seasons on something approximating a Hall of Fame arc: a 2.62 ERA with 1,255 strikeouts in 1,101 2/3 innings.

The past two years, deGrom produced a 2.05 ERA with 524 strikeouts, cementing himself as one of this generation’s finest pitchers. But he began his Major League career relatively late, just shy of his 26th birthday, in part because of Tommy John surgery as a prospect. As a result, deGrom needs to make the most of his prime to have a chance at Cooperstown -- and he knows it.

“You’re only good for so long,” deGrom said. “And I felt really good this spring, so that definitely crossed my mind. I guess now, I’ve just got try to stay good for a few more years.”

In his hometown of DeLand, deGrom is working to do just that. He does not leave the house much, except to ride his bicycle on a 12-mile round-trip trail near his property. (deGrom, who doesn’t do much cardio work during a typical offseason, purchased the bike after returning home.) He stopped throwing bullpen sessions, but he plans to begin ramping things back up this week with a 25-pitch session off the mound. deGrom’s goal is to stretch back out to around 50 pitches, then maintain that level so he can ramp up quickly if the season restarts.

Because he doesn’t have any idea when that might be, deGrom is doing his best to stay in better shape than a typical offseason, working out with resistance bands and playing catch daily with his father, Tony. The two long toss three to four times per week at up to 200 feet, and deGrom reports his progress periodically to Mets manager Luis Rojas and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner.

“I feel like I could ramp it up pretty quick right now,” deGrom said.

Until that happens, deGrom is trying to enjoy small pleasures that he otherwise could not have. On Saturday, he celebrated his son Jaxon’s birthday at home for the first time in his life. He spent an Easter with his wife and children. deGrom’s family members have been delivering groceries to his grandparents, who are in their 90s and avoiding leaving the home.

Outside of that, deGrom has spent time texting teammates -- particularly Steven Matz, his closest friend on the team. He called Noah Syndergaard before Tommy John surgery to wish him luck and offer advice, but he largely has turned off the news since he has been home. Every once in a while, deGrom will receive a message from a text chain that includes everyone who was in big league camp when Spring Training was suspended.

It’s not where deGrom wants to be, in the middle of his prime, with a pair of Cy Young Awards to defend. It’s just where he’s at for now.

“We miss the game as much as the biggest fans,” deGrom said. “That’s why we play this. We want to be out there competing in front of the fans. That’s what we do this for. I just hope that everybody stays safe, and hopefully things get back to normal and we’re back out there doing what we love, and competing in front of the best fans in baseball.”