Jacob deGrom strikes rarified air in first four starts for Mets this season

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets
Pitcher Jacob deGrom, catcher Tomas Nido and the Mets were all smiles Friday night after deGrom’s stellar 6-0 shutout of the Washington Nationals.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

No one’s sure where the 2021 Mets will wind up, but after his sparkling shutout Friday night, it appears Jacob deGrom is on track for one of the greatest single-season performances by a pitcher in the history of baseball.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner went the distance for the Mets Friday night in a 6-0 shutout of the Washington Nationals — a tour de force that left the pandemic-restricted, yet boisterous Citi Field crowd of just over 8,000 chanting “MVP!” as he stepped to the plate in the 8th, or whenever deGrom got to two strikes on a hitter.

The sight evoked, in many ways, the glory days of starting pitching in Mets history — whenever a start by the likes of Dwight Gooden in the mid-1980s or Tom Seaver in the 1960s and 1970s became a must-see event in which crowds of 40,000-50,000 packed Shea Stadium even on an average spring weeknight.

But not even Doctor K or Tom Terrific were as “deGrominant” as the current Mets ace has been this early in a baseball season.

On this Friday night in Flushing, DeGrom struck out a career-high 15 Nationals and held them to just two hits. He overpowered them with fastballs that continued hitting 99 mph even as his pitch count reached triple digits in the 9th, and equally un-hittable changeups and sliders. 

It was deGrom’s third-straight outing in which he struck out at least 14 batters. Only two other pitchers in the modern era have ever done that: Pedro Martinez in his epic 1999 season with the Boston Red Sox and Gerrit Cole for the 2019 Houston Astros.

What’s truly significant is that Martinez and Cole made those stellar starts in the second half of their seasons, a time when a starting pitcher is in their peak. DeGrom has done this in April, when most pitchers are still not throwing deep into most games.

In his first four starts this season, deGrom has struck out 50 batters — two more than Cleveland’s Shane Bieber has thrown in his first four starts this season, and four more than one of the game’s greatest power pitchers, Nolan Ryan, threw at the start of his breakout 1973 season with the California Angels.

Then there’s deGrom’s microscopic ERA of 0.31, giving up just one earned run in 29 innings pitched so far this season. By comparison, in his first four starts of 1968, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson — who would set a record-low 1.12 ERA for a starting pitcher that season — gave up seven earned runs in 32 innings pitched for a 1.96 ERA. 

That deGrom only won two of his four of his starts is largely due to the so-far frustratingly lackluster Mets offense, though it showed signs of life Friday.

DeGrom helped himself Friday night by driving in a run and smacking two hits, including a double. To their credit, the Mets gave him some breathing room thanks in part to outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who went 3-for-5 and drove in four runs, including a 2-run home run in the 8th inning that scored deGrom, who singled earlier in the frame.

Of course, it’s early — there’s a long way to go in the season, and it’s hard to imagine deGrom (or any starting pitcher, for that matter) pitching to a sub-1.00 ERA over the course of 30 starts in a 162-game regular season.

But deGrom’s high-powered arsenal and incredible pitch placement gives him, and Mets fans, a real chance at a truly historic 2021 campaign. 

Combined with his most recent Cy Young-winning seasons, this year could put deGrom’s name firmly next to the likes of Seaver, Martinez, Ryan, Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux as being among the greatest pitchers ever to take the mound — his win/loss record be damned.

They all went to Cooperstown. Regardless of where the Mets wind up, if he keeps pitching this way, deGrom looks destined to get there, too.

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