MIAMI — Across baseball, Tuesday is a time for answers.
The prolonged speculation can come to an end, and the landscape of the regular season’s final two months can be defined by what we learn. The nation’s capital will play host to the sport’s most perplexing question and the start of its most intriguing answer, and it’s not the one about the Nationals’ right fielder.
Just what kind of pitcher is Jacob deGrom, right now?
DeGrom, who reiterated Sunday that he plans to opt out of his contract after this season, makes his long-awaited return to the major leagues on Tuesday night against Washington. He likely will be limited to four or five innings and 65 to 75 pitches. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since last July 7, when he allowed two solo home runs over seven innings to see his ERA for the season leap all the way up to 1.08.
After the game, the question was whether deGrom would pitch on three days’ rest ahead of the All-Star break. Now, he will return to the mound on 391 days’ rest.
“We all know what he’s capable of,” manager Buck Showalter said Sunday morning.
But let’s be grammar pedants here: We all know what deGrom has been capable of. We all know what he was capable of. It is harder to know, in the here and now, what he is capable of.
For those 391 days have encompassed a series of maladies, mysterious in their magnitude. DeGrom was initially put on the injured list with right forearm tightness; team president Sandy Alderson said he sprained his ulnar collateral ligament, the part of the elbow that often requires Tommy John surgery to remedy. DeGrom declared his UCL “perfectly fine,” even though he didn’t make it back to pitch in 2021.
Following what he and the Mets termed a normal offseason, deGrom looked like himself briefly in spring training before a stress reaction in his right scapula set him back. He started his rehab assignment the first week of July. The injury wound up costing him four months.
DeGrom’s prolonged absence from the major-league mound has been enough time to alter, and create, narratives. No, before last July 7, deGrom was not a pitcher who missed time with injuries. From the start of 2018 through the abbreviated 2020 season, nobody in baseball threw more innings than deGrom.
At the time he went down, it was nearly impossible to construct an argument against deGrom being the best pitcher in the sport. His 1.94 ERA in just under 600 innings since the start of 2018 is nearly a half-run better than any other starter. In fact, it’s better than all but one pitcher who’d thrown even 50 innings in that time. Congratulations, Emmanuel Clase.
And deGrom was operating at his very best in 2021, even as he skipped a start here or there and left a few early. That last start was the first time all season his ERA climbed over 1.00. He had struck out better than 45 percent of opposing hitters; the best ever K rate for a starting pitcher is 41 percent by Shane Bieber in 2020. He was routinely throwing his fastball at 100 mph or more.
Can he be that pitcher anymore? Can he operate at that level of peak performance — and peak velocity — and stay healthy?
“Yeah, I think so,” he said when asked that question back in the spring, unleashing this smiling shrug.
Others who have been around him are less sure. Multiple sources said the Mets talked to deGrom last season about dialing it back in an effort to stay healthy, but the pitcher was concerned he couldn’t just go back to what he was doing in 2018 without incurring setbacks to his health and performance. Pitching coach Jeremy Hefner echoed that sentiment this month, wondering what holding back would do to deGrom’s mechanics.
DeGrom said Sunday that he’s used his time away from the game this season to reevaluate his mechanics. Indeed, he’s trying to work back to his delivery from 2018 and 2019, he said, when he was more upright and leaning toward the first-base bag on his follow-through. In those seasons, deGrom won as many Cy Youngs as he threw 100-plus mph fastballs: two.
That said, he still hit triple digits during most of his rehab outings; he sat below that threshold at Triple-A Syracuse last week in his final rehab start.
“That was more intentional, just trying to get the pitch count up and getting through it safely to be out there Tuesday,” deGrom said Sunday.
Will he be back in triple digits Tuesday?
“We’ll see,” he said, chuckling.
That’s the best answer anyone can give about deGrom at the moment. It is probably not reasonable to expect him to return from his prolonged absence as his old self. In the year since he last took the ball in a major-league game, he hasn’t completed five innings in a spring or rehab start.
But then again, deGrom has built a career out of transcending the bounds of what’s reasonable. He was a college shortstop who quit his summer-league team when he was asked to pitch. He was supposed to be the spot starter when he made his belated big-league debut, since Rafael Montero was the real prospect. He was supposed to lose a couple of miles per hour off his strong fastball as he moved through his 30s, not add to it.
Nothing about his career arc has felt logical, nothing has been confined by a normal understanding of the possible. Maybe he can throw 101 and stay healthy, at least for the three months the Mets need him to. Maybe his ERA can linger around one flat for those months, even though he’s missed all this time. Maybe he’s still the best pitcher in baseball, those 391 days a magnanimous hiatus so others could pretend to sit on the throne. Maybe, just this once, the Mets will get the sport’s biggest trade deadline addition in a return from the IL.
Tuesday starts the answers for deGrom. We’ll see.
(Photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)