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Jacob deGrom and the burden of success

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Jacob deGrom was so good that his starts were often riddled with stress and anxiety, making it hard to enjoy him at all. And then he went away.

Miami Marlins v New York Mets - Game One Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Before their final series in Atlanta over the weekend, the Mets chose to shut down Jacob deGrom’s rehab, ending any chance of the team’s ace returning to pitch in that series. The Mets had spent the last two-and-a-half months of the season trying unsuccessfully to rehab deGrom and his curious case of Schrödinger’s UCL, but multiple setbacks for the 33-year-old made that impossible to do before the Mets’ season sunk into total irrelevancy. With the team officially out of the playoff picture, they decided to end their attempt at speedrunning his rehab to bring him back for the final weekend of the season for no reason.

deGrom’s 2021 ended at 15 starts and just 92.0 innings pitched. His final start of the year wound up coming on July 7, a day that nobody fathomed would be his final time pitching in a game in 2021. It’s only the second time in his career he didn’t complete a full season.

As ill-advised as it would’ve been, it obviously would have been really cool to see deGrom back for even just the one inning. It could have been a fun little opportunity for him to just air it out for a few pitches just to serve as a farewell and one last glimpse at the ace before the long offseason. Ideally, it would have been a low-stress, easy inning for him to just get on a mound one last time, but for many Mets fans now conditioned to fear the worst when it comes to their ace, it probably would have been anything but a low-stress affair.

deGrom’s 15 starts this year were probably the best 15 starts any pitcher has ever had, but they were also the scariest 15 starts a pitcher has ever had. For the final 10 of those starts, deGrom either left with the trainer, or seemed to be in imminent danger of leaving with the trainer for any of his recurring issues. What’s the fun in having the best pitcher on Earth when you can only watch him with your hands over your eyes?

While the stress of watching deGrom was understandable this season due to his onslaught of arm issues, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon this year. For many fans, myself included, almost no deGrom start since 2018 could have really have been considered “low-stress.” He hasn’t always been the constant injury threat that he was this year, but even when he was pumping out 200+ inning seasons on the regular, deGrom’s starts were typically the most stressful games of the week.

Sure, a large part of that was because the Mets almost never scored in those games, meaning they were always heart-wrenching, close games. Another part of it is that deGrom was the only thing Mets fans have had to latch onto in recent years, so his Cy Young bids became all we cared about in the barrage of otherwise-lost seasons we’ve endured as Mets fans.

However, deGrom’s starts were also constantly frightening because he was just so damn good that anytime things went even slightly awry, it was cause for alarm and panic. “What’s wrong?” we’d wonder. “Is he opening up too early? Is his landing spot messed up? Why is he looking down? Is there something wrong with him?” Speculation flied as we’d all turn into pitching coaches on the spot, evaluating every little thing going on.

Almost 95% of the time the answers to those questions turned out to be just a major league pitcher giving up baserunners and sometimes allowing those baserunners to score, which, if you frequently watch the sport of baseball, you’ll find is actually completely normal and does happen quite often. But this is what deGrom’s unprecedented success has done; it has caused us to expect complete dominance and render us nervous crybabies anytime we didn’t get that.

One start in particular stands out in my mind: July 1 of this past season. deGrom was starting in Atlanta and allowed three runs in the first inning, and even though it was July on the calendar, it became Meltdown May for Mets fans everywhere. Speculation about what was wrong once again ran rampant. Of course, deGrom would then retire the final 18 batters he faced that evening, striking out 14 in total. It turns out there was nothing wrong with him that night.

You might think this is just the internet crazies doing their thing, but it really does transcend the mere usual Twitter panic. In a three-start stretch in April 2019, deGrom allowed 14 runs across 13 innings, and the talk of baseball became “what’s wrong with Jacob deGrom?” When he made his first start back from his shoulder soreness ailment on June 21st this year, the ace waltzed through the Braves order early on, but then suddenly walked two hitters in a row. Citi Field went from raucous to deadly quiet. Gary Cohen went into his concerned voice. Keith Hernandez started wondering aloud if something was still physically wrong with him. deGrom would only allow one more baserunner the rest of the game.

And really, who can blame us? deGrom was so good that it was only natural for everyone to hyper-analyze every single thing they saw from him. Anything besides pure dominance was out of the ordinary so that meant there must’ve been something wrong. It was tiring, it was exhausting, and it unfortunately made it difficult to enjoy deGrom at all very frequently.

Watching deGrom became either unsatisfying because he wasn’t perfect, scary as hell because he might’ve been pitching hurt, or completely nerve-racking because the Mets rarely scored enough to make the games easier to watch. In fact, the only start of deGrom’s this year that I can remember not being a bundle of stress during was his complete game shutout of the Nationals, because everything was basically perfect that evening.

This stood out to me more than ever when I went to a game in September and realized how relaxed I was compared to other games I went to earlier in the season where deGrom pitched. I was actually relieved it wasn’t a deGrom start that night, because I got to sit back and actually just enjoy the game instead of sitting on pins and needles with sweaty palms the whole time.

That’s a problem. I shouldn’t be grateful to not watch a generational pitcher in his prime. I should be grateful of any chance I get to watch him pitch and be able to truly enjoy seeing him dominate in the moment. Otherwise there’s really no point in any of this, is there? This is supposed to be fun. Why is watching deGrom not fun?

Do we want to look back on his career and lament how little we enjoyed it because of how nervous we were that his ERA would go up to 1.20 or that he’d walk off the mound holding his forearm? We are so lucky to have watched this pitcher in his prime, and we may never get to see anything like this again. Why would we waste our chance?

I hope deGrom’s extended absence and the uncertainty of his future re-contextualizes that for not just me, but for all Mets fans, and helps us to simply enjoy him more in the moment. We’ve gotten a taste of what life without deGrom is like, and it sucks. Hopefully this whole injury saga reminds us all that as ageless as deGrom may seem, it is as temporary anything else in this world, and it can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Maybe now we can all try worrying a little less and appreciating it a little more whenever he does pitch.