Way back in spring training, James McCann had just signed with the Mets and had to learn how to work with a new rotation. After getting to know his new teammates, he was asked to discuss Jacob deGrom, and he offered a statement that was both true at the time and incredibly prophetic, “He’s mastered a craft that few can master.”
That statement was deGrom’s injury-shorted 2021 in a nutshell. He came to spring training already throwing 100mph and was in peak form before the season even started. He was the obvious choice to be the Opening Day starter but unfortunately that was delayed when the Nationals came down with COVID. He finally made his debut on April 5 against the Phillies, and true to form he pitched six shutout innings and struck out seven in an eventual Mets loss.
Like every great magician that was just the opening act. Every start he dazzled the crowds with blazing fastballs and mind bending sliders. Every pitch was an event. Every at-bat left the awe-struck crowds astounded. There was no way what they were watching was real. Not only was he battling the opposing batter but the very laws of physics. His magic act was appointment television for both fans and former Met greats alike.
If mastering the craft of pitching wasn’t enough, deGrom morphed into an offensive threat at the plate and was the only Met to earn a nomination for the Silver Slugger award at the end of the season. In 33 at-bats he finished the year hitting .364/.364/.394 with chants of “MVP” reigning down from the adoring crowds.
What nobody realized was they were also watching a tightrope act. Every grimace, every time he left a start early fans held their collective breath hoping for good news. The first sign of trouble was on May 4 when he was scratched from a start with a lat issue. He made a start five days later but was pulled early after his side bothered him yet again which landed him on the injured list. He returned at the end of May but not before showing no mercy to 18-year-olds in Single-A on the Palm Beach Cardinals when he made a rehab start.
For awhile it seemed like the crisis was averted until injuries popped up again in June. Then after being selected for the All-Star game he said he would not be going instead wanting to spend the time with his family. Unfortunately that is when he pulled off his last trick. His disappearing act.
He was blasted for his All-Star game decision but he never pitched again for the rest of the season so clearly there was an underlying issue as to why he didn’t want to pitch in an exhibition game. For the rest of the season there were very little answers forthcoming about what was wrong with the ace. He literally ran from reporters and scurried into the clubhouse whenever he spotted them on the field. As for the organization, they remained vague about whether or not he would pitch again that season.
Sandy Alderson eventually revealed that it was a partially torn UCL that kept the righty sidelined but deGrom vehemently denied that report when he finally spoke to the media. The Mets did eventually shut him down but manager Luis Rojas said had they made the playoffs deGrom would’ve been ready to go.
At season’s end long gone was the talk of breaking Bob Gibson’s single-season ERA record or even topping Doc Gooden’s special 1985 season, but the innings Jacob deGrom logged in 2021 were special. He was 7-2 with a miniscule 1.08 ERA in 92 innings. He struck out 146 while walking just eleven batters. Whatever stat you choose chances are it is a ridiculous number. His WHIP was 0.554, his FIP 1.24, he struck out batters 45.1% of the time, while routinely doing this:
Jacob deGrom, 99mph Fastball (yanked foul) and 93mph Back Foot Slider (swing/miss), Individual Pitches + Overlay.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 21, 2021
Even after appearing in just 15 games he was still a five-win player. His bWAR was 5.0 while his fWAR was 4.9. He even got one fifth-place Cy Young vote which made him ninth in the final tally for the award.
All signs point to the great and powerful deGrom being ready for next season but some mystery remains. He blamed weird positioning in the MRI machine for his issues and was generally not happy with how the 2021 season unfolded. Perhaps 2021 was always going to be doomed after the shortened 2020 season threw pitchers off their routines, but playing it safe will hopefully pay off in the long run despite the 2021 season essentially ending with deGrom’s injury. The pitching couldn’t survive without their ace and without that sizzling excitement every five days.
Now if you have seen The Prestige (and if you haven’t you absolutely should) you know that to be a truly great magician the trick isn’t complete until what disappeared makes its return. If the Mets want to compete in 2022 they will need a healthy deGrom to reappear and dazzle the crowds once again.