In the absence of Mets ace Matt Harvey, Queens has become the unlikely home of the Summer of Jake deGrom. Saturday night, deGrom took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in a win over the Giants and finished with four hits, one walk and two runs allowed to go with seven strikeouts over 7 1/3 innings.
DeGrom's ERA is all the way down to 2.77. Since a disastrous start June 16 against St. Louis -- 4 1/3 IP, 12 hits, six runs, all earned -- deGrom has dominated. In eight starts since, he has thrown 53 1/3 innings with 56 strikeouts, 14 walks (4.0 K/BB) and a 1.52 ERA. He hasn't allowed a home run since Cubs pitcher Travis Wood took him deep on June 5. Hitters have mustered just a .212 batting average, .269 on-base percentage and .249 slugging percentage over the hot stretch. Over deGrom's past eight starts, the league is collectively hitting worse against him than MLB's worst qualified hitter by OPS, Cincinnati's Zack Cozart, who entered Sunday's play with a triple-slash line of .220/.268/.283.
Few knew deGrom entering the season, and there wasn't much reason to. Baseball America ranked him as the club's 10th best prospect after the 2013 season, a season which saw him progress to Triple-A despite unremarkable numbers at Double-A Binghamton (60 IP, 4.80 ERA, 2.2 K/BB). In an organization with young starters like Harvey, Zach Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero, a guy like deGrom, with a "ceiling as a No. 4 starter or better" as Baseball America put it, doesn't really move the needle too much.
The hint that deGrom could be more than his scouting reports, however, was there. As Baseball America noted in their year-end report, the right-hander "made progress with a straight changeup" in 2013. Especially as the platoon becomes more and more in vogue, the changeup is a key pitch for starting pitching prospects. No pitch neutralizes the typical advantage lefty hitters have over righty pitchers better than the straight changeup, as Max Marchi showed at The Hardball Times in 2010.
The changeup is but a small part of his arsenal -- he throws it about 12 percent of the time, and he threw just seven in Saturday's gem. But Saturday shows just how effective the pitch can be. Of his seven changeups Saturday, six were strikes, including a foul, three groundouts and two swinging strikes (one for a strikeout). The swinging strikes in particular have been a constant for deGrom's changeup this year. According to Brooks Baseball hitters have whiffed at 20.2 percent of deGrom's changeups, 18th most among starters, right between Zack Greinke and Chris Sale. It is no coincidence lefties have an anemic .232/.314/.345 line against deGrom.
Matt Harvey told the New York Post he hadn't even heard of deGrom until midway through last season. After Saturday's gem, Harvey told the Post's Mike Puma, "He's a little goofy, a little quiet, but when he gets on the mound you can tell that he means business. As somebody who is like that when I take the mound, I can notice other guys who are like that."
Harvey and deGrom have more than that in common -- their development paths have been eerily similar. Although Harvey was considered to have a higher ceiling as he progressed through the prospect chain, he was nagged by issues with his changeup, issues that had some evaluators concerned he would be limited to a relief role. Mets manager Terry Collins mentioned it during spring training in 2013 to Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News:
"It was a thing where I would call [Triple-A manager] Wally [Backman] and ask about how he was doing and one of the first things he'd say is that his changeup is at times good and at other times nonexistent."
Harvey had just polished off a brilliant spring start in which he struck out five Cincinnati Reds in 4 1/3 innings. The Reds had loaded the lineup with lefties, and the changeup was Harvey's key. "I like throwing my changeup a lot," Harvey said after the start, "I threw a couple to the right-handers today and I was pleased with that, but obviously with seven lefties in the lineup the changeup is going to be a big pitch."
Harvey's changeup remained a huge weapon throughout the regular season, as he posted a 19.8 percent whiff rate with the pitch in 2013, nearly identical to deGrom's performance with the pitch this season. While deGrom lacks Harvey's huge velocity and vicious slider, he has shown enough to give the Mets optimism for his future and for the future of their rotation. Between Harvey, Wheeler, and deGrom, the Mets have three young and talented pitchers to build around. Throw in Travis d'Arnaud (the Mets apparently made a wise investment in lowercase d uniform technology), Juan Lagares, Jenrry Mejia and Jeurys Familia, who have all shown flashes of brilliance in the past couple months, and the Mets have the beginnings of the young core they've been searching for since their last winning season in 2008.
Admittedly, deGrom's big league career is fewer than 100 innings old, and plenty can happen in the months and years to come. But deGrom has turned what was one of his biggest weaknesses into a strength, just like Matt Harvey before him. And for Mets fans, who have been counting the days until Harvey's return in 2015, it's hard to imagine a better comparison for their new sensational right-hander.