Jacob deGrom is a better pitcher in 2014 because he is better at inducing groundballs. After a strikeout, ground balls are just about the best outcome in an at-bat for a pitcher. Groundballs, after all, cannot become home runs.
While Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero hogged the headlines reserved for pitching prospects during Spring Training, once the regular season started, they’ve been outperformed in the Triple-A Las Vegas rotation by fellow right-hander deGrom who is 4-0 with a 1.89 ERA, fourth best in the PCL, in his six starts.
Earlier this week, deGrom told Robert Brender that the reason he has been successful early in 2014 is that, “I’ve been locating the ball well and getting a lot of groundball outs. I’ve been keeping the ball out of the air, pitching down in the zone.”
He’s saying it and doing it, using his power sinker in the 92-96 miles per hour range on his way to the best groundball percentage among qualified pitchers in the Pacific Coast League. The PCL has hit ground balls just under 44 percent of the time in 2013 and 2014. Last year, deGrom had an average ground ball rate. This year, he’s No. 1 among qualified pitchers, picking up ground balls 60 percent of the time.
In deGrom’s third start of the year, on April 15, he shut out the Reno Aces for seven innings, yielding just three hits and a walk, while striking out four.
Aces Manager Phil Nevin said after that one start, that he was “very impressed” by deGrom. Nevin pointed to deGrom’s ability to control his fastball and work ahead in the count. Once ahead, he could go to his slider which “looked good,” Nevin said.
“We had a lot of misses on it. This is a tough park to pitch in, and it was one of those nights where the ball was carrying and he kept the ball down and we hit a lot of ground balls when we did make contact. He got in front of hitters, and he [had a] putaway pitch,” the manager said.
That night in Reno, according of the official box score, deGrom had 11 ground ball outs and one flyball out. Facing the Aces again Thursday, he generated six ground ball outs.
After his start on Thursday night, deGrom had a 1.89 ERA in 33.1 innings and has struck out 28 batters while walking 10. Adjusting for the difficulty of pitching in the Pacific Coast League generally, and Las Vegas specifically, makes his start even better. The PCL as a whole, averages a 4.43 ERA and batters are hitting .269/.340/.415. This year, in 113 plate appearances, they are hitting .238/.296/.369 against deGrom after getting to him for a .288/.339/.447 line in 14 games in Triple-A last year.
Nevin sees a big league future for the 25-year-old righty.
“First of all, the body. The first glance, you look at him, he has that [Clay] Bucholz body: long legs and shorter torso. He’s able to get some good whip with his body there. You know, I made a comment to Wally, ‘I don’t think he missed a spot the whole game,’” Nevin said. “And you’re talking about a 94-95 guy. Used his offspeed stuff well. No doubt in my mind, and I’ve only seen him once … that stuff will play in the big leagues without a doubt.”
deGrom’s ability to throw strikes and generate ground balls would play out of a bullpen or a starting rotation. If his slider has really progressed, he should be given a chances to start at some point, but his first Major League role will likely be dictated in large part by the Mets’ greatest need in the coming months.