Its been an impressive start to the 2014 season for Las Vegas 51s right-hander Jacob deGrom, who is 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA in his first five starts. The 25-year-old Floridian has ascended quickly through the Mets farm system, making his Triple-A debut June 18, 2013 and has become one of the top prospects in the chain (Baseball America #10, MMiLB #16).
Two injuries have impeded, or at least delayed, deGrom’s rise: Tommy John Surgery kept him out all of 2011 and a broken ring finger on his left hand, suffered when a bull kicked him while he was helping a friend with an calf castration, just prior to the start of Spring Training 2013, altered his preparation and pitching mechanics. DeGrom added a curveball to his repertoire in 2013 to go with a slider, change and heavy sinker which sits around 94 mph, which has been his bread and butter since he began pitching as a college junior at Stetson University. Now, armed with a full, four-pitch arsenal, the tall hurler with wavy locks is on the verge of a promotion to the major leagues.
Robert Brender: You’re having tremendous success this season in a league (PCL) that’s not known for pitching. What’s the reason for the success?
Jacob deGrom: 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. I’ve gotten some really good defense behind me, too. That’s helped out. Two starts ago, I think we turned three double plays. That was huge for getting me out of an inning pretty quick.
Robert Brender: When you were recovering from Tommy John Surgery in 2011, you were doing rehabilitation work in Port St. Lucie while Johan Santana was there. I heard he helped you with your changeup. What did he teach you?
Jacob deGrom: We were talking one day about different pitches and I asked him what I could do to make my changeup better. He said he would long-toss with it and how, at first, he could throw it from 180 feet and then as it got better it wouldn’t make it there. So, I did the same thing and just messed with it. He also showed me a couple of different grips that he would use. So, I tried those out and it ended up helping me out a lot.
Robert Brender: You’re also throwing a curveball much more than you had in the past to go with your slider. Why did you decide to start throwing the curve and how do you use it?
Jacob deGrom: The curveball I started throwing for the first time last year. Toward the end of the year, Ron Romanick came in and asked if I’ve ever tried throwing one and I said no. He asked if I wanted to and I said I’m fine with trying to learn one. He showed me how to grip it and what to do with it. This year, I’m not throwing as much as the slider. Maybe a few times each game, about five. The other day, a guy fouled off a few pitches, a couple of changeups and a couple of sliders, so (Juan) Centeno (who was catching) put down (the sign for) curveball and we got a groundball out of it. I just mix it in once in a while and I’ve been getting pretty good results with it.
Robert Brender: You get to watch Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero regularly. Although your repertoire is different than theirs, do you still learn from watching them?
Jacob deGrom: Yeah, I learn a lot from them. We do a chart in the stands when I’m not pitching and I get to see what those two throw and how they’re getting guys out. I take what they’re throwing and put in my little differences and develop a pretty good game plan from seeing what they do.
Robert Brender: When you see all the great pitching in the organization, at the big league level as well as in Triple-A, does that ever make you wonder what your roll is going to be and does it concern you at all?
Jacob deGrom: No, I try not to think about any of that. I just go out there and throw the best I can. I try to make the results what they are and try to make the decision tough on them (Mets front office) as to who goes up.
Robert Brender: You’ve ascended through the Minor Leagues quickly. Has there been a tremendous difference in how you have to pitch to get hitters out as you’ve moved up?
Jacob deGrom: There’s definitely a big difference. Mistakes go a lot farther here than they did at other levels, so I have to be more focused ever pitch and try to keep the ball down more. You don’t get away with as much here as you do at the lower levels. I’m sure it’s even worse in the big leagues. Every pitch I have to be more focused and throw that pitch where I want it.
Robert Brender: Has this level of success been at all surprising for you?
Jacob deGrom: I really worked this offseason to improve my mechanics because with the broken finger in Spring Training last year my front side got lazy. I was just letting it hang and flying open and my ball would get flat in the zone. This offseason, I worked on mechanics and keeping the ball down. The results were good in Spring Training and I’ve just carried it over to the season.
Robert Brender: Would you prefer to be a starter or would you mind being a reliever at the big league level?
Jacob deGrom: It’s my goal to make it to the big leagues, whether it be as a reliever or starter. I would be fine with it either way. I enjoy starting. I haven’t pitched out of the pen in professional baseball but either way would be fine with me. The goal is to make it.