Because Nolan Ryan pitched so well for so long, he was, for many years, a working model for what the ultimate pitcher’s body might look like. He had those powerful legs anchoring a compact, fluid delivery. He is thought to have touched 100 mph in an era when hard throwers were the guys hitting 90 mph. Ryan amassed 5,714 strikeouts in the big leagues. As Justin Verlander noted, Ryan maintained his status as a power pitcher throughout his entire 27-year career.
But this generation’s ultimate pitcher’s body might belong to the Mets’ Jacob deGrom — 6-foot-4 and angular, a human rubber band with flexibility and elasticity. Even at 32 years old, he still seems to be finding physiological levers that enable him to throw a little harder and make the ball move a little more. Second baseman Jeff McNeil acknowledged that after deGrom throws a good fastball, McNeil will turn and peek at the scoreboard to see a velocity reading. The other day, deGrom’s fastball was clocked at 102 mph.
To put that number into perspective: In deGrom’s first year in the majors, his average fastball velocity was 93.5 mph. That number has continued to climb year after year.
2015: 95 mph
2016: 93.4 mph
2017: 95.2 mph
2018: 96 mph
2019: 96.9 mph
2020: 98.6 mph
His average velocity was the highest in baseball last year, but deGrom’s power preeminence was even more pronounced with his slider. Among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, deGrom threw his slider nearly 3 mph harder than anyone else.
Lee Singer of ESPN Stats & Information sent along these thoughts about deGrom’s velocity:
“DeGrom is one of 11 pitchers in the pitch-tracking era to increase their average fastball velocity as a starter in four-plus straight seasons (again no minimum number of pitches or innings). As you can see below, most of these guys are not really comparable to deGrom as they either didn’t throw as hard to begin with, didn’t increase their velocity as much over the span or didn’t have a full workload every season. The years listed are the years the velocity grew. So it’s four increases for deGrom from 2016-20.”
Singer continued: “Another way of looking at this is seeing where the total increase ranks over a five-year span. In the pitch-tracking era (since 2008), no starter has increased their average fastball velocity more in a 5-year span than deGrom (min. 2 starts each season).”
I asked Jeremy Hefner, the Mets’ pitching coach, how he thinks deGrom has continued to add velocity.
“Not easily answered,” he responded. “However, I do have a theory.”
Hefner noted deGrom’s unusual path to pitching — he was a college shortstop who nudged into his pitching in his last year at Stetson rather than having a lifetime of innings.
“I believe that his throwing age — not as many innings as other guys at this point in his career — and his attention to detail in refining his mechanics are the key contributors,” Hefner said.
Hefner cited the advances in recovery modalities for starting pitchers and how deGrom has used the available technology to maximize the potential of each of his pitches.
“However, in my opinion, that’s not contributing a larger percentage,” Hefner said.
“The physiology question is a bit simpler. He is a very loose mover — think Gumby — but can create good tension throughout his delivery, to maximize the whip he was naturally born with. Because he is able to control it, repeat it (generally), and has long levers, we can see the velocity trending upward.
“It’s crazy to say, but he is getting better where most pitchers his age are trying to hold on or reinvent themselves.”
DeGrom will be on the mound for the Mets’ season opener, against the Nationals and Max Scherzer, on April 1 (7 ET, ESPN).
The ongoing universal DH problem
Only 11 days remain before Opening Day and National League teams continue to operate out of necessity as if there is going to be no universal designated hitter. Every day that passes without Major League Baseball surrendering to the players’ association on the DH issue is another day of unnecessary injury risk for National League pitchers, another day bypassing what just about everybody on both sides recognizes as a product enhancement. The overlords of the sport want more action and the universal DH could increase action, unless your definition of action is seeing pitchers bunt or strike out on five pitches instead of three.
MLB’s negotiation team wanted the union to swap something in return for the universal DH. While you could argue that the players’ association’s refusal to do so hurt individual players like Marcell Ozuna in free agency over the winter, the fact is that the union didn’t budge. Now MLB is left with a choice whether to implement the DH for 2021 or not. Refusing to do so changes nothing about the sport’s toxic labor relations. Refusing to do so would be a manifestation of stubbornness with no big-picture benefit for the sport, and would tee up the commissioner for a tidal wave of criticism if and when some pitcher suffers a major injury running the bases or hitting. Commissioner Rob Manfred is the anointed leader of the group that has the power to push through the DH. Fair or not, he would be blamed for clinging to dispensable conditions that almost nobody wants and almost everybody assumes will be obsolete after the next labor agreement. If someone like deGrom or Scherzer gets hurt on the bases or in the batter’s box, the fallout for Manfred would be enormous.
Those hoping for a universal DH
The teams that would most benefit if there is a decision at the start of the season to institute a designated hitter for the National League:
1. New York Mets
Dom Smith mashed last season and posted a .993 OPS. The fact that he’s left-handed helps to balance out what appears to be a spectacularly deep lineup. But in left field, he is a first baseman doing the best he can. If a DH is added, it would allow Smith to remain in the lineup in late innings and give the Mets the opportunity to play a stronger defender in left. Their best defensive outfield might include Brandon Nimmo, Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar.
2. Atlanta Braves
They could immediately move Marcell Ozuna into the DH role and strengthen their outfield defense behind what should be a really good pitching staff — although the Braves don’t really have an obvious candidate like they did last year to absorb the available at-bats in left field, in the way that Adam Duvall did. But the Braves presumably could find another thumper before the trade deadline to stick in left.
3. Washington Nationals
The perception of other teams is that Washington’s defense is going to be a real problem. If the DH is added, then one of the weaker everyday defenders (Kyle Schwarber?) could stay in the dugout.
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
No roster is deeper. The Dodgers could utilize the DH by deploying Will Smith in the spot on the days that Austin Barnes catches, or go with Justin Turner on a day when he’s not at third base, or Max Muncy, or A.J. Pollock, or Matt Beaty.
5. St. Louis Cardinals
Matt Carpenter is under contract for $18.5 million this year. Unless there is a DH, it’s hard to see a way for the veteran to get regular plate appearances because St. Louis is well covered at the corners — with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado. Manager Mike Shildt has already ruled out the outfield as a possibility for Carpenter. So Carpenter could really use a DH in the NL in order to extend his career as a regular.
Yankees’ rotation shaping up
The truth is the Yankees had absolutely no idea what to expect from Domingo German this spring as he returned from what turned out to be an 18-month suspension under baseball’s domestic violence policy. His occasional social media contributions suggesting that his career might be over only added to their uncertainty. But as one evaluator said, it’s as if German never missed any time. He has been crisp in his stuff and in his command this spring, throwing hard and locating all of his pitches, including his changeup. So far, the Yankees’ rotation candidates behind ace Gerrit Cole — who were perceived to be the soft underbelly of the franchise a month ago — have all looked good.
The race for the last roster spot
Jay Bruce has had a good showing in the Yankees’ camp so far, at a time when it appears when the Yankees might have one spot available for the trio of Michael Tauchman, Derek Dietrich and Bruce. Tauchman is on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, which could give him an advantage in the competition. But Bruce and Dietrich can opt out of their respective contracts a week before the start of the regular season if they are not put on the 40-man roster.
Nick Markakis knew at the end of last season that he was retiring. If it were up to him, he would’ve just departed without any public notice. But he was cajoled into telling a couple of familiar reporters that, yes, he was retiring, after 15 years, 2,388 hits, 189 home runs, three Gold Gloves and an All-Star appearance. Buck Showalter managed Markakis in Baltimore and wants everyone to know what a model teammate he was. He has stories to tell, like this one: Markakis had a strong throwing arm at the outset of his career, but an injury robbed him of strength and he had to be measured about how and when he cut loose. Even in this compromised state, Showalter said, Markakis felt it was important to establish a tone on the first day of spring training. So when the Orioles would go through their initial defensive drills, Markakis would be aggressive in throwing to the bases.
“It was like he was Roberto Clemente, the way he was whipping the ball all over the place,” Showalter recalled.
Once the tone for camp had been set, then Markakis would protect his arm.
“He always knew exactly the right thing to do, and when to do it,” Showalter said.
Adam Jones played with Markakis.
“I got some great stories, but none really compare to what a human he is,” Jones wrote in an email. “A great teammate, husband, father. Not the most vocal guy, (they had me for that) but his body of example spoke louder than I or Buck ever could. He taught me how to grind and never make excuses. Play the game hard and play it the correct way.”
Markakis left the Orioles to sign with the Atlanta Braves after the 2014 season, after the Baltimore medical staff raised concerns about whether Markakis would hold up. Markakis went on to play six seasons alongside Freddie Freeman.
“And I’m sure that’s how Freddie Freeman feels [after playing with Markakis],” Jones wrote, “because Freddie is the same way — grind it out. I am still pissed that we didn’t sign Nick back with the Orioles because we didn’t just lose a great human, we lost a brother and a staple in our clubhouse. … That’s why I’m glad he went to prove all the docs and experts wrong. The man is a pro’s pro.”
One of the better major league rotations at the outset of the season could be in Durham, the Class AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. The group is stacked with high-end prospects: 23-year-old lefty Shane McClanahan, who made a strong first impression in the majors at the end of last season by striking out two batters per inning; 20-year-old Luis Patino, whom Tampa Bay got in return for Blake Snell; and Shane Baz, the former first-round pick acquired in the Chris Archer trade with the Pirates in 2017. … The Cardinals’ John Gant has a nice pitch mix for a starter. But command continues to be a challenge. He’s walked six in 9 1/3 innings, after issuing seven walks in 15 innings — and in the big leagues, he compiled 129 walks in 262 2/3 innings. … On Thursday’s podcast, Jesse Rogers talked about the return of video replay to the dugouts and why so many hitters are relieved. On Wednesday, David Schoenfield discussed the addition of LeBron James to the Red Sox ownership group. On Tuesday, Tim Kurkjian talked about the recurring dream that haunts him — it’s basketball-related — and about the complicated legacy of Ryan Braun. On Monday, Jessica Mendoza discussed the staggering promise of Shohei Ohtani.