Jacob deGrom is at his best when he's at his worst.
His ERA took a bit of a hit in his last start, jumping to 3.68 when he allowed five runs in five innings on a day when the New York Mets lineup supported him with 16 runs in a win over the Atlanta Braves.
But prior to that, a pattern seemed to be emerging in deGrom's performances. Either he was really good from the get-go or he was shaky at the start but still found a way to power through and keep his opponent from knocking him out. With Noah Syndergaard likely out for multiple months, deGrom, who will face the Giants on ESPN on Monday night, is being counted on to be the staff's anchor.
Talking about Syndergaard prior to the season, Mets broadcaster Ron Darling described him as a pitcher learning a feel for the game, a feel for the hitters and a feel for his own skills.
So does deGrom.
"This is something he does better than most," said former major league pitcher Nelson Figueroa, who works on the Mets' pregame broadcast. "When you have everything working, it's easy. But he knows how to battle with his other pitches until he gets back on track."
Syndergaard, when healthy, wins by overpowering you. Although deGrom’s fastball is about 4 mph slower than Syndergaard’s, there are some nights when he can win by blowing it by a hitter. Then there are these other days.
Like April 10 against the Phillies, when deGrom allowed three hits and two walks in the first inning, escaping only when Brock Stassi hit into a 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded.
It took deGrom 31 pitches to get through that inning. It took him an average of 13 pitches per inning to get through the next five, in which he allowed no runs and three hits.
What deGrom took from his first 25 pitches or so was that the Phillies were right on his fastball. So he adjusted, decreasing its usage considerably, while upping the use of his changeup and curveball (his third- and fourth-best pitches, behind his fastball and his slider). The changeup got him the double play to end the inning. He threw 15 more the rest of the game, and though two hitters reached base, he got 13 strikes and four more outs with the pitch.
Meanwhile, his curveball became a difference-maker. After throwing it once in the first inning, he threw 13 over the next five, netting five outs without yielding a baserunner. A deGrom curveball is a rarity. He threw none in his first start of the season and has averaged six per game in four starts since the one against the Phillies. But deGrom knew that was a day that he needed it.
In the two other starts to which we were referring, deGrom got off to a similar start -- he allowed home runs in the second inning against the Marlins and the Nationals. But after allowing two runs and three runs, respectively, on those long balls, deGrom recovered. He allowed no runs the rest of the way. He finished the Marlins game with 13 strikeouts and the Nationals game with 12.
It was the fastball-slider combo that did it. In both starts, he used his fastball nearly two-thirds of the time in those last five innings (compared to 43 percent of the time against the Phillies) and used it both to get ahead of hitters and miss bats early in the count. He brought out the slider when he needed it. From the third through seventh innings, he threw 25 of them against those two teams. They went 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts when the at-bat ended in that pitch.
"Jacob is a four-pitch pitcher who can compete with one, win with two and dominate with three or more," Figueroa said. "Think of a boxer with a game plan to just jab and spar in the first few rounds, but gets hit with a hook right away. The game plan changes, and now you're into fight-or-flight mode. He fights back until he goes on the attack."
Though the numbers don't indicate early struggles to be a career characteristic for deGrom, it's telling that when you ask him about his favorite game, he'll say that it's not when he beat Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 2015 National League Division Series, it's when he escaped jam after jam after allowing two runs in the first inning to beat Zack Greinke in Game 5 of that series.
We've noted previously that deGrom described that do-or-die contest simply.
"I really enjoyed that game," he said.
Winning the hard way isn't necessarily the best way to go about things. But winning the hard way is hard, and deGrom is a guy who, at least this season, seems to have mastered how to do so.