CHICAGO -- The question, as we close in on Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, is one we've asked before: Who will turn into this October's Madison Bumgarner?
So who's poised to be the next MadBum at this point? Well, it won't be Clayton Kershaw. It won't be Zack Greinke. It won't be Dallas Keuchel. It won't be Gerrit Cole. Great as they are, they've all gone home.
It won't be David Price -- unless the last two and a half weeks of his postseason go a lot different than all the Octobers that have preceded it.
But the best answer is a fellow who hasn't even pitched in the LCS yet. That would be the Mets' very own shooting star, 27-year-old right-hander Jacob deGrom. And on Tuesday, it's his turn. His turn to start, and very possibly, his turn to add to his rapidly growing October legend.
On Monday, I tracked down six major league executives and scouts and laid out my theory that no pitcher in this postseason has positioned himself better than deGrom to be the 2015 version of MadBum. Let's just say I didn't have to talk them into it.
"Totally agree," said one exec. "You just don't see stuff like this very often, with the whole package to go with it."
"You don't have to convince me," said an NL scout. "This guy's got a chance to be special."
"Of everyone who has started so far, he's the guy who has gone to a different level," said another NL scout. "Without a doubt."
Before this October -- and even to non-Mets fans -- deGrom had already ascended to a level where legit followers of all things baseball understood that this was a guy with a chance to be great. But here's what we have learned from his two postseason starts so far: He's already great.
Without him, his team wouldn't still be playing. It's pretty much that basic, in a MadBum kind of way.
During his first start, in Game 1 in Los Angeles, he lined up against Kershaw, the heavyweight champion of the best-pitcher-alive portion of the world. And amazingly, in seven innings of five-hit, zero-run, 13-strikeout domination, there wasn't even a debate about who was better. Not on that night. The answer was Jacob deGrom. "My gosh," said one scout. "How many pitches did he throw in that game at 97, 98, 99 miles an hour? That was incredible."
The answer, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is: 16 at 98 mph, another 28 at 97 mph and 66 altogether at 96 mph or above. Wow. But it wasn't those radar gun readings that conjured up images of Bumgarner. It was what made those gun readings possible.
"People look at him and wonder if he's strong enough to do this," said the same scout, referring to deGrom's potential to make four weeks' worth of consistently dominating starts in the biggest games of his life. "I mean, face it. He'd be like half the size of Bumgarner if you stood them side by side. But he's got this unbelievable wiry strength to him. So you get this sequential firing -- boom, boom, boom -- with the same explosion every time. And the ball just jumps on the hitters. He and Bumgarner both have that weapon."
But here's the funny thing: It wasn't even that start that left the biggest mark on the people inside the sport, the people who pay the closest attention. It was deGrom's second start: Game 5 in L.A., with a season and a series riding on it, deGrom against Greinke.
"The first start was eye-opening," said one NL executive. "The second was about his heart, his fight."
He needed that heart and that fight in the second start, because when he reached for those 97s and 98s on that night, they weren't there to be pulled out of his bag of magic tricks. So he was forced to do what the best pitchers do in games like that: He willed himself to win -- and to outpitch Greinke to do it.
Just so we all understand what happened that night, your average pitcher -- and even a lot of really good pitchers -- can't do what deGrom did, Mets manager Terry Collins said Monday.
"It takes that special guy to say, 'I'm still getting through this game. I'm going to make the pitch I have to make,'" Collins said. "And that's what he did."
"That's the reason I include him on my really short list of true No. 1 starters," said another NL scout. "That's why I think he's taken that last step to become one of those guys. When you have that ability, to bear down and beat the other team's No. 1 starter when you don't have your best stuff, that's what the great ones do."
That is also the reason Bumgarner is on that same scout's list. At the end of a 272-inning journey last October, he was still finding ways to lift his team wherever it needed to go. And in the Mets' NLDS, deGrom did the very same thing.
But the scouts and execs I surveyed saw other similarities, too:
• They're more than pitchers: "No one mentions him as a Gold Glove candidate," one exec said of deGrom. "And he's nearly impossible to run against. He can swing the bat. And he runs well down the line." You've seen MadBum make those home run trots. And deGrom has never done that. But it is deGrom who ranks among the 10 active pitchers with career batting averages of .200 or better (and 100 plate appearances). Bumgarner is 16th on that list, at .183.
• They're athletes: "One of my big keys, when I'm grading out pitchers, is to find the most athletic guys who are pitching," said one of the scouts quoted earlier. "And I think Bumgarner is a big, strong, athletic guy. [But] deGrom is different. As I said, he's more wiry strong. But he's a really good athlete. And it's one of the things that separates him."
• They're ultracool: "The thing that really stood out to me about deGrom is his poise," said another of the scouts quoted above, "and his ability to manage situations. He doesn't seem to get rattled at all, which is very Bumgarner-like."
• They're great with men on base: Here's what the opposition hit against Bumgarner last October with men on base: .121/.164/.155, with 15 strikeouts and only seven hits in 58 at-bats. You know how hitters are faring against deGrom with runners on base in this postseason? A dazzling .167/.231/.167, with 13 strikeouts in 24 at-bats -- an absurd strikeout rate of 46.4 percent. OK, so they're small samples. But October is a whole month's worth of small samples.
We could keep going here. But you get it by now. So let's make a couple of important points:
First off, two starts in the Division Series don't make anyone the next MadBum. Those starts just put deGrom in a position to work himself into that conversation. Get back to us in three weeks. Get back to us after Game 3, for that matter. This script is capable of being rewritten at any moment of this postseason, including this one. So Tuesday night is a huge night in this year's Bumgarner Sweepstakes.
And then there's one more concession we can't help but make: There is a "giant" difference (sorry) between deGrom's supporting cast and Bumgarner's. All Giants starters not named Madison Bumgarner combined to win one game last October. Whereas the Mets' rotation is overflowing with aces who could win a game all by themselves on any night of this tournament. But ...
"He's the best of all of them," said one scout. "Even last year, when I covered their system, I wrote up all of these guys, and I put deGrom first, which sent shockwaves through our organization. But he's just got that something special about him. And that clinching game against the Dodgers showed it. He just kept making pitches when he had to. If he hadn't made the pitches he had to make in the first, second, third and fourth innings, the Dodgers win that series. But every time he had to make a pitch, he made it. And that's what makes him special."
OK, here's one final important announcement: Even if deGrom is awesome again on Tuesday, I wouldn't even try to claim there is an exact parallel between what Bumgarner did last October and what deGrom has a chance to do this year. Different pitchers. Different teams. Different years.
But here's the other side of that coin: Think about how the world viewed MadBum when last year's postseason began, and think about how he was looked at when it was over. Now that could happen to Jacob deGrom.
Three weeks from now, he has a chance to be one of the biggest names in his entire sport. But not yet. Right now, we're just making fun conversation. Before anybody hands him that Next MadBum trophy, there is kind of a big game he needs to pitch at Wrigley Field on the third Tuesday in October.