Olney: Jacob deGrom's origin story worthy of a pitching superhero

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ATLANTA -- The teenage Jacob deGrom was uniformly respectful, but like all teenagers he had strong opinions about what he wanted and what might be best for him, and he knew what he didn't want. Long before he became the greatest pitcher on the planet, he had no interest in pitching.


The year before he was drafted by the New York Mets, his summer ball coach presented him a choice -- he could either pitch, or he could serve as a backup infielder, with no promise of regular playing time. By deGrom's way of thinking, he was a starting shortstop. He envisioned himself as a professional ballplayer, and it was as a shortstop, and he was decisive in his answer.


"I'd rather take the summer off," deGrom said firmly, feeling he'd better prepare for his junior year at Stetson taking swings in the cage at his house and fielding grounders hit by his father, Tony.

In a conversation here Saturday, deGrom acknowledged that he has mulled over the serendipitous nature of his path in baseball, and considered the what-ifs -- and there are plenty. What if he had pitched that summer? Would his greatest talent have been exposed sooner, so that he would have been drafted higher than the ninth round -- or is it possible his elbow ligament would have blown out more quickly, truncating his time in baseball?


What if deGrom's college coach at Stetson, Pete Dunn, had never pressed him into pitching, recognizing how his remarkable athleticism enabled him to repeat his delivery and throw strikes? What if a trio of Mets scouts hadn't seen his brief work on the mound and fallen in love with his potential? DeGrom once worked in a fernery in Pearson, Florida -- a town that bills itself as the Fern Capital of the World -- and had mowed lawns, but he always figured he'd play baseball. Just not as a pitcher.


Regardless of how he got to this place, deGrom will be on the mound when the Mets face the Atlanta Braves on Sunday Night Baseball. Dunn retired after 37 years as Stetson's coach a couple of years ago, and he will be watching. "I'm so happy for him," Dunn said. "He's an amazing young man."


And as Dunn recalls, he was an excellent infielder for Stetson.


"Great hands, and he was quick," Dunn said. "You can visualize him going into the six-hole [the area between where the shortstop and third baseman are positioned] and making plays. There is no doubt in my mind he would've had a chance to play pro ball if he had stayed at shortstop. I think it would've been a stretch to say he would've made it to the big leagues."


The root of deGrom's aversion to pitching was much more about his love for shortstop and baseball than it was about the art and challenge of pitching. DeGrom viewed it as binary choice between playing all the time, or watching others play. If he was the shortstop, he'd be on the field every day, fielding, battling the opposing pitcher through each of his at-bats, a trait that Dunn and others remembered -- and if he pitched regularly, he would be left to watch others play from the dugout.


In the fall of his junior year at Stetson, Dunn asked him whether he could serve as the team's closer in the upcoming season, and deGrom responded: "Can I still play shortstop?"


Yes, absolutely, Dunn replied, explaining how deGrom could continue as a position player until he was called upon to finish out games. With that matter settled, deGrom agreed to work in relief. He was still a shortstop, and almost all of his preparation and practice was as a shortstop. DeGrom threw some in the bullpen, but not much, as Dunn recalled, because throwing strikes with a fastball in the 88-90 mph range was easy for him. DeGrom could always throw strikes.


But Stetson started its season poorly, and deGrom had almost no impact as a closer because there were no leads to protect. Dunn met with his staff and told them that the one way that Stetson could turn around its season was to change deGrom's role -- instead of playing him at shortstop, they needed him to serve as the team's primary starter. The Friday night starter, the pitcher who opens each series in conference play.


He presented the idea to deGrom, whose asked the same question: "Can I still play shortstop?"


No, Dunn explained -- if you start Friday, you need the recovery time on Saturday, and probably on Sunday as well. DeGrom would be able to play shortstop in midweek games, but his time as the regular shortstop would end.


"He reluctantly agreed," Dunn remembered, "but with a positive attitude. If that's what was best for the team, he was going to do it."



Dunn wasn't alone in recognizing deGrom's potential as a pitcher.


In the same fall that Dunn had asked deGrom to serve as his closer, Steve Barningham, who served as the Southeast crosschecker in the Mets' scouting department, got a call from one of the organization's area scouts, Les Parker. "You won't believe what I saw," said Parker.


""He looked like Pedro Martinez -- the same delivery as Pedro Martinez. I've got a 6-foot-4 guy on the mound who looks like Pedro Martinez.""Steve Barningham, New York Mets cross-checker, on scouting deGrom at Stetson.

He had been to Stetson and had watched the team's shortstop throw from a mound, and described to Barningham the athleticism, the ease with which the kid pitched. The perception was that deGrom was never going to hit enough to be a major league shortstop, but Parker talked about how the ball came out of his hand on the mound.


Some responsibilities would shift in the Mets' scouting department that fall, and among the changes was the hiring of Steve Nichols, who, like Parker, had many years in the business. And he lived about 20 miles away from Stetson's campus in DeLand, Florida. Barningham remembers explaining to Parker how the areas of coverage might change.


"He can have anything but Stetson," countered Parker. The scout wanted to continue following deGrom.


In December 2009, Barningham went to lunch at a Panera in Clermont, Florida, and explained to Parker and Nichols that yes, Nichols would be responsible for scouting Stetson. Parker turned to Nichols and said, "You've got to promise me you're going to scout this kid."


After the next semester began at Stetson, Nichols went to see a spring practice and called Barningham. "Les is right," Nichols said, and he spoke with the same passion that Parker had about what he saw in deGrom on the mound. The impression left on Barningham was deep: He had two experienced baseball minds, with about five decades in the game between them, and each saw potential pitching greatness in the kid who wanted to play shortstop.


The University of Georgia had some pitching prospects that Barningham needed to see, and one weekend at the end of February, the Bulldogs hosted Stetson in a three-game series -- a Georgia sweep, as it turned out. DeGrom was still serving in the role of Stetson's would-be closer, but with Stetson losing again in the eighth inning in the final game of the weekend, Dunn called on deGrom to pitch in relief, with Barningham sitting and watching from behind home plate. Almost all of the crowd had cleared out on an afternoon of near-freezing temperatures.


DeGrom threw one inning, enough to generate an instant comparable in Barningham's mind. "He looked like Pedro Martinez -- the same delivery as Pedro Martinez," Barningham recalled. "I've got a 6-foot-4 guy on the mound who looks like Pedro Martinez."


In that moment, Barningham recognized why Parker and Nichols had been screaming about why they loved the Stetson shortstop who couldn't hit that much.


Barningham was all-in on deGrom. But to have a delivery like Martinez is not the same, of course, as having a repertoire like Martinez, or most importantly, the results. DeGrom threw mostly fastballs, with a breaking ball that wasn't very good at that time, and deGrom's results in his work as a Stetson starting pitcher would turn out to be far from spectacular. In 17 games, 12 as a starter, he had a 4.48 ERA, allowing 103 hits in 82⅓ innings. Opposing hitters batted .309 against him, and although the study of analytics was not embedded in scouting as deeply then as it is now, deGrom's were not the sort of numbers that would instill confidence in a scouting director.


"He was a one-pitch guy, and you're betting on the delivery and the athlete," Barningham said.


They could vouch for his competitiveness as well, because although he was not a good hitter, they had seen him ferociously fight through extended at-bats.


As Barningham recalled, the initial conversation in the Mets' draft room was about possibly taking deGrom in the fourth or fifth round. On the day of the draft, however, those rounds went by without deGrom's name being called, with the Mets and every other team passing. Perhaps in the eighth round, Barningham thought.


"The wait was pretty excruciating," Barningham recalled, "because the three of us felt like we knew what we had.


"If somebody is going on this ride, it needed to be us. There is nothing worse than having a gut feel on a guy who is going on a ride with someone else."


With the 272nd pick of the 2010 draft, in the ninth round, the Mets picked Jacob deGrom, pitcher, out of Stetson University. Right after the Diamondbacks selected Zachary Walters, and right before the Astros chose Thomas Shirley.


If the TrackMan technology that is common now had been available to scouts then, Barningham believes, deGrom probably would have been chosen much higher in the draft, maybe in the second round. But the Mets got him in the ninth, and he signed for a $95,000 bonus.


DeGrom would pitch only 26 innings professionally before his elbow blew out and he needed Tommy John surgery, and during his rehabilitation, the Mets' front office turned over. Barningham reached out to new Mets executive Paul DePodesta and briefly made a case for deGrom. Yes, he's hurt, and we haven't seen much from him, but let's not overlook him, Barningham said, in so many words.


Over time, deGrom found that he could draw as much enjoyment out of the process of pitching -- the preparation, the regimen, the precision -- as he had in playing shortstop. It was during deGrom's rehabilitation that he would have a conversation with Johan Santana, a master of the changeup, about the particulars of that pitch.


In 2012, deGrom was healthy, fully invested in pitching, and while working in A-ball, he posted a 2.43 ERA in 111⅓ innings. He was a pitcher, and he was on his way.


Dunn will bump into deGrom from time to time every winter around DeLand, maybe at Sonny's BBQ, or at an annual run that takes place in the town every January. But he doesn't want to bother deGrom, or ever become a nuisance, knowing deGrom's personality and knowing that celebrity is something he prefers to fend off. DeGrom loves to hunt and fish.


"Just a good ol' country boy," Dunn said.


Once, deGrom rolled up in his pickup, a brand-new Ford with big wheels, made for off-road.


"How does that truck play up in New York?" Dunn asked deGrom.


"I don't take that to New York, Coach," deGrom replied. "I leave that down here."


In New York, in Atlanta, in the big cities, he pitches, better than anybody else, something he never imagined a decade ago.