How does Mets ace Jacob deGrom plan to use his curveball in 2021?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Andy Martino
·4 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Jacob deGrom pitching, one leg in air vs. Astros in 2021 spring training
Jacob deGrom pitching, one leg in air vs. Astros in 2021 spring training

While working on a comparison last week between each of Jacob deGrom’s and Gerrit Cole’s pitches, we were reminded of two significant differences between the New York aces: deGrom is more improvisational, and Cole has four dominant pitches to deGrom’s three.

The latter is not a knock on deGrom, who is better than Cole and probably every other pitcher on the planet. It’s simply an opportunity to wonder if he still aspires to have four put-away pitches, or if he intends to continue his recent pattern of de-emphasizing the curveball and using it only in the middle of the rare at-bat that seems to call for it.

As his fastball, slider and changeup have become more dominant, deGrom has thrown fewer curves in each successive season from 2015 (10.62%) to 2020 (2.56%).

“I really don’t want to get beat on my fourth best pitch,” he said last season. “I feel like it’s getting better. I’ve been working on it in between, trying to get something a little slower.

“I’ve given up a couple of homers on my curveball, and I’m like, ‘Why in the world would I throw that?’ When pitchers used to hit, I gave up some hits to pitchers on it. I have a hard time sleeping at night if I give up something on the curveball when I felt like I might have had a couple of other pitches I might have went to before then.”

Fair enough. As deGrom explained, the primary purpose for his curveball is to show hitters a different speed. This is especially important given that his three other pitches all average more than 91 miles per hour. If there has been one critique of deGrom by evaluators in recent seasons, it’s that he is occasionally hurt by a lack of velocity differential.

With two Cy Youngs in three seasons, this is a nitpick. But it’s also a topic that deGrom himself discusses with the team.

“He does talk about that,” manager Luis Rojas said on Tuesday. “You bring it up, and he does talk about his breaking ball. He wants to improve it. It can be another weapon for him. But he’s been so successful with his other pitches. It’s really tough to try to change things when you’ve been so good, and just keep better with the same stuff that you’ve been successful with.”

During Tuesday’s sharp Grapefruit League outing against Houston, deGrom did not throw a single curveball. Afterward, we asked about his plans for the pitch this year.

“I work on it in between [starts],” he said. “And who knows, I think that’s going to be something that we’ll see how in-game planning goes. I go back to a start I had against the Cubs -- I forget what year it was -- but that’s probably the most curveballs I’ve ever thrown. So it was kind of an in-game, kind of feel pitch for me. Play it by ear, what I’m seeing out there.”

This is exactly what deGrom does so well -- reads swings and pays attention to what the hitters are telling him. He is not as interested in analytics-driven plans as he is in tapping into the feel and flow of a particular game.

As deGrom noted, the highest percentage of curveballs he ever threw in a single game (26%) did indeed come against the Cubs in Game 3 of the 2015 National League Championship Series. During his seven seasons in the major leagues, he has thrown more than 10 percent curveballs in a regular-season start just five times.

One of those starts, April 9, 2019 against Minnesota, provides a good example of why and how deGrom has used the pitch in recent seasons. That was the beginning of a rare three-start slump when deGrom was tipping his fastball. He wouldn’t know that until a bit later, but he did see how comfortable the hitters suddenly were against his heater. He altered his game plan on the fly.

When he is going well, as he is the vast majority of time, deGrom is a fastball-slider-changeup pitcher. It’s working for him so far, and he hasn’t shown an inclination to change that basic formula.

“It’s something that he’s working on to mix it in,” Rojas said. “But if you see the same percentage of use this year, it wouldn’t surprise me, just because he’s been so successful.”