It’s tempting to compare Jacob deGrom to Icarus — whose overexuberance, or hubris, drove him higher and higher until proximity to the sun melted his wax wings and sent him plummeting to his death. Because isn’t that just like the pitcher whose ever-increasing fastball velocity, past the age when most starters start to taper off, seems to coincide with a cascade of injuries that could end his career?
Over the past few years, deGrom has been more allegory than actual player, at least in the public sphere. The unheralded hero toiled first in relative anonymity before turning himself into The Best Pitcher On The Planet, a sentiment so often and easily expressed that it became something of an automatic epithet.
The superlative was used almost to goad doubters into demanding a caveat. Because that was where the story got good — and by good, I mean tragic.
In the first two years of his 30s, deGrom won back-to-back NL Cy Youngs for the most demonstrably tortured MLB fan base. Already it seemed unsustainable, but only in the way that all peaks predate a decline. And deGrom emerged from the pandemic-shortened 2020 testing the limits of that logic — actually, maybe he could get better indefinitely.
Then in 2021, he was an All-Star with a 1.08 ERA when elbow inflammation forced him to the injured list before he could reach 100 innings. Still, he garnered down-ballot Cy Young votes. A spring training setback the following year pushed his return to August. In his final season with the Mets, he made 11 starts and pitched in the only postseason game they won last season.
Through nine years in New York, deGrom was an icon, an event, a victim of the team’s incompetence as his lack of run support became legendary and an emblem of their inevitable disillusionment when he lost his last regular-season start with the division on the line. While he belonged to the city, his discomfort with the limelight enhanced the sense that throwing 100 mph was a compulsion. On his way out, it made some question whether he’d really cared only about showing up for himself.
By the end, deGrom was a paradox: The Best Pitcher On The Planet, when healthy. The paradox, of course, came from the implication that he couldn’t stay healthy. From a free-agency perspective, he was Schrodinger’s Ace: the most valuable player available, unless he was a total waste of money. He defied meaningful comparison, which only made things more fascinating.
When the Texas Rangers signed 34-year-old Jacob deGrom to a five-year contract with an average annual value of $37 million, it was considered an audacious gamble indicative of an ambitious team going all-in. The sense was that it was super cool but maybe a little stupid.
When the team slow-played his spring training, every tweet coming out of Surprise, Arizona, was met with histrionics and attempts to quell them. It wasn’t Schadenfreude so much as whatever the German word is for why we react viscerally to monsters in horror movies even though we know they’re coming. It’s ironic, really, that the Rangers train in Surprise, seeing as the whole thing with deGrom was that he is widely known to be “injury-prone.”
And now, after he threw just 30 innings for his new team — a club that is otherwise enjoying a charmed season beyond even its wildest dreams — comes the news that deGrom will likely have Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career.
After all, wax wings work for only so long, right?
Except that just because you can see something coming doesn’t mean it’s a foregone conclusion. DeGrom will not miss at least the rest of the season because he was already considered a risky investment. Or because the narrative about him pitching perpetually from atop the thinnest of tightropes is so compelling or pervasive that this seemed like a natural next act in the unfolding drama.
I think sometimes media can be a little cavalier talking about players we deem "injury prone" and with deGrom in particular, the established narrative of his greatness being like a ticking time bomb can leave us inured to how stunning a setback can still be to the player himself https://t.co/leJnWMVk8v
— Hannah Keyser (@HannahRKeyser) June 6, 2023
The stoic pitcher battled tears when he talked to the media Tuesday in Texas. His voice cracked as he acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to help his teammates in a summer that looks so promising. You can think this was all very predictable, but that’s because you don’t have any ligaments in the game. DeGrom seemed pretty shocked to me.
There is a relationship between velocity — especially consistent velocity — and arm injury. The strain of throwing a baseball repeatedly, already unnatural, is heightened when every pitch is max-effort. And so there is some truth to deGrom’s reputation as a tantalizingly tragic hero, undone by his unwillingness to take a little off.
In solemn deference to how otherworldly he has seemed at times and in an effort to make sense of the vagaries of disappointment, we sometimes talk about Jacob deGrom as if he is So Great It Must Come At A Cost. But people are not parables. There’s no moral vindication or greater meaning to be found in deGrom’s season-ending injury.
It just sucks.