How I know Jacob deGrom belongs in the greatest-ever conversation

Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher I have ever seen.

For a seven-year period from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, almost all with the Red Sox, Martinez pitched in a way in which I had never seen. He was brutal and artistic. He was deadly serious, yet showman. His fourth best option was better than just about every other pitcher’s best pitch.

Walking from a hotel in Copley Square, you could always feel the rising energy as you neared Fenway Park with the Yankees in town. But on Pedro Day it was elevated to a higher level due to the majesty, theater, possibility. I imagine a ballet aficionado would feel this way in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s prime or an opera lover in Maria Callas’ heyday.

Jacob deGrom does not have Martinez’s flair, that magnetic quality that makes it impossible to look anywhere but him. But as a pitcher, deGrom is starting to make me wonder about my rankings of the best I have seen. He has at least nudged himself into consideration.

“I don’t know how you say with a straight face (that deGrom doesn’t belong in that company),” Marlins chief executive officer Derek Jeter said by phone. “What has he done to not be put in that category? What more would you need to see, more importantly, to put him in that category?”

I called Jeter for a specific reason. No batter took more plate appearances against Martinez (99) than Jeter. And since Jeter took over the Marlins on a day-to-day basis after the 2017 season, no starter has faced his team more than deGrom (15 starts). That period, beginning in 2018, is when deGrom began a transformation from excellent major league starter to all-time great.

New York Mets fans stand on their feet and cheer for New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom
It’s hard for fans not to be on their feet, watching closely whenever Jacob deGrom is on the bump.
Robert Sabo

“Pedro, in my mind, was the best pitcher I have faced,” Jeter said. “He had the best fastball, the best curveball, the best slider, the best changeup. Everything he did was the best. We saw a lot of him because he played in Boston and there was a lot of hype around him. He was must-see TV any time he pitched. … When you talk about deGrom, I say this respectfully, I am tired of seeing him. We have faced him so often. He goes out and dominates. It is very similar to Pedro.”

It is funny how greatness in front of you can provide diverse opinions. Sometimes you become a slave to the moment and what is happening now gets pumped beyond reason — the other day I heard someone ask if Hawks star Trae Young is one of the greatest playoff performers ever. And sometimes the opposite occurs; it feels sacrilegious to put someone from today into the all-time great categories. This is where nostalgia trumps all.

My baseball fandom includes seeing Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton at or near their peaks, but I was young and out-of-town games on TV were scarce. So I tend to focus from the mid-1980s forward, when I began covering the sport to think of my personal pantheon. So that is Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson and if someone wants to make a case for any of them, fine. I go with Martinez because he had Maddux’s craft and the power of Clemens and Johnson and that other hard-to-define quality that I would put this way — when the game began I thought anything was in play. Perfect game. Twenty strikeouts. Ten strikeouts in a row.

That is how it is with deGrom now. It is a different age and he clearly is not logging the innings of Gibson and Seaver or even Maddux and Johnson. But when the game begins — Saturday’s start against the Phillies, being the latest example — I will either be there or be in front of a TV because, really, when he retires an order 1-2-3 in the first with a strikeout or three, I really do begin to wonder what am I going to see today?

And this is not mercurial. This is deGrom’s eighth season. The first four were terrific, the next three genius and this one, well, this one is where breathtaking and unique merge. Going into this weekend there had been 702 individual games in which a pitcher had allowed at least four earned runs. DeGrom had yielded four earned runs. In 12 starts. In 72 innings. So for all of 2021. The ERA was 0.50.

That is 674 percent better than league average factoring in ballpark. If he gives up five runs Saturday without recording an out, his ERA would climb to 1.125. Gibson in his hallowed 1968 season was 1.123. Yes, Gibson threw 304 2/3 innings (my gosh). The game has changed. But dominance is dominance and brilliance is brilliance and what deGrom is doing stands with the greatest pitching efforts ever.

 “When you talk about someone dominating, it is dominating a league,” Jeter said. “Pedro dominated a league. DeGrom is dominating a league.”

 It is an event when deGrom gives up a run. There is a competition if the former college shortstop will drive in more runs than he will permit. He takes the ball, heads to the mound and the door of possibility swings open. It all is in play. You have to, at minimum, find your way to a TV in the way you had to when Pedro was at his peak.

“I’m still a baseball fan,” Jeter said.. “He’s fun to watch … when he’s not facing us.”

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