Jacob deGrom is a study in improbability.
The Kingsport Mets of the Rookie-level Appalachian League can forever claim that the two-time National League Cy Young Award winner began his professional career in the Tennessee city.
After all, that puts him in an exclusive club. For all the seeming lack of significance of low-level minor leagues, the Tennessee foursome in the Appy League — Kingsport, Elizabethton, Johnson City and Greeneville — have produced some extraordinary baseball players. Joe Mauer played in Elizabethton before becoming an American League Most Valuable Player for the Minnesota Twins. So did Justin Moreau. Jose Altuve played in Greeneville before becoming AL MVP for the Houston Astros (no sign-stealing scandals in Greeneville). Yadier Molina began his professional career in Johnson City before reaching Hall of Fame status as one of the great catchers in St. Louis Cardinals history.
For deGrom, it was far from the conventional story of a highly ranked pitching prospect climbing steadily through the ranks to reach the level of the big-league elite.
For starters, thank goodness, deGrom didn’t remain a shortstop. That’s where he played in college at Stetson and didn’t show a lot of interest in being a pitcher before the program figured out he could help the team best on the mound. The Mets drafted him in the ninth round of the draft in 2010 as a pitcher.
He made only six appearances in Johnson City that year, compiling an unremarkable 1-1 record with a 5.19 earned run average. And it didn’t exactly forebode a stellar big-league career when he had to undergo Tommy John surgery that October. He didn’t even pitch in 2011. This was no sure-fire major league superstar in the making, or so it seemed.
But then, well, the deGrom that the baseball world came to know began to develop. At age 24, he excelled in the South Atlantic League and the Florida State League, Class A ball, for a combined 9-3 record and a 2.43 ERA. From there, well, it just got better. In 2013, he climbed the ladder — Class A then AA then AAA, all that season — capped by a 4-2 record in Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.
By 2014, deGrom was in full bloom. And, oh yes, these were his long hair days, with some of the flowingest locks known in baseall history. So a nifty little 9-6 record and a 2.69 ERA made deGrom the National League Rookie of the Year Award winner.
Somehow, that rocky beginning in Kingsport didn’t signal such a brilliant career. But a 14-8 record in 2015 with a 2.54 ERA spoke clearly that the Mets had a star on their hands as they went to the World Series that season. He went 7-8 in 2016 before reaching a career-high 15 wins in 2017, cracking 200 innings (201 1/3) for the first time.
In one of the quirkiest seasons ever by a pitcher, despite having a lackluster record of 10-9, deGrom posted a phenomenal 1.70 earned run average in 2018, the kind of ERA that would normally come with a 20-win season or some other lofty record. Fortunately, the baseball writers recognized such performance and gave deGrom the Cy Young Award.
And, oh yes, he cut his famous hair after the season, with the explanation that research said it would improve his pitching.
Another odd wrinkle was the deGrom’s agent was Brodie Van Wagenen, who would become the Mets general manager in 2019, resulting in deGrom negotiating both with and against the same man in contract talks in his career.
Last season, deGrom had another so-so record, 11-8, but once again put up an earned run average, 2.60, that couldn’t be denied, and chalked up 255 strikeouts, earning deGrom a second consecutive Cy Young Award.
No one would have predicted that the unremarkable beginning in 2010 in Kingsport would have resulted in such a spectacular career. Just like winning the Cy Young Award with a 10-9 record, they don’t seem to match.
He has not had the conventional storyline. But conventional or not, what started in Kingsport has become the first chapter in what is now a superstar story.