PORT ST. LUCIE — Jacob deGrom still hadn’t become Jacob deGrom when he arrived at spring training in 2018.
At the time, he was a talented 28-year-old pitcher in whom the Mets saw a potential ace, but coming off a season in which he had finished 15-10 with a 3.53 ERA, he wasn’t in the discussion that included names such as Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke among the game’s elite.
On his own staff, he was overshadowed by Noah Syndergaard, who was returning from a torn lat and considered by many as the pitcher with the bigger upside.
As camp began that spring, Dave Eiland, then the new Mets pitching coach, spoke with deGrom and delivered a message that resonated with the right-hander as he strived toward improvement: Don’t overcomplicate things.
DeGrom cited those conversations with Eiland (who remained as Mets pitching coach until June 2019) early this spring when asked about the similar advice deGrom had provided to the organization’s top pitching prospect, Matt Allan, who shadowed him in camp this year.
For deGrom, becoming less complicated entailed drowning out extraneous voices with opinions on his approach, along with reams of data, and reverting to basics, according to Eiland.
“It’s understanding who you are, knowing who you are, knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and working on strengthening your weaknesses and keeping your strengths strong,” Eiland said Thursday.
“For Jake, it was about his timing over the rubber. When he broke his hands. When he got his hand out of his glove. If he was on time over the rubber, everything else was going to fall into place.”
In keeping it simple and not overcomplicated, deGrom became focused on that timing. On days he was playing catch in the outfield he would work on timing, ensuring his hand would leave his glove on time and just as importantly that his lower half wouldn’t get in front of his upper half, otherwise he would get underneath the ball.
“That is what he needed to do, so keep it simple,” Eiland said. “Get your hand out of your glove, be on time and let your natural abilities take over. And then after that you start talking about pitch sequencing and setting hitters up and how you are going to attack your strengths against his weaknesses and all the other stuff.”
It clicked for deGrom, translating into his best season. He finished 10-9 with a 1.70 ERA and 269 strikeouts in falling one vote short of becoming a unanimous Cy Young selection. DeGrom became a repeat winner of the award in 2019 and finished third in the voting last season.
Eiland, who earned World Series championship rings as a pitching coach with the 2009 Yankees and 2015 Royals, said he learned the value of simplicity in delivering a message from longtime pitching guru Billy Connors.
“He had a unique way and a knack for keeping things very simple but getting many points across,” Eiland said of Connors, his mentor with the Yankees. “He could break you down, your mechanics, your pitch sequences, location, how to set hitters up, maneuver through a scouting report.
“Him and guys like me were talking about this stuff long before anybody knew what analytics were, but he had a very unique way of keeping it very simple, but covering it all and not filling a pitcher’s head with too many things that gets confused when he is on the mound trying to compete.”
Now waiting for his next opportunity as a pitching coach or instructor, Eiland still keeps tabs on former pupils such as deGrom and Zack Wheeler, another pitcher who has emerged in recent seasons among the game’s best.
“With Jake it was, ‘OK, this is what you know you need to do, these are tweaks, you know how to go about your work and get better on it — just do it and don’t overcomplicate it,’ ” Eiland said.
“He’s done as good a job with that as anybody I have worked with or been a teammate of as a player and he’s the best pitcher on the planet. He is the best baseball pitcher on planet Earth right now. It’s credit to him, because he has learned who he is, he knows what he needs to do, he takes the information and applies it and keeps it simple.”