KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifty-three times Jacob deGrom reared back to throw one of his signature fastballs—the kind of blazer, whether two-seam or four-seam, that made him the ninth-toughest starting pitcher in all of baseball in allowing hitters the small victory of simply making contact. And 53 times the Royals did not miss. Not once could deGrom get the Royals to swing through his fastball in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday.
There are many reasons why the Royals won Game 2, 7–1. Kansas City starter Johnny Cueto became the first American League pitcher since Jim Lonborg in 1967 to throw a complete game in the World Series while allowing two or fewer hits, and Alcides Escobar continues to impersonate Wee Willie Keeler at the plate. But all you need to know about Game 2 is that deGrom was 0-for-53 when trying to get Kansas City to miss his fastball.
The most important confrontation of the 2015 World Series—the power pitching of the Mets’ young guns rotation against the freakish ability of a deep Royals lineup to put the ball in play—is a mismatch. Stop the presses, be on alert for man bites dog, and rewrite the book of baseball clichés: Good hitting is stopping good pitching.
After two Kansas City wins, the key question on which the series hinges is no longer how New York’s starters can handle the Royals' lineup. It is this: Have the increased innings of the Flushing Four finally caught up with them? Matt Harvey had a candid answer when I presented that very question to him after Game 2.
“Could be,” he said. “It could be. I don’t want to speak for Jacob, but I know I’ve gone from zero innings [in 2014] to 208 this year, and you have to start thinking about that when you do that. You really have to look at what’s going on.”
Harvey only was stating the obvious. I’ve seen talented young pitchers such as Kevin Millwood in 1999, Justin Verlander in 2006 and Michael Wacha in '13 hit a wall when they reached the World Series. I pointed out to Harvey that the Royals, the toughest team to strike out four years running, are the worst possible matchup for a staff that may be running on fumes.
“No doubt. They have a very impressive approach,” Harvey said. “Early in the game they are super aggressive, swinging early in counts, taking some shots at home runs. But as the game goes on they don’t swing as aggressively and they really don’t chase. They make great in-game adjustments. It’s like they become smarter hitters as the games goes on.
“They’ve been able to make all the adjustments against us. It’s time that we make some adjustments against them.”
Said Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer, “It’s not just that they are aggressive in the zone. It’s that they just don’t chase pitches that are just off the plate. There may be other lineups that have done it like this, but not on this stage. I don’t know if they can maintain that at this level, especially seeing 95-plus velocity.”
The Mets have three of the 11 most difficult starting pitchers to hit, as ranked by the percentage of times hitters swing and miss: Game 3 starter Noah Syndergaard (seventh at 27.9%), Game 2 starter deGrom (ninth at 27%) and Game 1 starter Harvey (11th at 27.5%). Syndergaard will take the ball in a veritable must-win game after Harvey and deGrom failed to get Kansas City to miss much. The Royals missed only 8.9% of the time they swung at pitches from Harvey and deGrom, a fraction of how those pitchers typically manhandle hitters.
If you look only at the fastballs from Harvey and deGrom, the numbers are even more astounding: 84 fastballs, 49 swings and only two misses, a miss rate of only 4%.
Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen can claim all he wants that the workloads of deGrom and Harvey are not an issue this time of year. His job, after all, is to tend to the confidence of his troops. But there can be no doubt watching Harvey and deGrom pitch—even against the stubborn Royals—that they are leaking oil.
Harvey’s four-seam velocity this month (95.22 mph) is the worst of the 15 months in his career in which he made more than one start. Mets manager Terry Collins pulled him after only 80 pitches in Game 1, citing how Harvey was beginning to leave balls up in the zone, a tipoff of fatigue. deGrom has maintained his velocity, but the command and life on his fastball have waned. The Royals swung 33 times at deGrom’s 53 fastballs in Game 2 and made contact every time.
Harvey, who missed all of last year after having Tommy John surgery, has thrown 29 2/3 innings more than he had in any other pro season. Steven Matz (+10 2/3), deGrom (+37 1/3) and Sydergaard (+59 2/3) also are all trying to navigate unchartered waters amid the turbulence of the World Series, in which every pitch is a stress pitch.
To worsen matters for the young pitchers, Kansas City's hitters are ridiculously hot. They have bought into the philosophy of hitting coach Dale Sveum and recognized the foolishness of trying to hit fly balls in spacious Kauffman Stadium. They take compact swings, never concede hittable strikes and defend the plate with two strikes by putting a premium on making contact.
The Royals had 10 hits in Game 2—none of them in hitters’ counts. (All 10 resulted from pitches with the pitcher ahead or the count even.) Their put-away, three-run eighth inning began with this staccato: two-strike single, two-strike double, two-strike double, sacrifice fly, two-strike triple.
Now the Mets’ season rests in the hands of two rookies, the 23-year-old Syndergaard and the 24-year-old Matz. Somehow they need to pull off what’s been nearly impossible: Find a way to get Kansas City to swing and miss.