Tommy John surgery for Jacob deGrom deals MLB a massive blow

Tommy John surgery for Jacob deGrom deals MLB a massive blow

ATLANTA — It feels as if we have been waiting for news like this for six years. It feels like every time Jacob deGrom would wince on a pitcher’s mound, or disappear into the clubhouse with mysterious urgency in between innings, whenever a relief pitcher would inexplicably start warming up in a bullpen …

You always felt this might be the next card to fall.

It was the baseball equivalent of waiting for a terrible phone call in the middle of the night. Jacob deGrom wasn’t just a good pitcher; at his very best he was a marvel, something we’d never really seen before. He would crack 100 mph with that effortless motion. He would snap off a 93 mph slider. He could put the ball anywhere he wanted to.

“The best job in the world is standing behind Jake like I do, and watching him work,” Brando Nimmo said in the summer of 2021. “And also the easiest. I don’t get a lot of work on those nights.”

Tuesday, the news arrived at last: deGrom’s elbow had finally rebelled. He was going to need Tommy John surgery, his second. His season was over after just six starts for the Texas Rangers. A good chunk of next year is probably gone, too, at least. He turns 35 years old in 12 days. Nothing is ever guaranteed, especially at that age.

“The game needs him,” Justin Verlander said in the quiet of the Mets’ pregame clubhouse, maybe three hours before they would kick off a three-game series with the Braves at Truist Park. “A guy that talented … the sport needs Jake at his best.”

Rangers starting pitch Jacob deGrom stands in the outfieldInjuries were always going to be a risk with Jacob deGrom, a trade-off for his brilliance.USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Verlander knows the toil and the peril that awaits deGrom, all the lonely hours ahead of him, all the uncertainty. He is the gold standard for late-career rejuvenation, post-Tommy John, having undergone the procedure early in 2020 at age 37, sitting out his age-38 season, then winning the AL Cy Young Award at 39 last year in Houston.

So there is that.

But while Tommy John has become such a common operation that there’s a belief a pitcher will always return stronger, the truth is the success rate is 90 percent. Which is great. But if you walked onto an airplane and the pilot told you there was a 1-in-10 chance something would go wrong before it landed, would you stay on the airplane?

There is also the case of Noah Syndergaard, deGrom’s ex-teammate, and another member of the deGrom/Syndergaard/Matt Harvey/Steven Matz/Zack Wheeler quintet that was going to electrify Citi Field forever 15 minutes ago. A week ago after another middling start with the Dodgers, Syndergaard said, “I would give my hypothetical first-born to be the old me again.” Between them, that dream rotation will have had eight Tommy Johns by the time deGrom is wheeled out of surgery.

“This stinks,” deGrom said Tuesday, facing the media in Texas after his diagnosis was revealed, his voice husky from crying. “It’s not ideal. But at least we know what it is now. I want to get it fixed and will set a goal to be back before the end of next year.”

It is the only way to root, of course, because Verlander is right: baseball is the biggest loser when it is denied a player of deGrom’s startling talent. And in truth, that has been the case for the last few years, as deGrom has missed more than he’s pitched, as he always seemed, and felt, like he was a wicked pitch away from walking off a mound cradling his golden-ticket arm.

Rangers pitcher Jacob deGrom speaks to the mediadeGrom’s media session was emotional as he revealed he’d need a second Tommy John surgery.AP
rangersdeGrom’s media session was emotional as he revealed he’d need a second Tommy John surgery.AP

It is why it was impossible to rip the Mets for not seeing if deGrom would allow them to make a Godfather-like offer to him last year, and not only because this has taken the sad path it has. The Mets were the ones whose hearts were in their mouths the most, the Mets and the fans, who often from 2017-21 came to Citi primarily to see deGrom make major league hitters look sillier than they were ever supposed to look.

Because there was always the nagging, gnawing sense: this could all go away tomorrow.

Terry Collins, talking once about the fragility of the arm, said, “You do everything you can to protect ’em. You do everything right. And sometimes they just break. It’s a terrible truth. Sometimes they just break.”

Tuesday, Jacob deGrom broke. He is neither the Mets’ concern nor their problem anymore, but if you made the trek to Citi when he was at his best, when he was popping radar guns and making hitters look helpless, you have to sit with Verlander on this one. The game needs him.