Let’s get this out of the way first: What is not yet clear on this Wednesday night, a little bit more than an hour since the Mets’ Jacob deGrom exited his start against the Braves after four innings and 46 pitches, are the long-term consequences of what the team has called a hyperextended right elbow sustained while batting. According to manager Mickey Callaway, deGrom felt that something was off after swinging and missing at a pitch in the third inning. He figured he’d be fine to pitch the rest of the night so long as he didn’t swing, but after the fourth he felt some soreness in his bicep and left the game. The team sent him to undergo an MRI before the game ended; the Mets expect the results Thursday.
Some quick research indicates that the only recent such diagnosis for a pitcher’s pitching elbow came in 2008, when the Mariners’ J.J. Putz wound up missing a little more than five weeks. As for position players with hyperextended throwing elbows, the outcomes run the gamut. Last year, the Mets’ Lucas Duda missed just three weeks with his, while top Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres would need Tommy John surgery for his. One presumes deGrom’s superior velocity (his average fastball clocks in above 95 mph) would make his elbow hyperextension more severe than a similar injury sustained by a soft-tosser or a position player. But I’m no doctor, and it’s too early to say what’ll happen.
It’s not too early to say, though, that the Mets seem to be truly hosed. Before his injury, deGrom was pitching better than he ever has, with a 1.87 ERA in his first seven starts, including Wednesday’s, as the Mets coasted into first place (until their 7-0 loss to the Braves dropped them to second). He has been far and away the club’s top player by WAR, and they have needed every bit of his production: Noah Syndergaard has been swell, but the rest of the rotation has combined to average less than five innings per start.
The starts deGrom misses will likely go to one of the team’s starters-turned-relievers—in his press conference, Callaway mentioned Matt Harvey, who was bumped to the bullpen two weeks ago, and minor-leaguer Corey Oswalt, though Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo also come to mind—which could weaken not only the starting rotation but the relief corps. Lugo and Gsellman’s joint emergence as firemen has eased the burden on the team’s late-inning types and allowed the staff to withstand the extended absence of Anthony Swarzak, the free-agent pickup who has been out with a sore oblique since the season’s second game. Harvey getting the call would spare the bullpen, since he’s been pitching mop-up innings there anyway. But spanning the last three seasons, Harvey is tied for the worst adjusted ERA+ (with Tyler Duffey and Ubaldo Jimenez) among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 200 innings. Even before taking into account his annual party problem—it came early this year!—he’s a mess.
Somehow this team manages each year to offer a new object lesson in the pitfalls of building around young pitching. Harvey blew out his elbow toward the end of his stellar 2013 season and missed all of 2014. In 2015, Zack Wheeler tore an elbow ligament in spring training and missed the entire season. (And, for good measure, all of the next one, too!) In 2016, Harvey got hurt again, with doctors finally settling on thoracic outlet syndrome as the diagnosis. He had season-ending surgery, and he hasn’t been sharp since. In 2017, Syndergaard made only five starts before tearing his lat muscle, and Wheeler, suffering from biceps tendinitis, saw his season end after July. And while all this was going on, lefty Steven Matz was getting injured in new and exciting ways every couple of months. (Bone spurs! Shoulder tightness! A flexor strain!)
Since his Rookie of the Year debut in 2014, deGrom has been the staff’s steadiest member, missing time only in 2016 with an ulnar nerve condition. In 2017, he was one of only seven NL starters to throw 200 innings. At the time, during what was a lost season for the Mets, it seemed to augur only good things. If the injury he sustained on Wednesday night is serious, though, it’ll have been just another waste.