For the past four seasons, the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom has been among the best starting pitchers in baseball.
Syndergaard, 25, is nicknamed Thor because of his muscular, 240-pound physique and long blond hair. He devours fitness podcasts, relishes newfangled workouts and eats a ketogenic diet in which carbohydrates are nearly nonexistent.
DeGrom, 29, on the other hand, a locker-room jokester whom everybody simply calls Jake, is far more low key.
Yet while much has been made of Syndergaard’s body and habits, it is worth considering deGrom’s. To teammates, they are a marvel, if somewhat unconventional.
DeGrom has remained gangly. He proudly topped off at 190 pounds recently. His offseason strength workouts were more straightforward than the hours in the gym players like Syndergaard often spend, and they were carried out among many people older than deGrom at a rehabilitation center in his hometown, DeLand, Florida.
“He’s an elastic, tall and lanky person, so he doesn’t need to hit the gym and get so strong,” Syndergaard said.
And in terms of a diet, well, deGrom’s teammates might best explain his approach to nutrition.
“I’d be 260 pounds if I ate what he eats,” said Jay Bruce, the Mets’ right fielder.
“He can go to McDonald’s,” added Travis d’Arnaud, the Mets’ injured catcher, “get two Big Macs and fries, and stay the same or probably even lose weight.”
Although most pitchers rest their arms during much of the offseason, deGrom plays catch nearly year-round with his father in his childhood backyard. Teammates joke that deGrom could roll out of bed and pitch, while others need hours to prepare their bodies. The day after starts, deGrom’s arm is sprightly enough to fling a football 50 yards.
“If I tried to do that, my arm would go flying with the football,” pitcher Zack Wheeler said, adding with a laugh, “He recovers well and his body treats him right, even though he probably doesn’t treat it right.”
DeGrom does care for his body; he is a professional baseball player, after all, making $7.4 million this season. He just does it a bit differently from many of his teammates. Nonetheless, it has worked.
From the start of 2014, the season in which he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, to the start of this season, deGrom’s 2.98 ERA ranked ninth — better than standouts such as Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals and Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros. He is lauded for his pitching smarts, too, not just throwing hard, and is 2-0 with a 3.06 ERA to start this season.
“Jake’s got a routine that is probably different than 99.9 percent of the guys in here,” the Mets’ captain, David Wright, said. “He gets his work in and prepares, but there are just a few things about him that are offbeat.”
DeGrom was always thin but not tall. As a high school freshman he was 5-foot-2, but he hit a growth spurt at Stetson University, where he was a shortstop with a weak bat. He converted to pitcher before the Mets selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. After struggling to add weight in the past — pitchers often seek more mass to help throw — he gave up. For the past several years, deGrom weighed 183 pounds.
His metabolism has apparently been impervious to all the chicken fingers, fries and fast food he loves, particularly Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, where he typically orders a Big Mac meal with large fries, a large Mountain Dew and two double cheeseburgers.
“I’ll eat whatever,” he said. “I eat like a child.”
DeGrom said he had been “very fortunate” his diet hadn’t turned him into David Wells or affected his performance.
“If it became a thing, I’d have to cut it back,” he said. “I talk to people and they’re like, ‘Oh, if I eat that, I’ll feel like crap.’ I’ve never eaten McDonald’s and the next day felt terrible.”
The Mets have put an emphasis on health and nutrition after a spate of high-profile injuries undermined last season, but deGrom shows little sign of changing his regimen, which does allow for more sensible choices. Asked if he ate fruits and vegetables, deGrom insisted he did. In the offseason, he said, he and his wife, Stacey, cook steaks or chicken.
But during the season, many of deGrom’s meals come from the clubhouse dining room, and even then he doesn’t always choose the healthiest option.
“I’m not against eating good foods,” he said, grinning. “I just like to enjoy some McDonald’s every once in a while.”
In the offseason, deGrom worked out at CORA Physical Therapy in his hometown, which, he said, is frequented by older adults and where he underwent rehabilitation from Tommy John and ulnar nerve surgeries. Unlike Syndergaard, who has private trainers, deGrom followed whatever workouts Dustin Clarke, the Mets’ strength and conditioning coach, sent him. He compared his body type to that of Chris Sale, the Boston Red Sox’ hard-throwing ace whose fatty diet belies his 6-foot-6, 180-pound frame.
“We’re more about leverage, and being long and lanky,” deGrom said, adding, “If we were in the weight room like Noah, we’d probably be hurt.”
What also sets deGrom apart is how much he values running sprints and year-round throwing. He noticed that Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, two multiple winners of the Cy Young Award, ran hard sprints in between starts, so he does the same.
In this era of conserving the finite life of the pitching arm, deGrom swears by constant throwing. Over the winter, he fired around 40 throws with his father from shorter distances three times a week.
“When I came into spring, my arm felt great because I kept it moving,” he said. Any other approach feels illogical to him. “You work out and build this muscle, but it’s not used to throwing? You throw that much throughout the year and then you want to stop for two months?”
DeGrom’s approach has worked in the sense that he was the only Mets starter to stay healthy in 2017 and he finished with his first 200-inning campaign. Between starts during the season, he threw two abbreviated bullpen sessions, instead of one longer one, to keep his mechanics sharp. In future offseasons, deGrom said, he might not rest his arm at all.
There is now also yet another key difference with Syndergaard.
Over the winter, deGrom chopped off his trademark long locks. Fans may have thought he cared a lot about his hair, but when he decided to get rid of it, he asked Wright to trim it in the clubhouse bathroom. Just like that, it was gone. Teammates were not surprised.
“It used to be legs, limbs and hair coming at you, but now it’s legs and limbs,” d’Arnaud said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.