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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: January 15, 2021 10:32 am PDT
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Gnat’s Ass Accuracy

Jacob deGrom is a back-to-back winner of the NL Cy Young Award. He might have won a third straight Cy Young if there had been a full season in 2020. The right-hander is regarded as the best starting pitcher in the game by many. He is relentless. He is fearless. His command is impeccable. He works the zone from the bottom up. He gets what so many other pitchers don’t.

Any team would be proud to have him at the top of the rotation.

New Mets owner Steve Cohen, who wants to build a championship organization strong from within, is lucky to have deGrom, who was the 272nd pick of the 2010 draft. That’s the ninth round – again, 271 players were picked ahead of deGrom.

The Mets scout who found deGrom at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida and believed in him, remember – Ya Gotta Believe – is named Steve Nichols.

Nichols’ father Chet was a talented left-handed pitcher for the Braves and Red Sox in the 1950s and ‘60s. Steve’s grandfather pitched in the majors in the 20s and 30s. Steve Nichols is a dedicated baseball man.

He possesses third-generation knowledge of the game and is as excited to watch a Division II college scout day as he is to talk about deGrom’s talents.

While deGrom has already won two Cy Young Awards and I believe has another in his future pitching for Steve Cohen’s Mets, Steve Nichols is currently a scout without a job.

Imagine that.

In no way does Nichols want to be considered a poster boy for what has happened to the game and this is not being written for that purpose. He’s an area scout who has done his job well for decades.

With all the talk from organizations about wanting to build from within, you would think one of these teams would have Steve Nichols beating the bushes to find talent.

He may never find another Jacob deGrom again, but Nichols will try his best and that’s what this is all about.

Even though he is a great Mets fan, I’m betting Steve Cohen has never heard of Steve Nichols and what he did for the Mets organization and for Mets fans, at least until now, reading BallNine.

If baseball wants to get right, scouts like Steve Nichols need to have a job. There are many more Steve Nichols out there right now, cut loose by their latest employer as teams unwisely cut back on true scouting in favor of analytical scouting.

That tells you the state of Major League Baseball. Maybe that will change for the better. Maybe Steve Cohen can start the change.

Anyone who works in baseball or plans to work in baseball or anyone who happens to own a major league team needs to hear how scouting persistence and boots on the ground can find a true diamond on the diamond.

That’s what The Story is all about, the art of scouting and coming up with a gem.

Scouting is about projecting the future, not just seeing the present. It’s not just looking at the numbers on a laptop. It’s about seeing the player in person, getting to know what qualities make the player tick.

It’s the real science of baseball and it is being cast aside by know-it-alls.

Scouts don’t pretend to know it all. But they do know when they find someone special and here is Steve Nichols’ story of watching Jacob deGrom pitch for Stetson University. Keep in mind scouts don’t like to talk about themselves, but they love to talk about players they’ve signed. It’s one of the true joys of the job.

Nichols

Steve Nichols (r) signs White Sox LHP Andrew Perez. Photo: Full Circle SM

Nichols has worked for five teams in his 30 years of scouting, starting with a bare bones scouting staff in Oakland in 1989, where Sandy Alderson was the GM. He went on to work for the Padres, Tigers, Mets and for seven years with the White Sox before being let go. He is based in Florida. He worked only two years for the Mets but one of those years he put a call into Pete Dunn, who was the longtime coach at Stetson.

But first, a little history.

Nichols grew up in Rhode Island. Remember, his father pitched for the Red Sox and in the winter, Chet Nichols would work out at Providence College and help with the pitching staff. The legendary Joe Mullaney was the basketball coach and Steve would wander over to watch his practices.

“John Thompson was on the club then and when he was doing his foul shots I would grab the ball and flip it back to him,’’ Steve told BallNine.

Jeremy Kapstein, who would later become an iconic baseball agent and later still president of the Padres and then senior advisor to Larry Lucchino and The Curse breaking Red Sox, was the stats guy for the Providence basketball team so you can see that Nichols was immersed in the wide world of sports from a young age. Kapstein, by the way, invented two metrics while working part time with ABC, time of possession and third down conversions.

Chet Nichols pitched for both the Boston Braves and the Boston Red Sox.

“My dad was really close with (Warren) Spahn and (Eddie) Mathews,’’ Nichols told me of the two Hall of Famers. Chet Nichols, who had gone into banking after his career ended, was asked to be the best man at Mathews’ wedding to Elizabeth Busch Burke, daughter of  August “Gussie’’ Busch of Anheuser-Busch Fame.

“I’m not coming out to see a part time pitcher throw one inning and get some velos.’’

The Nichols family would visit the Oklahoma farm of Spahn.

“Next thing you know, he’d be grilling fresh steaks out at the farm,’’ Steve recalled. “And we’d sit and listen to old baseball stories at Warren Spahn’s house.’’

That would be a baseball education in itself. Sure, it’s not mathematical models in sports, but it’s something. Grilling steaks and talking pitching with Warren Spahn, who won 363 games to become the winningest southpaw in major league history.

Yes, Steve Nichols can talk spin rate, but he also owns an advanced degree in understanding pitchers.

And that brings us back to his conversation with Pete Dunn. Nichols knew going into the season the plan was to have deGrom play shortstop and be the closer. The team started the season on the road and after about three weeks, Nichols, whose nickname is Bumpy, called Dunn.

Dunn said to Nichols, “Bump, where you been? You haven’t been over to see me in a while.’’

Nichols, who has a great relationship with coaches, cracked, “Why should I?’’

Dunn said, “I’ve already had everyone come through to see deGrom.’’

Nichols played his ace card now.

“Pete, I’m not coming out to see a part time pitcher throw one inning and get some velos. If I come out, I want to see an extended look and I really don’t care what the velo is because I know whatever pitcher it is, not just him, you got 50 scouts and you are going to throw hard and some of the stuff may not be in the strike zone. You get an idea of the velo, but now you are sitting there watching a guy throw one inning and you don’t know if he’s got a breaking ball because he may only throw one. I’m not doing that Pete. If he gets a start or an extended look in relief then I’ll be out.’’

Jacob deGrom playing SS at Stetson University

Timing is everything.

Dunn told Nichols, “It’s funny you say that. We are going to start him on Wednesday.’’

This was Monday. Nichols told Dunn: “Really, then I’ll see you then.’’

Nichols, 67, picks up the story.

“The best part about it on the scouting side, by that time the high school season was on a roll, in a middle of the week (college) game, there were a lot of high school guys that needed to be seen. So I said, ‘I’ll grab that high school guy a little bit later (in the season), so when I get to the (Stetson) game to watch his start, there were only three of us there to watch his start. I know the Giants guy was there, and somebody else I really didn’t know.’’

DeGrom went about four innings. “He was 88-91 and he had this little cutter they were trying to teach him – a slider but it was a little cut thing – and then he had a change that wasn’t bad, he had a little feel for that and he kept his action. But the thing he did, he threw strikes.’’

That is deGrom’s calling card, throwing strikes.

This past spring Nichols saw deGrom and told him, “Jake, when you get to the mound you do what you do. You work from the bottom of the strike zone up. You miss down in the dirt. What was good about you was you started on the way down in warmups and you worked your way up into the strike zone. Instead of missing up high and having to work three feet down to get where you want to be anyway. You always came up six, eight inches in the strike zone rather than working three feet down through it to find your spot.’’

Nichols saw that on the first day. It wasn’t about velo, it was about command.

“The pitch-ability was always good and that was Jacob deGrom,’’ Nichols said. In previous visits to Stetson, he noticed that ability at shortstop before deGrom came to the mound.

“At shortstop, this guy had accuracy out the rear end when he threw the ball,’’ Nichols said. “The first baseman didn’t have to move even if it was an off-balance throw. Watching deGrom take ground balls, the ball was going to the same spot on every throw.’’

Nichols noticed other things as well. “His personality is a direct approach and honest, he’s always been like that.

“Mom and Dad, they kind of lived out in the woods a little bit,’’ Nichols said. “As a scout, going into a kid’s house, as the old song says – a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll – he’s a little bit country. The family, they are just down to earth people.’’

To this day, Jacob deGrom’s warmup music is deGromSimple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

After that first extensive look at deGrom, Nichols played it low key from a scouting perspective, choosing games that were not marquee games.

“When he matched up against Chris Sale, that ballgame I didn’t go see him,’’ Nichols said. “Everybody was going in to see Sale. The ballpark was going to be packed.

“I caught one of his last starts, there were about five scouts there. Three of them I didn’t know but the Giants scout was there. Every time I went to see Jake the Giants scout was there. So when we went into the draft they asked me, ‘Any competition? And I said, ‘Giants.’

“Jake was a ninth rounder. At that time, I would have liked to get him in the sixth or seventh round because you had some competition.’’

When Nichols got the word the Mets were taking deGrom in the ninth round, all was good.

“And the rest is history,’’ Nichols said.

It became one of the great picks for the Mets and anyone else. In 2011 deGrom underwent Tommy John surgery. In 2014 he won NL Rookie of the Year. Then in 2018 and ’19 he was the NL Cy Young Award winner. In 2020 the Sporting News named deGrom the NL Pitcher of the Year.

Imagine if the Giants had beaten the Mets to deGrom. Imagine where the Mets would be right now and perhaps the Giants might have another World Series to add to the 2010, 2012 and 2014 titles.

“If you are going to sign one guy, whether you scouted one year or 50 years, that’s the one guy you want everybody gets a chance to sign,’’ Nichols said of deGrom. “They don’t come along that often.’’

This spring deGrom told me how much he enjoyed his time dealing with Steve Nichols.

“He was really a good guy to have come over the house,’’ deGrom said. “Treated my family right.’’

The two saw each other this spring before the baseball shutdown and enjoyed some good memories and a few laughs, and, of course, talked pitching.

“One of the things I told him is ‘Jake, you’ve always been able to throw the ball up a gnat’s ass at 200 paces.’’

The next draft year, 2011, was a pretty good year for Nichols too when he scouted a pitcher out of the University of Central Florida, Chasen Bradford, who wound up a 35th round pick for the Mets, the 1,062nd player selected in that draft. Bradford made it to the majors with the Mets in 2017 but was waived the next January and picked up by the Mariners. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019. In three seasons Bradford is 7-0 with a 3.89 ERA.

Nichols only had two seasons with the Mets and then it was onto the White Sox.

The game has changed. Scouts are on the bubble. Scouts have adjusted and have incorporated analytics into their job. They have moved with the times and unfortunately, despite the adjustments, they are still getting moved out of the game.

“They can say what they want but you still have to have a base of old-time philosophy for the game,’’ Nichols said of the art of scouting –  understanding what you are looking at and dealing with people so a team can have an inside edge. “You can’t make it an automatic gaming game. Baseball has become a gaming game. It’s not a sporting game anymore it’s a gaming game.’’

All that is so true. Good scouts like Steve Nichols and so many like him that have lost their jobs need to go back to work – for they make a world of difference.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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