For someone who stares down and disposes opponents with equanimity and ease, Jacob deGrom would make an awful politician. He was on the phone this week to talk about his incredible season for the living, breathing meme that is the New York Mets, and, offered the opportunity to stump for himself in the National League Cy Young race, deGrom demurred: “I’ve never been one to really want to vote for myself.”
The 30 Cy Young votes are spread equally among baseball writers in 15 cities. Only those in Milwaukee haven’t seen him this season, which is a shame, because they’re missing one of the great pitching performances of the last quarter century. That deGrom isn’t the clear and obvious choice to win the award for the league’s best pitcher speaks to the challenges from Washington’s Max Scherzer and Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola, yes, but just as much to the stigma that needlessly attaches itself to deGrom’s record: 8-8.
That it’s a week into September and deGrom’s 28 starts have yielded only eight victories illustrates simultaneously the folly of wins and the Mets’ ineptitude. The latter is an intractable fact. It’s the former that will determine deGrom’s fate: Just how much the Baseball Writers Association of America has evolved, and whether it can contextualize deGrom’s case so those eights don’t look nearly as crazy.
“This guy should have 20 wins,” Mets pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “It just goes to show you the year he’s having, how you cannot judge a starting pitcher on wins and losses. You really can’t. He’s been really, really good every time out.”
In the era where wins carried cachet, the case for deGrom would not have existed. And anyone who tried would have needed to make it using immeasurables. He is the most feared pitcher in the NL. He has the best fastball. He … is 8-8, the other side would’ve interrupted, smarmily. And the conversation would have ended there.
Baseball today is a far more knowledgeable game. We know, for example, that deGrom receives 3.57 runs per start from his offense. It’s not the worst in baseball – sorry, Gio Gonzalez, Kyle Gibson and Andrew Cashner – but it’s on the same hand. We know, too, that the Mets field as if they’re wearing frying pans on their glove hand. It’s not just the scouts who say this but the analytics that confirm it.
All of this leaves the 30-year-old deGrom on the mound practically alone. He finds solace there nonetheless. There is something almost romantic about it – pitching, a solitary activity already, ramped up into a series of one-on-one confrontations, each a test of deGrom’s evolution from live-armed standout into something different altogether.
“I try to view every game as 0-0,” deGrom said. “I don’t want them to score. I feel like that’s a good way to protect the lead.”
The need to treat the game as scoreless isn’t cynical so much as it’s reflexive. The Mets have lost games in which deGrom struck out 10 (three times), 12 and 13. They have lost games in which he threw seven scoreless innings (twice). They have made losing amid his doing everything he can to win an artform worthy of an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Currently, deGrom is in the midst of a record 20 consecutive starts with at least six innings pitched and three or fewer runs allowed. On the season, he has turned in a major league-best 24 of those starts. The Mets are 10-14 in them. The record for teams in the other 1,710 such outings from other starters this season: 1,180-530. Only the Mets can take something with a 69 percent chance of winning and make it not nice.
The 14 losses leave them one shy of the single-season record for flubbing quality starts. The Cincinnati Reds did it to Jose Rijo 15 times in 1993. And he wasn’t as good as deGrom has been: In those 14 losses, deGrom has struck out 124 in 99 1/3 innings and put up a 2.08 ERA. Add in the rest of his starts, and the numbers are even better: If deGrom’s 1.68 ERA holds, it would be the fifth best since the mound was lowered in 1969. And he’s well within striking distance of Dwight Gooden’s iconic 1.53. It doesn’t exactly hurt that deGrom’s next start Sunday comes against the Philadelphia Phillies. He has pitched 18 innings over three outings against them this season. His ERA: 0.00.
How deGrom grew into a force of nature has as much to do with that ability to withstand patented Mets ridiculousness as it does anything physical. When he arrived this season, Eiland urged him to pitch more inside, particularly to left-handed hitters. The lesson was hammered home early in the season, when he left a fastball over the plate and Bryce Harper hit a home run despite shattering his bat to the knob. When deGrom returned to the dugout, Eiland told him to go deeper inside. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I will.”
Eiland couldn’t have fathomed how much. Brooks Baseball divides the areas where pitches wind up into a 5-by-5 overlay. Last season, deGrom’s pitches to left-handed hitters were on the inner two-fifths 20.5 percent of the time, right in line with his career rate of 21.25 percent. This season, deGrom is at 19.11 percent on the inner-most area alone – and 41.2 percent on the inner two-fifths.
“If you’re not only coming in for strikes, but if you’ve got 98 whistling in around your elbows,” Eiland said, “they’re not going to get to good pitches down and away.”
DeGrom has shaved more than 50 points off the OPS of left-handers compared to his previous seasons, and less than 25 percent of balls in play have been hard-hit. In the end, they’re all simply numbers that quantify his excellence. There’s the .139/.201/.206 line with runners in scoring position. Or the month-to-month consistency shown via ERAs: 2.06, 0.69, 2.36, 1.74, 1.24 and, in one September start, 1.50. And his ability to grind through chaos: In 14 plate appearances with the bases loaded this season, deGrom has not given up a hit or a walk and has struck out nine. The one run he did yield, on a sacrifice fly, was, of course, unearned.
“I don’t see how, if the season ended today – granted, a lot of things can happen in the next 3 ½ weeks – I don’t see how any voter couldn’t give him the first-place vote,” Eiland said. “And that’s not taking anything away from Nola or Scherzer. They’re elite in their own right. He’s just been better.”
Some metrics disagree. Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement has Nola at 9.3, Scherzer at 8.4 and deGrom at 8.2. Baseball Prospectus’ has Scherzer fractionally ahead of deGrom, using its Deserved Run Average measurement, which takes into account defense and catcher framing. And then there’s wins. Scherzer has 16. Nola has 15. DeGrom … well, here’s what deGrom thinks of wins: “I don’t really know. The way the game has changed where the average length of a start isn’t even six innings – there’s so much more that can happen. It’s half the game. In a sense, it’s not as important as it used to be. But in my mind, I want to win every baseball game I can pitch. I want to have wins.”
In terms of sales pitches, it could use a little work, so there was one last opportunity for deGrom to tell those 30 voters who might be on the fence why he’s the right choice to join Gooden, Tom Seaver and R.A. Dickey as Cy Young winners.
“I don’t really have anything to say,” deGrom said. “Those guys are throwing the ball as well as I have. I just think it’s whatever people want to decide. I’ve had a lot of fun throwing the baseball. It’s been a fun year.”
No, he was not speaking in code. That was not some sort of secret language, a hostage asking for a rescue. DeGrom is simply trying to maintain his sanity amid a season that would try anyone’s patience. He and the Mets are going to talk contract extension this winter. If they can’t agree on one, he may be traded. The Mets’ flux – they’re still GM-less with the offseason less than two months away – is perpetual.
The only constant is deGrom and his excellence. Every fifth day, he takes the ball, and in 2018, he has done it better than anyone in the world. And provided he does it for the rest of September as he has his previous 28 starts, deGrom doesn’t need any speeches or arguments in his favor. The campaign ad will write itself.
Jacob deGrom for Cy Young: Because the poor bastard deserves to win something.
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