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Jacob DeGrom Is Outdoing Even Jacob DeGrom

Beyond his superlative pitching skills, Jacob deGrom’s most impressive trait might be his ability to raise the bar ever higher for himself. The college shortstop turned ninth-round pitcher turned elbow-surgery survivor won the National League’s Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, but he wasn’t content merely to feature next to the other New York Mets fireballers — he had to outpitch them. He didn’t stop at posting a sub-2.00 ERA over a full season (like he did in 2018), either, or at winning a second-straight Cy Young award (like he did in 2019) or even at striking out nearly 40 percent of opposing batters (like he did in 2020). Whenever you think deGrom has reached his peak, he finds another level of greatness.

And now, to start the 2021 season, deGrom is outdoing himself yet again. In his first four starts, he set a new MLB record with 50 strikeouts, mowing down nearly half the batters he faced. He has also batted in more runs as a hitter (2) than he’s allowed on the mound (1). His ERA-plus (a stat that usually doesn’t exceed 200) is currently a staggering 1,227. DeGrom is pitching so well right now that he’s inviting comparisons to Pedro Martínez’s greatest seasons — generally regarded as the greatest stretch of pitching in modern history — or at least to the dominating performances of Doc Gooden from further back in Mets history.

DeGrom’s lights-out 2021 can be seen as an extension of his 2018 breakout, in which he rose from being one of the top pitchers in contemporary baseball to joining the ranks of the best from throughout history. With 9.8 wins above replacement1 that year, deGrom produced one of the 30 best seasons by a pitcher since 1901. He wasn’t quite as overwhelming the following season, but he still generated 8.1 WAR — the 114th-best season of the past 120 years. (Only 21 pitchers can say they have two different seasons in the top 114.) Last year was unlike any in MLB history, which makes contextualizing performances relative to other seasons difficult. But prorated to the normal 162 games, deGrom would have had 7.2 WAR — his third-straight 7-WAR season, something that only 25 other pitchers have ever done since 1901.2 And this year’s torrid start has deGrom currently on pace for 18.2 WAR per 162 games, which would break Walter Johnson’s single-season record for WAR by a pitcher (12.7, set in 1913).

Great as deGrom is, he almost certainly won’t keep pitching at that pace all season. But he won’t need to do that to join the ranks of the best peak runs in pitching history. With 25.1 WAR from 2018 through 2020 — again, prorating the shortened pandemic season to 162 team games — deGrom needs to end up with just 5.4 this season3 to seal a place among the 25 best four-year stretches since 1901. If instead he pitches at his average from the past three seasons (8.4 WAR), deGrom would tie Fergie Jenkins’s 1968-71 stretch as the 15th-best ever; if he ends up matching his banner 2018 output, deGrom’s four-year run would surpass Robin Roberts’s 1951-54 seasons as the 13th-best peak stretch ever.

Where deGrom might land in four-year WAR streaks

Most wins above replacement (WAR) in a four-year span, prorating shortened seasons to 162 team games, 1901-2020

WAR/162
Pitcher Years Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Total
Walter Johnson 1912-15 13.0 13.3 10.7 10.9 48.0
Cy Young 1901-04 12.0 10.6 8.9 9.1 40.6
Pete Alexander 1914-17 8.3 10.8 10.7 10.2 40.0
Christy Mathewson 1907-10 8.3 11.7 9.4 9.0 38.4
Rube Waddell 1902-05 10.2 8.8 9.9 8.7 37.7
Bob Gibson 1968-71 10.5 10.5 10.6 5.2 36.8
Greg Maddux 1994-97 11.6 9.8 7.5 7.8 36.8
Randy Johnson 1999-02 8.8 8.9 9.7 9.2 36.6
Hal Newhouser 1944-47 8.4 11.0 9.8 7.0 36.2
Pedro Martínez 1997-00 8.6 6.4 10.7 10.6 36.2
Ed Walsh 1908-11 10.5 5.4 10.6 8.8 35.3
Lefty Grove 1929-32 7.6 9.8 9.1 8.5 35.0
Robin Roberts 1951-54 8.4 8.2 9.5 8.1 34.3
Sandy Koufax 1963-66 9.2 6.3 9.5 9.1 34.1
Fergie Jenkins 1968-71 6.6 7.5 8.0 11.5 33.5
Tom Seaver 1970-73 7.6 10.3 6.0 9.4 33.3
Roger Clemens 1987-90 8.9 8.2 5.4 9.3 31.8
Steve Carlton 1980-83 9.4 8.2 7.5 6.7 31.8
Stan Coveleski 1917-20 6.1 9.0 7.9 8.4 31.5
Joe McGinnity 1901-04 6.8 7.3 9.9 7.2 31.2
Noodles Hahn 1901-04 8.1 8.3 8.1 6.6 31.1
Clayton Kershaw 2012-15 6.6 8.2 8.3 8.0 31.1
Bert Blyleven 1973-76 10.3 7.9 6.2 6.6 31.0
Juan Marichal 1963-66 7.5 6.1 8.6 8.5 30.7
Bob Feller 1938-41 5.1 8.9 9.1 7.3 30.5

Excludes lesser, overlapping four-year runs by the same pitcher.

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

That’s a real possibility, too, because what we’re seeing from deGrom right now is the highest level he’s ever pitched at.

According to our Game Score measure — which gives a pitcher credit for his starts according to how many outs (particularly strikeouts) he records while suppressing walks, hits, home runs and scoring in general — deGrom personally owns four of the 77 best starts of 2021 so far. (Only Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes can match that tally among fellow starters.) DeGrom owns the second-best start overall: a 15-strikeout, two-hit, complete game shutout over the Washington Nationals last Friday, a performance that left both teammates and opponents in awe.4

DeGrom’s Game Score in that outing was 97.6, the highest of any start in his eight-year career. And in fact, the whole season has been a peak of sorts for deGrom. His average Game Score across all four starts this year is 79.9, which is the best of any four consecutive starts in his career to date:

The previous high had come on the road against the Marlins early in the 2019 season, which — not coincidentally — had seen deGrom set the career-best mark for single-game strikeouts (14) that he broke against Washington last week. It was also a win for deGrom, which had become an all-too-uncommon sight for the Mets despite how well their ace was pitching. DeGrom’s record was just 10-9 in 2018, despite his microscopic ERA, and he was on his way to another barely-above-.500 mark (11-8) in 2019. Pitcher wins have rightly gone the way of the dodo over the past decade, and seasons like the ones deGrom had are a great case study in why. But deGrom’s misleadingly mediocre win-loss records also underscore another big theme of his career: how much the Mets have failed to capitalize on one of the greatest arms in baseball history.

In deGrom’s 187 career starts, the Mets have spoiled 24 outings in which he had a Game Score of 60 or better by losing while scoring two or fewer runs. That share — 12.8 percent of deGrom’s total starts — represents the highest rate of spoiled starts for any pitcher in history with at least 20 total games meeting that criteria:

The Mets keep spoiling deGrom’s greatness

Highest share of career starts in which a pitcher had a Game Score of 60+ and the team lost while scoring two or fewer runs

Spoiled Starts
Pitcher Count Avg. Game Score Total Starts Share Spoiled
Jacob deGrom 24 67.3 187 12.8%
Chris Sale 28 69.8 232 12.1
Pedro Martínez 46 70.0 409 11.2
Bob Rush 35 66.6 321 10.9
Dolf Luque 38 67.2 366 10.4
Jose DeLeon 26 68.1 264 9.8
Robin Roberts 59 67.2 609 9.7
Justin Verlander 43 68.4 454 9.5
Madison Bumgarner 28 67.1 300 9.3
Si Johnson 25 66.4 272 9.2

Source: retrosheet

New York has already added a game to that tally this year, when it was shut out by the Marlins 3-0 on April 10 despite deGrom’s 76.6 Game Score. (Some things never change.)

But the 2021 Mets do have the promise to do better by their best player than usual. According to our forecast model, New York projects to win an NL East-high 86 games, with a 37 percent chance of winning the division and a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs — which would be just the second postseason appearance of deGrom’s career, following the Mets’ surprise World Series run from 2015. And certainly, the way deGrom has been pitching this season, he boosts New York’s odds of making that happen every single time he takes to the mound.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  2. If we prorate 2020 and other shorter seasons up to 162 games.

  3. 5.4 WAR would be a career season for most pitchers, but for deGrom it would be in a dead heat with 2015 for the fourth-best year of his career.

  4. Padres starter Joe Musgrove’s no-hitter on April 9 was the best.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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