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Jacob deGrom was once again the best pitcher in the National League

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deGrom enters the offseason as the favorite to win his second consecutive Cy Young Award.

Miami Marlins v New York Mets Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

On May 17, 2019, in a start on the road against the Miami Marlins, Jacob deGrom allowed a season high nine hits and seven runs (six earned) in five innings of work. It was the third start in which he allowed at least five earned runs after not doing so at any point during his 2018 Cy Young-winning campaign. At that point, deGrom owned a 3.98 ERA, a 3.38 FIP, and a 1.17 WHIP in 52 innings. Those stats are by no means bad, but nevertheless alarmed some people given the sheer ridiculousness of his historic 2018 numbers (1.70 ERA, 1.98 FIP, 0.91 WHIP), which earned him his first career Cy Young award in nearly unanimous fashion.

From that point forward, deGrom dominated, performing like the ace everybody had become accustomed to. It should come as no surprise to anybody who has watched him pitch since he debuted and won Rookie of the Year in 2014 that he did enough to not only enter the Cy Young discussion, but emerge as the favorite to take home the award in back-to-back seasons. Over his final 23 starts, he was the best pitcher in the National League.

The Mets’ ace got the nod to start on Opening Day for the first time in his career and picked up right where he left off. After finishing 2018 with a 13-inning scoreless streak, he tossed six shutout frames against the Washington Nationals to lead the Mets to victory on March 28 in Nationals Park. Six days later, he turned in one of his best performances of 2019 at Marlins Park. He struck out a season-high 14 batters over seven shutout innings and contributed at the plate with a solo home run. It was the first of two times in 2019 that deGrom would strike out at least 13 and hit a home run in the same outing. In the process, he extended his MLB record streak to 31 consecutive starts in which he allowed three runs or fewer to go along with 26 consecutive quality starts.

Both streaks were shattered on a cold and uncomfortable April night in Queens, when the Minnesota Twins teed off on the righty hurler. The 31-year-old served up three home runs for the only time in 2019, including two to Mitch Garver and one to Eddie Rosario, and only made it through four innings. Over his next two starts, he gave up three earned runs and five earned runs as he was handed three straight losses for the first time since June 2016. During that cold stretch, deGrom landed on the injured list after his elbow was described as “barking”. The team sent their star pitcher for an MRI on April 19. which forced the team and its fans to hold their collective breaths as they waited for the results. Luckily for everyone involved, the MRI came back clean three days later, and deGrom avoided missing too much time before returning on April 26.

He began May with a typical deGrom game, going seven shutout innings in a game the Mets would go on to lose 1-0 after Edwin Diaz surrendered a ninth inning home run. After two more deGrom-esque seven inning performances, he was blasted in Miami in the low point of his season. He was battered by a light-hitting Marlins team over five innings as he saw his ERA climb to 3.98 after nine starts.

After that, deGrom kicked it into high gear and put together a run that truly rivaled his 2018 season output. From his May 27 outing through the All Star break, he had a 2.77 ERA, a 2.82 FIP, a 1.04 WHIP, a 30.6% strikeout rate, and a 3.8% walk rate in 52 innings over nine outings , including seven straight quality starts to close out the first half. The highlight came on June 18 when he struck out 10 Atlanta Braves batters and carried a shutout into the ninth inning before surrendering back-to-back homers to Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson and exiting the contest. It was his longest start of the season and the only time he ventured into the ninth inning.

After making his third All-Star game appearance in Cleveland on July 9 and retiring the side in a hitless third inning, deGrom returned to action with a vengeance and tore through the National League. He went seven innings of 12 of his final 14 starts and picked up seven victories against one loss. In 94 innings, he struck out 117 and posted a sparking 1.44 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 0.83 WHIP, 33.0% strikeout rate, and 5.3% walk rate.

With the return of vintage deGrom on the mound, the team around him continued their infuriating inability to support their ace’s success. In San Francisco on July 19, the team lost a back-breaking 1-0 game in extra innings after deGrom gave them seven shutout innings. On August 23 against the Braves at Citi Field, deGrom tossed seven innings of one-run ball with 13 strikeouts while supplying all the offense with a solo home run, only to watch his team lose in 14 innings. On September 3 in Washington D.C., deGrom exited with a big lead only to watch his bullpen surrender seven in the ninth for an inexcusable 11-10 loss.

Like in 2018, deGrom never let his team’s ineptitude in his starts affect his performance, nor did he ever complain. Ever the professional, he went about his business in his quiet and craftsman-like manner. Over his final four starts, he allowed one earned run on just 12 hits while striking out 35 in 28 innings. He ended 2019 on a 23 game scoreless streak, which included three consecutive shutout performances to close the year. Opposing batters hit a mystifying .128 against him while posting a minuscule .325 OPS against him. He put the finishing touches on another Cy Young season with seven shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Marlins on September 25 at Citi Field.

So what exactly changed for deGrom in the second half? Not much. According to Brooks Baseball, the right-hander increased his slider use later in the season and used it more as a putaway pitch, while he relied more heavily on his four-season fastball early in the season to strike out opposing batters. From March 28 through May 17, he used his fourseam fastball 57.92% of the time while his slider was used 24.70% of the time, with 29% of his strikeouts coming via the slider compared to 50% coming via the fastball. After his Miami meltdown, he regained his dominant slider and used it 34.83% of the time while throwing his fastball 45.09% of the time. In that stretch, 46% of his strikeouts came via the slider compared to 26% via the fastball. While his slider was used much more effectively in the second half, his success can just as easily be attributed to getting back into a rhythm after a long offseason.

When looking at the final 23-start stretch in 2019, deGrom dazzled with a 1.89 ERA, a 2.45 FIP, a 0.90 WHIP, a 32.2% strikeout rate, and a 5.1% walk rate in 152 innings. His 5.7 fWAR bested all National League starters while he also led the pack in ERA and FIP. He finished 2019 with the most strikeouts (255) and the best WHIP (0.97) among all qualified NL starting pitchers. He was exactly the pitcher the team expected to get when they gave him a well-deserved long-term contract extension in the offseason. At 31, there’s no reason to think deGrom can’t replicate this success in 2020 and beyond.

Only ten pitchers have ever won the Cy Young award in consecutive seasons. The most recent pitcher to do so was Nationals ace Max Scherzer in 2016-2017. Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux, Tim Lincecum, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, and Denny McLain round out the illustrious group who have accomplished this feat. Given all that he did over the course of the regular season, deGrom could soon see himself joining this group as the eleventh pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Young awards.