It’s mighty hard to look at the consensus best pitcher in baseball, coming off consecutive Cy Young seasons, and ask him to keep it up. But then again, Jacob deGrom faced essentially the same question coming into 2019, and he answered it by cementing his standing as one of the elite pitchers of this era.
deGrom’s spectacular 2019 season was marred only by comparison to a 2018 that can only be described as superlative. His 2.43 ERA was an uptick from the prior year’s miniscule 1.70, his 7.0 fWAR merely fantastic next to an otherworldly 9.0. But aside from home run rate—more on that later—his peripheral statistics were remarkably consistent. For the second straight year, he notched over 11 strikeouts per nine innings and walked under two batters per nine, while pitching over 200 innings across 32 starts. Simply put, deGrom is a machine.
On the surface, home runs seemed to be the one bugaboo nagging deGrom in 2019 as his home run rate doubled, as did his home runs per fly ball rate. But aside from the fact that those rates were still among the best in the league, there is the obvious issue of the juiced baseballs. But most impressively deGrom seemed to adjust to the new baseballs on the fly, and his 0.48 home runs allowed per nine innings in the second half was virtually identical to his 0.41 the season before. Not even physics was enough to keep deGrom down.
Looking ahead to 2020, with some new hardware on his mantel and an endless stream of projection systems spitting out heart emojis on his behalf, it’s hard to come up with reasonable arguments against his continued excellence. Since arriving in the league as an unheralded future reliever in 2014, his worst season tops the vast majority of pitchers’ best, and his three year streak of 30+ starts and 200+ innings is the stuff workhorse dreams are made of.
The closest thing to a red flag for deGrom—and really it’s more of a pink, maybe even eggshell—it’s the fact that he’s entering his age 32 season in an era when players aren’t juicing themselves through the aging curve. Yet his performance trajectory has tracked more closely to that of Max Scherzer, the standard-bearer for mid-30s elite pitching, than some of his less long-lived compatriots.
Notably, deGrom has seen year-over-year upticks in both fastball, changeup and slider velocity for four straight years, but not in a manner that demands max effort, undermines his excellent mechanics, or sacrifices control. And while his workload has been heavy, it has not seen any major spikes nor has he been in a position to pitch much under duress, on account of the fact that he is rarely under duress at all.
Health-wise, deGrom saw just one minor blip early last season as some elbow discomfort landed him on the injured list for one start, though he never stopped throwing at any point and the stint was largely seen as an abundance of caution. In fact, since his mid-season ulnar-nerve surgery in 2016, he’s been one of the game’s healthiest starters. Though the specter of his 2010 Tommy John surgery remains, his current clean bill of health and his relatively late arrival to pitching (he was 20 when he threw his first pitch) strongly indicate that he is has a far lower risk of injury than his age peers, and far lower than most pitchers younger than him as well.
Mets fans have been denied much joy in recent years but seemingly in recompense for that continuing injustice, we have had the honor of watching Jacob deGrom dazzle on mound every five days. A consummate professional with metronomic consistency and a magazine-ready smile, he is everything an ace could hope to be. Could 2020 bring a third consecutive Cy Young award to ensure his legendary status—and open up a clear Hall of Fame path that is often difficult for late arrivals? It certainly would not surprise me.