If Jacob deGrom wins his second successive Cy Young, it will mark a turning point in how starting pitchers are viewed in baseball. We didn’t ask for it, but…
Jacob deGrom, in a straight-out duel with his National League peers, should and hopefully will, win the Cy Young Award. Max Scherzer will get votes because he’s Max Scherzer. Ditto Clayton Kershaw. Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Stephen Strasburg had outstanding seasons as well. But no one has come close to duplicating the season deGrom had.
We’ll get to the main point in just a bit, but take a moment to digest what deGrom has done in the second half of the 2019 season in this table:
The highlighted numbers speak for themselves, but we’ll let the BWAA (Baseball Writer’s Association of America) speak when the voting for the Cy Young comes around in late Fall.
But for now, two stats are somewhat hidden in the table. Did you happen to notice deGrom’s won-lost record this season at 11-8? And then, the Mets won-lost record (14-18) on days deGrom started?
What the hell? How can deGrom be a legitimate candidate for a Cy Young if he can’t manage to win more than eleven games in either of the last two seasons?
Starting Pitchers Ain’t What They Used To Be
Most of this, fans of baseball already realize that even if they are not conscious of the so-called facts. There are no more Denny McLain‘s hiding under the woodwork who threw 336 and 325 innings in 1968 and 1969 while compiling a 55-19 record that included 30 wins in the 1968 campaign.
Nolan Ryan who once pitched thirteen innings, recording nineteen K’s while throwing 335 pitches at the age of 45 – is also a relic of the past.
What we have now, instead, is a group of highly paid but also highly coveted, and therefore highly protected starting pitchers. As a group, they are gauged by their durability throughout a season, generally recognized as 30 starts or more (check that box for deGrom).
Two-hundred innings is the Eden of baseball today (check that box for deGrom). Twenty wins or more is still the attraction, but not the norm in major league baseball.
Yet, when you look at the Mets poor performance in terms of run support for deGrom, ten more wins out the sixteen the Mets lost in deGrom’s starts seems like a two-foot putt toward reaching the Gold Standard of yesteryear.
deGrom Got His Money, But The World Is Changing
Jacob deGrom is worth every penny and probably more than what the Mets are paying him ($128.5 million through 2024). But the number of starting pitchers in the major leagues who can command that type of money is dwindling at a rapid pace.
It is the era of the bullpen artists, openers, middle relievers, and closers alike who are stealing – or if you’d like to soften it a bit – sharing money formerly allocated to starting pitchers.
The pickings are slimmer than they used to be (see the table below).
Jacob deGrom vs. The New Era
Take a peek at the starting pitchers hitting the open market for 2020. Tell me if you would pay any of these pitchers big money to pitch for your team – after you reach Zack Wheeler (and even he is a risk)
Starting Pitchers – 2020 Free Agents
Gerrit Cole (29 years old, 4.5 WAR)
Hyun-Jin Ryu (33, 4.1)
Stephen Strasburg (31, 4.0) — can opt out of 4 years, $100 million remaining on his contract
Zack Wheeler (30, 3.6)
Jose Quintana (31, 3.1) — $11.5 million club option for 2020 ($1 million buyout)
Madison Bumgarner (30, 3.0)
Jake Odorizzi (30, 2.8)
Kyle Gibson (32, 2.6)
Cole Hamels (36, 2.4)
Tanner Roark (33, 2.2)
Michael Pineda (30, 2.1)
Adam Wainwright (38, 1.9)
Wade Miley (33, 1.8)
Except for the top three, I can’t find one that didn’t win at least as many or more games than deGrom in 2019. And yet, who among them would you pick to be on your team in 2020 – other than Jacob deGrom?
With a WAR of 7.3 this season, deGrom shatters all comers, including one of the premier pitchers in the majors (let alone just the NL) this year in Gerrit Cole. If Cole wins the award, he is the only pitcher in NL (19-5 (2nd), 2.52 ERA (1st), 316 SO (1st) who comes close to occupying the same stratosphere as deGrom.
Defining The New Era Of Baseball
The barometer is being reset for starting pitchers as it should be as we realize the propensity of managers to rely on their bullpen to win games. A Quality Start (QS) is defined as a starter who pitches through six innings or more while surrendering three or fewer runs. The table below shows the leaders in that category in 2019:
This is – or should be – the new world of baseball when it comes to gauging the value, including Cy Young worthiness, of starting pitchers in the game today.
Of note, some of the most highly paid starters in the game today are absent. Among the missing, count Yu Darvish, David Price, Cole Hamels, Rick Porcello, Johnny Cueto, Jake Arrieta, and I’ll stop right there because I’m sure you get the point.
Bringing It Back Home To Jacob deGrom
Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young in 2009 with a “pedestrian” 13-12 record. Fernando Valenzuela won the award in 1981 with only 13 wins. So, there is a precedent for how the award is handed out. The difference is, though, that in 2009 ten pitchers won more games than Hernandez. And his selection was widely acclaimed as a suspect among fans used to seeing 25-game winners geting the award.
Not so much today. Efficiency, reliability, and consistency are the new barometers for a starting pitcher.
It remains to be seen of the electors for the BWAA to recognize the trend – or not.
Change never comes swiftly in baseball. Did it take how many years to lower the pitcher’s mound in 1968 to create a competitive balance with a hitter?
Similarly, how many years will it take for MLB to “adjust” to the record number of home runs this season, again with the intention of “evening things out”?
deGrom is an anomaly in baseball today. There is no one like him. He excels regardless of the backing his team gives him. He’s won no more than fifteen games in a single season with the Mets.
But deGrom is the future when it comes to rating starting pitchers. Hopefully, the BWAA writers see the trend today – and not tomorrow.