The Sad, Futile Greatness of Jacob deGrom

The New York Mets ace just broke a record of dominance that stood as long as the Chicago Cubs World Series drought. And he can't buy a win.

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Sep 13 2018, 2:31pm

Photo by EPA-EFE/Justin Lane

All the way back in 1910, when the balls were dead and Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie led in virtually all offensive categories, a rookie pitcher for the Cubs named Leslie Cole—more commonly known as “King”—had a season of dominance that would stand as the best of his career. Cole started 29 games for the National League-winning Cubs that season and posted a 1.80 ERA with a 20-4 win-loss record. And while the team lost the World Series to the American League’s Philadelphia Athletics, Cole set a record that would stand unmatched for as long as the Cubs’ legendary World Series drought lasted: He allowed three or fewer runs in 25 consecutive starts.

On Tuesday, Jacob deGrom broke that record. Throwing seven innings of two-run ball against the Marlins, he made his 26th consecutive start of three or fewer runs allowed. It was another entry in a season that has, by virtually every metric, been one of the most dominant in memory. deGrom’s 1.71 ERA is the best among qualified starters, leading Chris Sale by a quarter of a run; he ranks second in innings pitched to Max Scherzer, and second in WHIP to Sale. His rate of home runs allowed per nine innings is, among starters, baseball’s lowest. He is in the top ten in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and batters have hit only .200 against him. FanGraphs has him as baseball’s most valuable pitcher in wins above replacement by a significant margin. Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus have him as a close second. deGrom has already had a Rookie of the Year season, an All-Star season, and a World Series appearance. This season, he is making a convincing case for the Cy Young.

Like King Cole in his record-setting 1910 campaign, Jacob deGrom has made 29 starts this season. But where Cole’s Cubs went 104-50, deGrom’s Mets are 66-78. Where Cole was the winner of 20 games, deGrom is the winner of eight. In a season of consistently near-flawless performances, the Mets have somehow found ways to lose. They are 12-17 in deGrom’s starts, and deGrom, having the season of his career, is 8-9.

It takes a special combination of incompetence and bad luck to lose as much as the Mets have in deGrom’s starts this season. There have been glittering performances spoiled by late-inning bullpen meltdowns—like 7-1 loss against the Cubs on June 2, when deGrom pitched seven innings allowing only one run, or a 4-3 loss against the Braves on April 16, when deGrom pitched seven scoreless. Just as often, the culprit has been a stunning lack of run support, making deGrom’s margin of error in every start non-existent. On June 13, deGrom held the Braves to one run through seven innings. The Mets, though, failed to score, losing 2-0. On August 28, he held the Cubs to one run through eight, striking out 10; the Mets offered only one run in support, and lost 2-1 on a walk-off. DeGrom’s excellence has become predictable. Unfortunately for him, the failures of the team around him have become equally predictable. His record-breaking start Tuesday—in which he pitched seven innings, striking out nine and allowing only three hits — ended in a 5-3 Mets loss. Cruelly, the Mets scored 13 runs in a shutout win over the Marlins yesterday.

When it comes to seasons statistically comparable to the one deGrom is having, the results in terms of win-loss record and team success stand in anomalous contrast to the continued futility the Mets have put up in his support. Other than deGrom’s 2018, there have been four qualified starting pitching seasons where the pitcher has had an ERA under 2.00, a WHIP under 1.000, and struck out more than 10 batters per nine. One of those is the season Chris Sale is having right now, over with the 100-win Red Sox. Two were Pedro Martinez, with the Expos in 1997 and with the Red Sox in 2000, both falling in his run of five consecutive Cy Young wins. And one was Clayton Kershaw’s 2014, where he won not only the Cy Young, but the National League MVP. Only Pedro’s 1997 season was in service of a team that finished with a losing record. Even then, he still won 17 games.

All of this is to say that Jacob deGrom might be having the saddest historically great pitching season of all time. To be as good as he has and have his team not even win the games in which he’s pitched, never mind the mediocrity of his own win-loss record, has to be demoralizing. DeGrom is a notably unflappable presence on the mound, but given the frustration that simply watching the Mets squander quality start after quality start can inspire, one can only imagine what it must feel like to be the one having your achievements wasted day in and day out. It is especially frustrating knowing that the team’s futility might affect the chance that his performance will be recognized with a Cy Young award. On ESPN’s Cy Young tracker, which ranks current pitchers’ Cy Young cases based on the statistical benchmarks of past winners, deGrom is all the way down in eighth—a ranking which says nothing about deGrom’s season, and everything about the Mets.

The pitcher win’s credibility as a measurement of performance is on the downswing, though, and there’s a chance that Cy Young voters will be able look past the shadow the Mets’ lack of success has cast on deGrom’s season, marking a significant change in the way voters for the award evaluate candidates. deGrom certainly deserves it. As far as the Mets go, deGrom’s three remaining starts this season—including one against Chris Sale, his American League counterpart in excellence—are probably the only reason left to watch the team as the season winds down. Which, I guess, is something to be thankful for, as sad as it might be.

The wins don’t much matter anymore; another year of futility is coming to a close, and the missed opportunities can’t be un-missed. There are a whole lot of teams right now that are miserable, fully out of contention. Not many of those teams have a pitcher who now holds a record of pitching dominance that stood unbroken for over a century. Maybe they’ll win his next start.