Against Dodgers, deGrom’s Dominance Continues, Evoking Past Greats

© Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — It’s not as though Jacob deGrom hadn’t faced strong offenses in his first five starts upon returning from four months on the shelf due to a stress reaction in his right scapula. He’d twice gone up against the Braves, who rank second in the National League in scoring and who remain hot on the Mets’ tail in the NL East, as well as the Phillies, who rank fifth in scoring. On Wednesday night, in a playoff-like atmosphere at Citi Field, deGrom passed his toughest test since returning, holding the Dodgers — who lead the majors in scoring (5.36 runs per game) and wRC+ (121) — to just one run on three hits in a 2-1 victory completed in just two hours and 19 minutes.

deGrom struck out nine while matching his season high of 25 swings and misses. He’s been so dominant in his limited 2022 action that it rated as noteworthy that he surrendered a walk and a homer in the same game; he had allowed just two of each against the 103 batters he’d faced thus far (1.9%), that while striking out 46 (44.7%). More on his insane numbers further below.

deGrom got the walk out of the way almost immediately, issuing a five-pitch pass to Trea Turner, the Dodgers’ second hitter, in the top of the first inning. He didn’t get to another three-ball count until his seventh and final inning, and didn’t allow a hit until Justin Turner singled past a diving Francisco Lindor with one out in the fifth. That one ultimately didn’t do any damage, but a hanging slider to Mookie Betts to lead off the sixth inning was another matter. Betts drilled it 415 feet to left-center for his 32nd homer of the season and his fifth in his past five starts.

A two-out single by Freddie Freeman in that same inning was the last hit the Dodgers collected against the two-time Cy Young winner, though deGrom needed the help of a sparkling defensive play to avoid another. With one out in the seventh and the Mets clinging to a 2-1 lead thanks to Starling Marte’s third-inning homer off Tyler Anderson, Justin Turner caught up to a 100-mph fastball and hit a 104-mph bullet to deep center field, where Brandon Nimmo leaped and stole what would have been a game-tying home run. Raising his arms in triumph, deGrom smiled and then tipped his cap to Nimmo, who afterwards called the catch “one of the best plays I’ve ever made.” An already-boisterous crowd of 41,799 fans went wild.

With a 23-degree launch angle, it wasn’t a towering shot. “The reason it was tough was there was no hang time. It didn’t lay up there where you can get to the fence and time your jump, and sometimes if you do it right, use the fence to raise yourself a little bit,” said Mets manager Buck Showalter afterwards. “When you can get back there and time it — I’m not saying it’s easy — but it’s a lot easier than the play that Nim made.”

“That was awesome,” said a grateful deGrom afterwards. “I made a mistake and he helped me out.”

If deGrom bent, he didn’t break. He credited the Mets outfielders with making multiple big plays on hard-hit balls. The Dodgers hit four fly balls 100 mph or faster, including the Betts homer and the Turner drive, plus a 95.8-mph Gavin Lux liner that required left fielder Mark Canha to make a difficult over-the-shoulder catch at top speed. “There were quite a few balls hit hard and they were all mistakes — and they hit mistakes,” said deGrom. “I had good defense behind me tonight and I’m thankful for that.”

deGrom’s slider broke quite enough for the Dodgers’ tastes. They whiffed on 15 of the 25 they swung at, including six times for strike three. On four of those, they chased sliders below the zone, while on the other two, he hit the outside edge of the plate. Meanwhile, his fastball absolutely sizzled, averaging 99.5 mph, with 11 of those pitches reaching triple digits. Beyond the smoke show, the Dodgers whiffed on eight of the 17 heaters they swung at, and took another 11 for strikes — good for a 50% CSW% on the pitch. deGrom’s 36.1% CSW% rate on the pitch is the tops among any starter this year according to the data at Pitcher List.

deGrom didn’t have a whole lot of margin for error due to Anderson’s strong performance. The 32-year-old lefty, who’s in the midst of a career year thanks to a revamped changeup, scattered eight hits over his seven innings but didn’t walk a hitter. Four of those hits came in the third, when Marte hit the rare center-cut changeup for a 411-foot two-run homer to right-center field.

The victory, sealed by perfect innings from Adam Ottavino and Edwin Díaz (the latter heralded by a live performance of “Narco,” his entrance music, from Australian musician Timmy Trumpet), allowed the Mets to rebound from Monday’s series-opening 4-3 loss. The teams with the NL’s top two records (the Dodgers are 90-39, the Mets 83-48) have split their first six meetings this season, with the final one to come on Thursday afternoon. Not that any of this is predictive, but with three of the six games decided by one run and another by two runs, it’s high-intensity action. “It was a great atmosphere,” said deGrom of Wednesday night. “You know you’re playing important baseball.”

The outing marked the first time this season that deGrom completed the seventh inning; he went 6.2 innings on August 18, when the Braves chased him by scoring three runs. The 93 pitches he threw on Tuesday came within two of his season high, set in that outing against the Braves.

Since returning to the mound from an absence that dated back to July 7, 2021, deGrom has thoroughly overwhelmed hitters, pitching to a 1.98 ERA and a 1.42 FIP in 36.1 innings over six starts. He’s allowed just three homers while walking just three hitters and striking out 55. On the one hand, those are absolutely ridiculous numbers that owe something to the small sample. On the other, they’re of a piece with what the two-time Cy Young winner did through the first three months of last season before suffering what was later confirmed to be a UCL sprain.

Including the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, deGrom has made just 33 starts since banking his second Cy Young in 2019. That’s basically a season’s worth of work – if a bit short in the innings department due to some early exits and workload buildups — but what he’s done in that span can stand with his best seasons:

Jacob deGrom Since 2018
2018 32 217.0 32.2% 5.5% 26.7% 0.41 1.7 2.46 1.99 9.0
2019 32 204.0 31.7% 5.5% 26.2% 0.84 2.43 2.70 2.67 6.9
2020 12 68.0 38.8% 6.7% 32.1% 0.93 2.38 2.73 2.26 2.6
2021 15 92.0 45.1% 3.4% 41.7% 0.59 1.08 1.53 1.24 4.9
2022 6 36.1 43.0% 2.3% 40.7% 0.74 1.98 1.71 1.42 1.6
2020-2022 33 196.1 42.4% 4.4% 37.9% 0.73 1.70 1.98 1.63 9.1

Note deGrom’s next-level strikeout and walk rates relative to 2018-19 (merely calling them improved feels like a vast understatement) and also his stronger run prevention rates, both actual and estimated. If he could maintain anything close to this pace over the course of a full season, it would be a legendary one.

Various aspects of deGrom’s “season” have recent full-season precedents, though we don’t have to look too far back when it comes to WAR, since he’s the one who had the last 9.0-WAR season in 2018. Run prevention-wise Zack Greinke had a 1.66 ERA in 222.2 innings in 2015, and Corbin Burnes had a 1.63 FIP last year, but the only starting pitchers to keep both metrics below 2.00 in the same season in the past 50 years were deGrom in 2018 and Clayton Kershaw in ’14 (1.77 ERA, 1.81 FIP). Before that you have to go back to Tom Seaver in 1971 (1.76 ERA, 1.93 FIP), and that was within a lower-scoring environment.

On that note, if we’re adjusting for park and league scoring rates, deGrom has a 42 ERA- since the start of the 2020 season. The most recent precedent for that belongs to Pedro Martinez, who had a 42 ERA- in 1999, and then a 35 ERA- the following season. Burnes had a 38 FIP- last year, but paired with a 58 ERA-; Pedro’s combination of that 35 ERA- and a 48 FIP- is a closer combination to deGrom’s 42 and 39. And get this: Martinez had a 39 ERA- and 39 FIP- over the 1999-2000 span, albeit in a combined 416.1 innings.

As for raw strikeout rates, Gerrit Cole‘s 39.9% in 2019 is the full-season record for a qualified starter, and likewise for that year’s 34.0% strikeout-walk differential; deGrom’s ahead of him in both categories. Of course, particularly with their historical climb, strikeout rates are worth placing in a neutral context as well, which we can do via our Plus stats. Here it’s worth noting that Martinez’s 220 K%+ in 2000 and his 189 mark in 2002 both beat deGrom (Pedro’s 182 mark from 1997 is close, too); Randy Johnson (203 in 2000, 208 in ’01) has deGrom beat as well. Roy Halladay’s 46 BB%+ was the last time deGrom’s mark was surpassed in that category.

In an effort to place what deGrom has been doing over this three-season span into a fuller context, I decided to use our suite of Plus stats to find the full-season performance that most closely resembles his recent body of work. Towards that end, I took every ERA-qualified season outside of 1981, ’94, and 2020 and, after some experimentation, settled on comparing each pitcher’s distance to deGrom’s 2020-22 marks in HR/9+, K%+, BB%+, ERA-, and FIP- using a least-squares measure. You’ll recognize a lot of the names from the seasons mentioned above:

Most Similar to deGrom’s 2020-22 Using Plus Stats
Pitcher Team Season IP HR/9+ K%+ BB%+ ERA- FIP- Score
Jacob deGrom NYM 2020-22 196.1 59 182 49 42 39
Randy Johnson ARI 2004 245.2 59 174 53 57 50 20.6
Pedro Martinez BOS 2002 199.1 54 189 61 50 54 22.5
Clayton Kershaw LAD 2015 232.2 59 163 61 57 53 30.4
Clayton Kershaw* LAD 2014 198.1 49 155 54 51 49 32.2
Mark Prior CHC 2003 211.1 61 166 66 57 56 32.6
Dwight Gooden* NYM 1985 276.2 58 174 75 44 58 33.3
Corey Kluber* CLE 2017 203.2 71 158 55 49 57 33.6
Pedro Martinez* MON 1997 241.1 62 182 79 45 57 35.2
Tom Seaver NYM 1971 286.1 80 183 67 52 59 35.6
Lefty Grove PHA 1931 288.2 66 182 63 46 71 35.8
Chris Sale BOS 2017 214.1 77 168 60 63 56 37.0
Carl Hubbell NYG 1933 308.2 47 171 61 52 71 39.2
Ron Guidry* NYY 1978 273.2 57 198 80 47 58 40.1
Pedro Martinez* BOS 2000 217.0 59 220 42 35 48 40.3
Gerrit Cole HOU 2019 212.1 85 176 69 55 58 40.5
Harry Brecheen STL 1948 233.1 33 160 57 55 56 41.0
Sandy Koufax* LAD 1963 311.0 69 161 64 62 62 41.2
Pete Alexander CHC 1919 235.0 62 168 66 58 70 41.4
Lefty Grove PHA 1930 291.0 45 208 61 53 64 42.0
* won Cy Young award

That’s seven Cy Young-winning seasons out of 15 (the other five predate the award) plus a few more that should have been, and seven Hall of Famers accounting for 10 seasons. The two that are by far the closest to deGrom belong to Johnson and Martinez. In terms of raw stats, Johnson — who had already won four straight Cy Youngs from 1999-2002 and should have beat Roger Clemens in ’04 — pitched to a 2.60 ERA and 2.30 FIP with a 30.1% strikeout rate, 4.6% walk rate, and 0.66 per nine homer rate in 245.2 innings, and while that may not look like much, it was good for 9.6 freakin’ WAR. Martinez, who had collected three Cy Youngs himself by 2002, posted a 2.26 ERA and 2.24 FIP with a 30.4% strikeout rate, 5.1% walk rate, and 0.59 homers per nine in 199.1 innings, for 7.4 WAR.

Note that I did try factoring in workload, both directly in terms of innings and indirectly using WAR; in the former case, that Johnson season was the closest, in the latter it was that Martinez season, with both of those 8-10 points ahead of the rest of the field as they are above and 2014 Kershaw (198.1 innings, 7.4 WAR) third. In the end, I stuck with the methodology you see above.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a junk-drawer concoction, but I think it underscores just how great deGrom has been recently, albeit intermittently. We’re seeing dominance on a level of Martinez, Johnson, and Kershaw — a Hall of Fame-caliber performance. The question is whether deGrom’s body can hold on long enough for him to accumulate the body of work that can one day put him in that company.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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5 months ago

This feels like a wakeup call to the Dodgers (probably more for the fans than the players) that no matter how good they are they better bring their A game against a Mets team that can run degrom and scherzer out there during a playoff series.
On the other hand, it feels encouraging as a Dodgers fan that the Mets threw the absolute best they had at them and they were still a fantastic home run robbery away from a tie game.

5 months ago
Reply to  connjc

Agree completely. The reality of this year’s Dodgers though is that they come from behind, always a threat. In past seasons, if you got ahead of them they’d just swing for the fences and try to hit a 6-run home run. Now they can hit situationally when necessary. That’s how you win a World Series, as is continually proven. It’s like how in the NBA the best defensive teams usually end up in the finals… even though everyone thinks it’s just about scoring.

5 months ago
Reply to  connjc

As a Mets fan, it’s easy to see that the Dodgers are a problem for anyone in the playoffs. Deep everywhere with batters that make every pitcher work.

I have a feeling that if the teams meet, it’ll feel like the 2015 NLDS. Very close, tense and nerve wracking.

5 months ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

I was already well ensconced on the Jacob deGrom band wagon and began to think he was even more than I thought after Game 1 of that series. He needs to keep it going for a few more years then he might be able to get a Koufax type ticket to the HOF. If we get to see another match-up between the two teams it should be great baseball. This terrific series did a lot to stoke the fire.

5 months ago
Reply to  connjc

Dodgers losing Anderson-deGrom matchup in New York by one run
is as encouraging as losses against potential playoff opponent gets.
No doubt deGrom was dealing, but the umpire had an extremely pitcher friendly zone that the Mets took full advantage of.