Jacob deGrom Is Mr. Indispensable

The Mets had quite a scare last week when Jacob deGrom left Tuesday’s intrasquad game after just one inning due to back tightness. Thankfully, an MRI taken on Thursday came back clean, and upon being cleared, the two-time reigning Cy Young winner threw a bullpen session on Friday, followed by a 60-pitch simulated game on Sunday. At this writing, he’s on track to make his Opening Day start against the Braves on July 24 in Queens, albeit with his targeted pitch count reduced from 100 to 85, but this close shave underscores the fact that there may be no ppitcher who’s more crucial to his teams chances for contention this season.

Intuitively, that makes sense. The 32-year-old deGrom is coming off of a season during which he led the NL in WAR (7.0) and strikeouts (255), ranked second in both ERA (2.43) and FIP (2.67), and third in innings (204). By the numbers, it may not have been as strong as his 2018 season, in which he led in ERA, FIP, and WAR, but for the second straight year, he ran away with the Cy Young, netting 29 out of 30 first-place votes. He’s projected to provide the Mets 2.1 WAR in this abbreviated season, a total 0.1 ahead of Max Scherzer in three more innings (76 to 73), and one surpassed by only the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (2.4 in 79 innings). Here it should be noted that our innings projections are subject to manual adjustments based upon injury reports, and the news with regards to deGrom’s back was positive enough that we did not dial his total back.

Both Cole’s Yankees and deGrom’s Mets lost their respective rotation’s second-best pitchers — namely Luis Severino and Noah Syndergaard — to Tommy John surgery this spring, though the Yankees’ rotation still projects as the deeper one, with James Paxton (1.5 projected WAR) ahead of Marcus Stroman (1.1) among the remaining number two starters, and likewise Masahiro Tanaka (1.0) ahead of Rick Porcello or Steven Matz (both 0.7). In fact, the Yankees’ rotation’s 6.7 WAR tops our Depth Charts and thus our Positional Power Rankings, though they’re in a virtual tie with the Nationals and a hair ahead of the Rays (6.6). The Mets (5.5) rank ninth, 0.1 behind the Indians and 0.2 behind the Reds.

The other top-shelf starters around the majors, particularly the ones with Cy Youngs on their mantels, all have strong sidekicks. The Astros have two former Cy Young winners in Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. On the Nationals, Scherzer is joined by Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, while the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw alongside Walker Buehler even after David Price opted out, and the Rays have Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. Neither Shane Bieber nor Mike Clevinger has won a Cy Young, but both Cleveland righties were among the game’s most effective and valuable pitchers last year.

Here’s how the Mets’ depth chart looks like at the moment:

Mets Starting Pitcher Depth Chart
Pitcher IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR
Jacob deGrom 76 10.9 2.2 1.1 .307 77.7% 3.11 3.16 2.1
Marcus Stroman 66 7.4 2.9 0.9 .309 72.2% 3.89 3.94 1.1
Rick Porcello 65 7.8 2.3 1.5 .309 70.9% 4.59 4.58 0.7
Steven Matz 59 8.4 3.1 1.3 .311 72.7% 4.35 4.41 0.7
Michael Wacha 59 7.6 3.6 1.3 .309 71.3% 4.63 4.72 0.5
David Peterson 17 7.5 3.5 0.9 .313 71.1% 4.13 4.21 0.3
Walker Lockett 7 6.6 2.3 1.3 .312 69.9% 4.57 4.59 0.1
Corey Oswalt 3 7.5 2.9 1.6 .308 69.4% 4.94 4.97 0.0

Prior to Syndergaard’s injury, the Mets had something of a safety net given the additions of Porcello and Wacha via free agency. Both are coming off subpar seasons; Porcello, the 2016 AL Cy Young winner, set a career worst in ERA (5.52) and very nearly did so with his FIP (4.76), though for the fourth year in a row, he took the ball at least 32 times, and finished with 1.8 WAR. Wacha, who has generally been effective when healthy, dealt with left knee tendinitis and shoulder soreness while managing just 124.2 innings with a 4.76 ERA and 5.61 FIP. Neither is far removed from stronger campaigns, and both project to rebound; their struggles made them affordable on one-year deals ($10 million for Porcello, $3 million plus incentives), which is why the Mets added both in December after losing Zack Wheeler to the Phillies. Stroman, acquired on July 28 — a point at which the Mets appeared dead in the water — was added in anticipation of losing Wheeler and restoring his own luster after a subpar 2018; he’s actually coming off a career-best 3.9 WAR, while his 82 FIP- (off a 3.72 FIP) was his best mark relative to the league since his 2014 rookie campaign.

With Syndergaard out of the picture, Stroman lines up as the number two starter, and both Porcello and Wacha fill out the starting five, but what’s beyond that looks rather shaky. Peterson, a 24-year-old lefty who’s not yet on the 40-man roster, is a 2017 first-round pick who ranked eighth on the team’s recent prospect list. He’s never pitched above Double-A, and projects only as a 45 Future Value prospect; wrote Eric Longenhagen, “He has never had a plus pitch, nor does he project to have one, and instead works in the low-90s with tough angle and great extension, and several other pitches.” Lockett, a 26-year-old righty, has been cuffed for an 8.84 ERA and 6.17 FIP in 37.2 big league innings and at this point projects as a 35+ FV prospect, a spot starter/swingman type. Oswalt, a 26-year-old righty, owns a 6.43 ERA and 5.76 FIP in 71.1 innings, mostly in 2018.

Digging into the team’s 60-man player pool, the Mets have a pair of pitchers with big league experience in 30-year-old righty Erasmo Ramirez and 26-year-old lefty Stephen Gonsalves; of that pair, only the latter is on the 40-man roster. Ramirez was moderately successful with the Mariners and Rays from 2012-17 but over the past two seasons yielded 6.84 ERA and 7.09 FIP in 48.2 innings with the Mariners (2018) and Red Sox (’19, for all of one start), while Gonsalves was lit for a 6.57 EA and 5.72 FIP in 24.2 innings with the Twins in 2018, then was limited to 13 minor league innings last year due to a flexor/pronator strain. Also in the pool are four prospects from their recent list, namely 24-year-old lefty Thomas Szapucki (7th), 24-year-old righty Franklyn Kilomé (9th), 23-year-old lefty Kevin Smith (14th, and the only one from this group not on the 40-man roster), and 24-year-old righty Jordan Humphreys (21st). It’s a green group; Kilomé, a 40+ FV prospect, made 31 starts at Double-A in 2017-18 before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of last season, while Smith has just six starts at Double-A, Szapucki one, and Humphreys none. Szapucki has the highest upside of the group, as a 45 FV prospect; he’s exactly three years removed from Tommy John surgery, and via Longenhagen still has his plus curveball, but needs to work on his mechanical consistency.

(Editor’s Note: The original version of this piece did not mention either Kilomé or Szapucki, as their July 13 additions to the 60-man pool somehow slipped through the cracks.)

So it doesn’t look like the Mets have much margin for error when it comes to deGrom, whose importance is underscored when we compare the Mets’ projections to those of the rest of the majors via our Depth Charts. Projections are not destiny, and in a 60-game season where the top starters are expected to throw fewer than 80 innings, there’s not room for much separation in these, but ultimately, we’ll see far more variance than what’s here. Still, by a couple of measures, deGrom — and his potential absence — stand out:

Rotation Projections
Team IP ERA FIP WAR Ace% W/O Ace 1-2 Gap
Diamondbacks 347 4.42 4.44 4.3 23.3% 3.3 0.0
Braves 349 4.14 4.25 4.9 24.5% 3.7 0.0
Orioles 346 5.46 5.54 2.3 34.8% 1.5 0.2
Red Sox 348 4.73 4.60 3.9 25.6% 2.9 0.2
Cubs 346 4.41 4.45 4.6 30.4% 3.2 0.4
White Sox 351 4.43 4.55 4.9 30.6% 3.4 0.6
Reds 354 4.20 4.27 5.7 26.3% 4.2 0.1
Indians 352 4.24 4.27 5.6 32.1% 3.8 0.3
Rockies 350 4.98 4.77 4.4 31.8% 3.0 0.2
Tigers 349 4.81 4.79 4.0 30.0% 2.8 0.5
Astros 357 4.05 4.15 6.0 28.3% 4.3 0.6
Royals 348 4.79 4.76 3.4 20.6% 2.7 0.0
Angels 347 4.47 4.58 4.2 26.2% 3.1 0.2
Dodgers 353 3.84 3.98 6.1 26.2% 4.5 0.1
Marlins 349 4.54 4.67 3.4 23.5% 2.6 0.0
Brewers 350 4.41 4.43 4.8 25.0% 3.6 0.4
Twins 349 4.53 4.49 5.1 23.5% 3.9 0.1
Mets 353 4.09 4.13 5.5 38.2% 3.4 1.0
Yankees 351 4.13 4.15 6.7 35.8% 4.3 0.9
Athletics 350 4.27 4.44 5.0 24.0% 3.8 0.1
Phillies 353 4.49 4.55 4.5 31.1% 3.1 0.3
Pirates 347 4.59 4.51 4.1 24.4% 3.1 0.1
Padres 346 4.17 4.28 4.9 24.5% 3.7 0.3
Mariners 345 4.74 4.85 3.1 29.0% 2.2 0.2
Giants 346 4.42 4.49 3.3 27.3% 2.4 0.3
Cardinals 348 4.11 4.28 4.7 34.0% 3.1 0.9
Rays 346 3.82 3.86 6.6 24.2% 5.0 0.0
Rangers 357 4.56 4.44 6.0 25.0% 4.5 0.1
Blue Jays 348 4.75 4.81 3.8 28.9% 2.7 0.4
Nationals 362 4.06 4.09 6.7 29.9% 4.7 0.1

I’ve made the table sortable, the consequence of which is the loss of ranking numbers, so I’ll guide you through it. The Mets’ rotation ranks among the major’s top five in ERA, FIP, and innings (the last one tied) but once the park adjustments are factored in, they get bumped down to ninth in terms of WAR. The Ace% column shows the percentage of WAR accounted for by the team’s best-projected pitcher, the staff ace if not a true ace. In this case, the Mets and deGrom lead, nosing out Cole, the Orioles’ John Means, and the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty. The W/O Ace column shows the amount of WAR projected by the pitchers besides the staff ace; the Mets’ 3.4 WAR ties them for 14th here, which means they fall five or six rungs in the rankings. The 1-2 Gap column shows the WAR difference between the staff ace and the number two starter, and here again, the Mets are on top given the step down from deGrom to Stroman.

Per our Playoff Odds page, the Mets project for a .529 winning percentage, about 86 wins over the course of a 162-game season. They have a 24.0% chance of winning the NL East, and a 19.1% chance of winning a Wild Card spot, for a 43.1% chance at at a playoff spot in all. That’s actually the league’s fifth-best forecast, meaning that right now, we’re actually projecting them to claim the second Wild Card spot. Note how tightly clustered the projected win totals are for the second- through eighth-ranked teams in terms of projected wins, from 32.7 for the Nationals (playoff odds 53.3%) to 31.3 for the Padres (38.4%), with the Mets’ 31.7 right in the thick of it. Losing even a start from deGrom would probably nudge them down a rung in the rankings, and lower their odds by a few points.

If I could take Dan Szymborski’s ZiPSmobile for a joyride, I could crunch the marginal impact of each frontline pitcher’s loss, but that seems quite elaborate for the moment — particularly as deGrom has, so far as we know, a clean bill of health. Still, the departure of Wheeler and the the loss of Syndergaard — who together combined for 393 innings last year, and 44.6% of the rotation’s 20.4 WAR — has exposed the team’s vulnerability even at a time when things are looking up, comparatively speaking. You can’t get much more Mets than that.





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.

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stakhanovitamix
1 year ago

Am curious, why are Thomas Szapucki and Franklyn Kilome not mentioned at all? They’re the # 7 and #9 prospects on the list you link to; both have been starters; both are former top 100 prospects; both were at AA in their last stops; and both are in the player pool. I think they’re both as advanced as and have a higher ceiling than Jordan Humphreys, whom you do mention. Are they listed in the player pool as relievers instead of starters?

stakhanovitamix
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay Jaffe

Great, thanks! They were both late adds to the pool, I think. Neither is likely a future ace pounding at the door; but they’re guys with track records and potential who are within striking distance, and I think they make the picture look a little less bleak!