Jacob deGrom’s Remarkable Run

Wednesday evening in Flushing, Jacob deGrom put a bow on another superlative season. For seven innings, he flummoxed the Marlins, striking out seven while only allowing two hits. It wasn’t surprising, exactly — deGrom is one of the best few pitchers in baseball and the Marlins are, well, the Marlins. For once, the Mets provided deGrom with copious run support — the three they scored in the first would have been enough, but they added six more runs over the next two innings.

With 32 starts in the books, deGrom looks to have handily lapped the field in the Cy Young race. If FIP-based WAR is your preferred metric, he ranks second in the majors, behind only Gerrit Cole and half a win clear of Max Scherzer. By RA9-WAR, he’s also second in the majors, this time behind Justin Verlander, and miles ahead of NL runner up Jack Flaherty.

Craig Edwards published a Cy Young tracker last week if you’d prefer to dig even deeper into the minutiae, but deGrom was already in the lead, and his two most recent starts (14 innings, 16 strikeouts, one walk, and no runs) only widened the gap. There probably won’t be much surprise come awards season.

But while there isn’t much suspense when it comes to ranking deGrom’s preeminence in the National League this year, his two-year run has vaulted him into select historical territory. His ERA-, which controls for scoring environment, works out to 51 over the last two years, which means he allows about half as many runs as a league average pitcher.

That 51 ERA-, ludicrous as it is, can’t compete with the best seasons of all time — Pedro Martinez’s preposterous 2000 worked out to a 35 ERA- (1.74 ERA in Fenway in the heart of the steroids era, goodness gracious), and there have been 42 qualifying seasons with an ERA- of 50 or lower since 1901. Even if we limit ourselves to 1949 and beyond, there have been 24 of those seasons. There are plenty of Hall of Famers on the list, but also Kevin Brown, Dean Chance, and Trevor Bauer.

But looking at that list obscures what’s been so great about deGrom’s recent run. He didn’t just happen into one tremendous season. He did it twice, and twice in a row, which increases the degree of difficulty exponentially. I’m not saying it’s easy to post an ERA- of 50 — after all, almost no one has done it — but it’s a lot easier to do for one season than for two. ERA itself is prone to extreme results, which is a huge help.

For example, the average ERA- of the 24 pitcher-seasons that we’re looking at is 45. That’s not surprising — it’s good to be good! Their peripheral stats, however, aren’t quite as overwhelming. Their FIP-, for example, averages 58, and FIP is a more regressed, more stable statistic. For what it’s worth, deGrom’s two-year FIP- is 55, more or less in line with these great seasons.

But even looking at more stable indicators undersells deGrom’s run. What’s really impressive isn’t that his underlying metrics have been better than you’d think; it’s that he’s done it for two years in a row. And this recent stretch isn’t just two good seasons in a row; it’s quite literally one of the best two-season runs of all time.

Here are the 10 best two-season ERA- marks since 1949:

Best 2-Season ERA- Marks
Season Name ERA- Cy Young Awards
1994-1995 Greg Maddux 38 2
1999-2000 Pedro Martinez 38 2
1993-1994 Greg Maddux 48 2
2002-2003 Pedro Martinez 49 0
1968-1969 Bob Gibson 50 1
1997-1998 Roger Clemens 51 2
2013-2014 Clayton Kershaw 51 2
2018-2019 Jacob deGrom 51 1*
1998-1999 Pedro Martinez 52 1
1995-1996 Greg Maddux 52 1
*2019 CYA not yet decided

Right away, that’s remarkable company. Leaving deGrom out of it, everyone else is in the Hall of Fame, a future Hall of Famer, or Roger Clemens. You’d have to go all the way down to number 19, Kevin Brown’s 1996-1997 seasons, to find someone whose career wasn’t Hall of Fame caliber (and it’s a near thing — Kevin Brown is better than you think). Pitchers can’t be this good by accident.

The list doesn’t get any less impressive if you prefer FIP as your indicator of excellence:

Best 2-Season FIP- Marks
Season Name FIP- Cy Young Awards
1999-2000 Pedro Martinez 40 2
2000-2001 Randy Johnson 50 2
2014-2015 Clayton Kershaw 51 1
2002-2003 Pedro Martinez 53 0
1994-1995 Greg Maddux 53 2
1984-1985 Dwight Gooden 54 1
2001-2002 Randy Johnson 54 2
1997-1998 Roger Clemens 54 2
1994-1995 Randy Johnson 55 1
2018-2019 Jacob deGrom 55 1*
*2019 CYA not yet decided

Aside from the fact that Pedro’s 2002-2003 seasons were tremendous despite a lack of award recognition, these lists basically say the same thing. When you think of modern pitching legends, Jacob deGrom belongs.

One thing that this list made me wonder is whether deGrom’s recent form could lead to a Hall of Fame push. He’s already 31, which sounds shocking offhand, but it makes more sense when you realize that he didn’t debut in the majors until his age 26 season. That’s a problem — deGrom’s 31.5 fWAR by age 31 is only 97th in the post-integration era, and you don’t have to look any further than number 96, Erik Hanson, to see that his pace is nothing special.

That doesn’t mean he has no shot, though. The easiest way to look at Hall of Fame standards is to look at our own Jay Jaffe’s JAWS score, and though that shows deGrom far behind, it gives a realistic idea of what he’d have to do to reach Hall status. The average seven-year peak for starting pitchers is 49.9 bWAR, and deGrom is at 34.9 despite only pitching in the majors for six seasons. He also has room to improve on some of his early seasons — if he can average 6 bWAR for the next three years, no easy feat, that would get him to a 46.3 bWAR peak.

Of course, a 31 year old pitcher who has already had Tommy John surgery once being one of the best pitchers in baseball for the next three years is far from a given. ZiPS projected him to be worth 4.9 and 4.4 seasons in 2020 and 2021, respectively, before the start of the season, and though it has surely bumped him up slightly in the wake of another superlative campaign, 6 WAR projections don’t exactly grow on trees.

That doesn’t even cover the career WAR portion of JAWS, which deGrom has absolutely no shot at matching. His late start is too hard to overcome; he’d need to average more than 6 WAR a season for the next six years to hit that benchmark, and projecting more future WAR than he has accrued in his entire career go date is a bridge too far even for me. Starting pitching standards are changing, but deGrom looks like a long shot for the Hall either way.

Still, even if the last two years aren’t the start of deGrom’s Hall campaign, they’re a remarkable feat of latter-day pitching. When people talk about the absolute best runs by starters, they talk about peak Gibson, or peak Kershaw, or the absurd 1990’s heroics of Martinez, Clemens, Maddux, and Johnson. They talk about Sandy Koufax, who didn’t quite have the ERA- of the leaders but also frequently threw 300 innings in a season.

Those seasons, those pitchers, are all great. In 2018 and 2019, Jacob deGrom has joined that pantheon. A 2.05 ERA, 2.32 FIP, and 26.5% K-BB sound like video game numbers, and he’s doing that in a two-year stretch that will be remembered for its extreme offense. Maybe the Hall of Fame isn’t in deGrom’s future, but the present is absolutely legendary. We’ve been watching history these past two years, even if the Mets haven’t taken full advantage of it.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

Hi, great read, but just a heads-up: in the “Best 2-Season ERA- Marks” table, Maddux’s 94-95 run is listed twice with two different ERA- numbers (38 and 48).