The Ferrari That Is Jacob deGrom Is Once Again in the Shop

Jacob deGrom
Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

When the Rangers shocked the baseball world by signing Jacob deGrom to a five-year, $185 million contract in December, it was with the hope that the 34-year-old righty could steer clear of the type of injuries that limited him to a total of 26 starts in the 2021 and ’22 seasons. But since the opening of camps in February, it’s been a bumpy ride, and that’s carried over into the regular season. On Friday night, for the second time in three starts, deGrom took an early exit due to an arm issue; this time, he’s headed to the injured list, with a diagnosis of elbow inflammation. To call upon an oft-used metaphor: this fancy, expensive, high-performance sports car is once again in the shop.

Facing a Yankees lineup weakened by injuries — no Aaron Judge, no Giancarlo Stanton, no Josh Donaldson — on Friday night, deGrom cruised through the first three innings, retiring all nine hitters on a total of 28 pitches, striking out two and never reaching a three-ball count. He began to labor in the fourth, however. After a six-pitch groundout by DJ LeMahieu, he issued a five-pitch walk to Anthony Rizzo, then went to a full count against Gleyber Torres before getting him to fly out, and finally allowed a two-strike single to Willie Calhoun. Notably, deGrom’s last two pitches to Calhoun — a 96.6 mph fastball taken for a ball and then the 89.4 mph slider that he hit, both of which were several inches outside — were down about three miles per hour relative to their previous offerings of that type.

That sudden drop cued pitching coach Mike Maddux and the team trainer to visit the mound; Maddux soon tag-teamed with manager Bruce Bochy, who did little more than pat a dejected-looking deGrom on the shoulder and send him on his way.

After the Rangers finished off their 5–2 win, the team announced that deGrom had departed due to forearm tightness; the pitcher himself described it as “just some discomfort.” According to general manager Chris Young, an MRI taken the next day showed inflammation, but notably, he made no mention of structural damage, suggesting that whatever the team saw with regards to deGrom’s ulnar collateral ligament, flexor, and whatever else was, if not in mint condition, not a concern at this time. The Rangers elected to put him on the 15-day injured list, though Young downplayed the situation, saying, “[H]e came in today and felt OK, which was a positive, but given how important he is to us and our season, we’re going to play this very cautiously and see how he responds over the next several days to treatment. And then after seven to 10 days, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what the next steps are.”

Seven to 10 days might be enough to get a sense of where this situation is headed, but it’s very possible deGrom will be out longer. Data from the Baseball Prospectus Four-Year Injury Map for 2020–22 shows that the average time missed by a pitcher with elbow inflammation is 60 days; more granular data from the site’s Recovery Dashboard for 2016–22 shows an average of 54 days missed and a median of 36 days. In other words, we may not see him pitch in May.

The health of deGrom has been an ongoing concern for the Rangers since the start of camp. On February 15, just before the team’s first official workout for pitchers and catchers, Young told the media that deGrom had had experienced “a little tightness” in his left side during a bullpen session earlier in the week. His next bullpen session was delayed until February 23, and instead of making his Cactus League debut on March 13 as planned, he pitched in a minor league exhibition that day and then for the Rangers on March 19.

Though he was still given the Opening Day assignment against the Phillies, deGrom lasted just 3.2 innings and 73 pitches, surrendering six hits and five runs. He was much better in his next two outings, striking out 20, walking two, and allowing a total of four runs in 13 innings to the Orioles and Royals, but he left his April 17 rematch against Kansas City after throwing four no-hit innings and just 58 pitches due to right wrist soreness, which he had experienced in the bullpen and got worse during the game. “I thought it was going to loosen up and it actually tightened up as the game went on,” he told reporters afterwards. “So, playing it smart. Could I have kept going? Probably. But it was lingering and got a little worse.”

He returned for one more outing, tossing six innings of two-run ball against the A’s (one run was unearned) and striking out 11 on April 23, but he went just 80 pitches in that one, so fatigue probably wasn’t a factor heading into Saturday’s start. In Young’s view, the wrist issue isn’t directly linked to the elbow one. “But was there some compensation from the wrist that maybe irritated this? Perhaps, but I can’t say for certain,” said the GM, who praised deGrom for communicating his discomfort to the team instead of pushing through it and exacerbating a problem.

Unfortunately, like the Mets before them, the Rangers might eventually feel as though there’s too much communication from the pitcher, or at least too much drama. After making 95 starts from 2017 to ’19 and then 12 in the pandemic-shortened ’20 season, deGrom was limited to 15 in ’21, making two IL stints, skipping a turn, and leaving three starts early in a scattershot pattern that foreshadowed this year’s woes:

  • May 4: missed start due to inflammation in right latissimus dorsi
  • May 9: left start after 5 innings due to right side tightness in lower back, placed on IL the next day, missed 2 weeks
  • June 11: left start after 6 innings due to flexor tendinitis in right elbow
  • June 16: left start after 3 innings due to shoulder soreness
  • July 18: went on IL due to right forearm tightness (last pitched July 7), later revealed to have suffered UCL sprain

After that saga, deGrom made just 11 starts last year due to a stress reaction in his right scapula; the injury was announced on April 1, and he didn’t debut until August 2.

When deGrom has pitched over the past three seasons, he’s been elite. Over exactly 32 starts, including this year’s half-dozen, he’s been worth 8.4 WAR:

Jacob deGrom Since 2018
2018 32 217 32.2% 5.5% 26.7% 0.41 1.7 2.46 1.99 9.0
2019 32 204 31.7% 5.5% 26.2% 0.84 2.43 2.7 2.67 6.9
2020 12 68 38.8% 6.7% 32.1% 0.93 2.38 2.73 2.26 2.6
2021 15 92 45.1% 3.4% 41.7% 0.59 1.08 1.53 1.24 4.9
2022 11 64.1 42.7% 3.3% 39.3% 1.26 3.08 2.24 2.13 2.2
2023 6 30.1 39.1% 3.5% 35.7% 0.59 2.67 1.86 1.65 1.4
2020-2022 32 186.2 43.2% 3.4% 39.8% 0.82 2.03 1.83 1.61 8.4

That’s down from a similar 33-start calculation I did for 2020–22 last summer, a span over which deGrom had been worth 9.1 WAR, but jeez, these numbers still jump off the page. Even if I use a 50-inning single-season cutoff to make some comparisons, thus bringing relievers into the discussion, within that span only two pitchers have exceeded his 2021–23 strikeout rate: Edwin Díaz (50.2% in 2022) and Josh Hader (45.5% in 2021). Only five have posted a lower walk rate (Liam Hendriks and Richard Bleier in 2021, and Chris Martin, Corey Kluber, and Joe Mantiply last year). Díaz is the only one with a higher K-BB% (42.6%) or lower FIP (0.90), though Hendriks (39.7%) is just an eyelash behind deGrom in the former category, and likewise Corbin Burnes (1.63 in ’21) in the latter. Burnes’ 7.5 WAR from 2021 is the highest of any pitcher in the span, nearly a full win behind deGrom.

One can’t disentangle deGrom’s reliever-like dominance from his reliever-like velocity. Via Statcast, his four-seam fastball averaged 99.2 mph in 2021, 98.9 mph last year, and 98.7 mph this year. His overall average of 99.0 mph in that span leads all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 1,000 four-seamers, a group that includes starters and relievers:

Highest Average Four-Seam Fastball Velocity, 2021–23
Player Player Pitches Velo (mph)
Jacob deGrom NYM/TEX 1385 99.0
Edwin Díaz NYM 1004 98.9
Hunter Greene CIN 1435 98.9
Ryan Helsley STL 1078 98.7
Aroldis Chapman NYY/KCR 1044 98.1
Sandy Alcantara MIA 1604 98.0
Spencer Strider ATL 1846 98.0
Ryne Stanek HOU 1319 98.0
Gerrit Cole NYY 3430 97.6
Liam Hendriks CHW 1335 97.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 1,000 four-seam fastballs.

He similarly leads the field in slider velocity…

Highest Average Slider Velocity, 2021–23
Player Player Pitches Velo (mph)
Jacob deGrom NYM/TEX 945 92.0
Emmanuel Clase CLE 740 91.7
Zack Wheeler PHI 1531 91.1
Edwin Díaz NYM 917 90.7
Sandy Alcantara MIA 1553 90.2
Ryan Pressly HOU 679 90.1
Tyler Kinley COL 792 90.1
Yimi García 3 Tm 506 89.9
Shane McClanahan TBR 1105 89.2
Andrew Kittredge TBR 538 89.0
Liam Hendriks CHW 509 89.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 500 sliders.

…and he’s fourth in changeup velocity:

Highest Average Changeup Velocity, 2021–23
Player Player Pitches Velo (mph)
Edward Cabrera MIA 691 92.4
Miguel Castro 3 Tm 403 92.1
Sandy Alcantara MIA 1738 91.8
Jacob deGrom NYM/TEX 226 91.6
Walker Buehler LAD 233 91.1
Mitch Keller PIT 288 90.7
Rafael Montero SEA/HOU 428 90.5
Kendall Graveman 3 Tm 213 90.3
Corbin Burnes MIL 646 90.3
Garrett Richards BOS/TEX 406 90.2
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That deGrom’s elite velocity has been accompanied by only intermittent availability is a behavior his teams have enabled. As Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said last year, invoking the sports car metaphor when the two-time Cy Young Award Winner’s absence reached the one-year mark, “Do you put a governor on a Ferrari? Jake is a competitor and I feel like we have put a real comprehensive throwing program together and have been mindful of where his velocity has been this entire time… I don’t have any reservations.”

The Rangers went into this with eyes open, with Young saying in December, “We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that… And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

For as much as deGrom at his best makes the hair on our necks stand up, there’s a cost, and I don’t just mean the Rangers’ $185 million. Sooner or later, that cost will probably involve an operating table and an even longer absence; this is a pitcher who already had his first Tommy John surgery in 2010, after just six Rookie-level appearances. While we know that his ’21 UCL sprain wasn’t substantial enough to merit a second surgery, and while Young made no mention of his UCL in discussing his latest injury, deGrom continues to tempt fate. As I noted two years ago, the links between high velocity, repertoire, and Tommy John surgery can’t be ignored, particularly an April 2016 paper in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery that found that while pitch velocity itself does not appear to be a risk factor, pitch usage does. Secifically, throwing fastballs 48% of the time or more increases the risk, and deGrom, for the 2021–23 period I’ve highlighted, is at 52.9%. Gulp.

Looking back at my March 2021 piece, when I did a check-in on deGrom’s Hall of Fame chances using his ZiPS projection, I’m struck by how much lower his ceiling is. At that point, through his age-32 season, he had compiled 38.2 career bWAR including offense, a figure that’s since been revised downward slightly, to 37.3. ZiPS projected him to produce another 28.7 WAR through his age-41 season (2029), giving him a projected total of 66.9 for his career, with a projected JAWS of 54.5 — all in just 2,304.2 innings. Compare those totals to the fresh ZiPS projection from Dan Szymborski:

Jacob deGrom’s ZiPS-Projected Career Totals
2023 9 2 2.54 22 120.3 170 163 4.6
2024 8 6 2.81 21 125.3 162 147 3.4
2025 7 6 3.15 18 112.0 139 132 2.7
2026 6 6 3.62 17 97.3 115 114 1.9
2027 4 7 4.02 17 91.0 102 104 1.4
2028 3 5 3.83 12 70.0 75 91 1.0
Current Career Proj 119 88 2.75 316 1942 2370 146 56.1 48.0
2021 Career Proj 146 95 2.92 366 2304.7 2651 139 66.9 54.5

On a per-inning basis, deGrom’s projection has improved (note the rise in ERA+), but where the 2021 version of deGrom looked as though he might wind up with totals in the general vicinity of Sandy Koufax (48.9 career/46.0 peak/47.4 JAWS to go with three Cy Youngs, a 131 ERA+, and 165 wins for the lefty) and be a Koufax-like exception for Cooperstown, his case becomes less convincing if he can’t stay on the field.

As for the Rangers, they did fortify their rotation significantly this past offseason, adding Nathan Eovaldi (who shut out the Yankees on three hits on Saturday) and Andrew Heaney and retaining Martín Pérez after his first All-Star season, as well as last winter’s addition, Jon Gray. Their rotation placed third in our preseason Positional Power Rankings, and it’s still third via our rest-of-season Depth Charts projections, with 28-year-old righty Dane Dunning filling in for deGrom. That projection has deGrom throwing 107 more innings, however, and while I’m not a betting man, I’d take the under on that one.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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11 months ago

Great article! It highlights the dilemma inherent to deGrom: is it worth making to changes to how he pitches to enable him to throw more? Or is 100 IP / year of historically elite stuff (his xFIP- over those 10 starts is the best of any season where we have xFIP by double digits) better than 200 IP / year of good stuff?

Also I think the last line of your “Jacob deGrom since 2018” table should be 2021-2023 (not 2020-2022)

11 months ago
Reply to  Sertorius

I think the answer is the former if your team is consistently able to get into the playoffs.

11 months ago
Reply to  JupiterBrando

Surely the opposite! You bet on him being available in October (and if necessary, change his workload/creatively use the IL to get him on the playoff roster) and use the historically good inning-by-inning numbers to massivley increase your odds in a short playoff series

11 months ago
Reply to  hairygrim

Maybe if he were a video game character with some kind of injury meter you could watch going up, but as it stands his availability is very unpredictable. I don’t think there’s some kind of cheat code to ensure he’s available for the playoffs.