The human mind is a wonderful and often terrifying bit of machinery. It’s both the world’s most sophisticated computer, and also an entity capable of interrupting regularly scheduled programming with some truly disturbing thoughts. Like the intrusive notion that buzzed into my head a couple of days ago:
Is Jacob deGrom the best player in baseball right now?
Within moments, I was dashing out the door, running full speed to the local church so I could apologize to both God and Mike Trout for even considering such blasphemy. After all, since 2012, Trout has either been the clear best player in the world or the yardstick by which every pretender to the throne has been measured. Spectacular as the Mets right-hander has been, he’s still an entire half a career away from having a track record to challenge Trout’s consistent dominance.
Besides, mounting a serious inquiry into that question would require both quantitative and qualitative analysis. And the results would be colored by methodological choices: Which stats do we use? Through what time frame? How does one compare the value of a pitcher to the value of an outfielder? It’s tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison, no matter what the snake in the garden says.
But rather than give all the way in to temptation—or ignore the question altogether—let’s just take a peek.
Since deGrom’s first Cy Young season in 2018, Baseball-Reference credits him with 22.1 wins above replacement, five more than second-place Aaron Nola and therefore tops among pitchers by far. Add in the 1.4 bWAR deGrom has chipped in at the plate, and you get a total of 23.5 bWAR. Baseball-Reference WAR isn’t gospel; it’s just one version of one approach to player evaluation. And the time scale of this thought exercise—starting with the best season of deGrom’s career—clearly puts him at an advantage; 2018 was the year when deGrom emerged as one of the best pitchers in the world. For most of his career to that point, he wasn’t clearly the best on his own team. Then there’s the fact that this is a strange moment to try to pick on Trout, who as of this writing is hitting .426/.539/.820.
Even with all that said, though, here are the bWAR leaders among position players since 2018:
1. Mookie Betts (22.3)
2. Trout (21.1)
3. Alex Bregman (18.4)
4. Matt Chapman (16.8)
5. Trevor Story (16.2)
The question of whether deGrom is the best player in baseball is one of those early-spring reactive talking points that pops up year after year to tide us over until the bounces start to even out. Even the ludicrous hot streak deGrom is on through four starts (50 strikeouts with just one earned run and 16 base runners allowed over 29 innings) might have been camouflaged if it had happened in August.
But even if the answer to the question is “no,” as it probably will be until Trout either starts to show signs of age or retires to go home and farm tomatoes, this isn’t a silly proposition. There’s more to deGrom’s run of success than your garden-variety low-data hot takeism.
It doesn’t take a detailed statistical or biomechanical analysis to appreciate what deGrom is doing; anyone with even a cursory understanding of the rules of baseball can see how dominant deGrom has been this season and how easy he’s making it look.
So far in 2021, deGrom is leading all MLB starters in ERA (0.31) and average fastball velocity (98.9 mph), and is second in strikeouts (50) and opponent expected wOBA (.189). My favorite number attached to deGrom this year is his strikeout rate of 49.5 percent. Not only because he’s striking out basically half of the batters he faces, but because such a feat has been achieved only by one-inning relievers like Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. DeGrom, by contrast, is facing an average of 25 batters and change every start. Imagine Usain Bolt running his 200-meter world record pace for a full mile.
But the greatest testament to deGrom’s success is the fact that he’s now considered a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate.
Two weeks ago, ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote about deGrom’s desire to “pitch into his 40s” and “become an inner-circle Hall of Famer.” Passan was fairly blunt about how remarkable an achievement that would be, calling it “unrealistic” for a pitcher who was almost 26 when he reached the majors. Passan compared deGrom’s potential path to the Hall of Fame to that of Randy Johnson. Johnson is one of the best pitchers who ever lived, and he had a nearly unique road to Cooperstown, debuting late and battling command issues until he was almost 30. The Big Unit followed that up by winning five Cy Young Awards in his 30s, leading MLB in strikeouts at 40, and posting a 118 ERA+ in 30 starts in his age-44 season.
The most common career path for a Hall of Famer at any position is an early-20s debut, followed by a five-to-seven-year peak somewhere from mid-20s to early 30s. By the time a player is deGrom’s age (32), it’s mostly about hang-around value: reaching milestones like 3,000 strikeouts and 500 wins, maybe rounding out one’s CV with a World Series ring after a late-career trade.
DeGrom, however, hasn’t even come close to following that path. He was a front-of-the-rotation starter from the instant he showed up in New York, but not having any MLB experience prior to that point ended his Hall of Fame campaign before it started. “Unrealistic” might actually be underselling it.
The Hall of Fame has inducted 235 members primarily for their contributions as MLB players. (Inductees from other categories have played in the majors, but Sparky Anderson isn’t in Cooperstown because he had one awful season as a major league second baseman.) Of those 235 inductees, only six debuted in their age-26 season or later, and none more recently than 1952.
Every one of those six is a weird case. Mordecai Brown and Joe McGinnity were pitchers from so far in the past that ballplayers still got colorful nicknames like “Three-Finger” and “Iron Man.” Hoyt Wilhelm was a knuckleballer who didn’t reach the majors until he was 29, but stuck around until he was almost 50, becoming the first pitcher to make 1,000 relief appearances in the process. At this point, I wouldn’t bet against deGrom doing anything on the mound, including knuckleballing his way into Gordie Howe–like longevity—but it’s not the likeliest outcome.
The other three—Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Earl Averill—had been big league–quality players for years by the time MLB picked them up. Robinson and Campanella, of course, were Negro League stars, while Averill played in the Pacific Coast League, which was an elite independent minor league before MLB expanded west of St. Louis. Ichiro, one of the best hitters in the world for almost a decade before he crossed the Pacific, will eventually fall into this category as well when he gets elected to Cooperstown.
There’s no extenuating circumstance with deGrom, though; he was just a college player who took four years to get from the draft to his MLB debut. Which makes this all the more difficult.
Let’s say deGrom, playing through his age-33 season at the moment, pitches about as well as Justin Verlander did in his age-33 through age-36 seasons. That four-year stretch, which included a World Series title, a Cy Young win, and two Cy Young runner-up finishes, probably pushed Verlander’s own Hall of Fame case over the finish line and represents an exceptionally good run through the mid-30s for a power right-hander.
Grafting deGrom’s age-26 through age-32 seasons onto Verlander’s age-33 through age-36 seasons would give us a pitcher with 11 seasons as a top-end big league starter, with three Cy Young wins, 2,400 strikeouts (give or take), and a career ERA+ of about 150. But VerlandeGrom would also end up with just over 2,000 career innings, 64.5 bWAR, and 138 wins, even if we exchange deGrom’s meme-worthy low run support for the trash can–banging Astros offense.
That’s a memorable career, but one we see on Hall of Fame ballots all the time. Johan Santana, David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen are all Cy Young winners (Saberhagen and Santana had two) with careers of at least 10 years who ended up with outstanding rate stats, but insufficient longevity to make the Hall. (All are also former Mets, in a fortuitous coincidence.) All four dropped off the BBWAA ballot after one vote, and only Cone came close to lasting to a second. You can make allowances for deGrom having better rate stats now than any of those pitchers and seemingly continuing to improve, as Johnson did, through his 30s. But it’s not like those guys were scrubs; Santana was the consensus best pitcher in baseball for years, and as good as deGrom is now, I’m not convinced he’s better than Gooden was in the first two or three years of his career.
But those four ex-Mets didn’t get to 3,000 innings pitched. There’s nothing particularly special about that number as such, but it’s a round figure that represents the point when a pitcher starts to reach Hall of Fame–level volume. And this isn’t just an artifact of the modern game, in which nobody throws 200 innings a year and every pitcher retires on his third set of elbow ligaments. Only three starting pitchers have debuted since integration, thrown fewer than 3,000 big league innings, and made the Hall of Fame: Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martínez, and Roy Halladay. Only Koufax got in with fewer than 2,749 career innings.
At this moment, deGrom has thrown 1,198 2/3 major league innings. He turns 33 in June, and he’s about halfway to the point when the Hall of Fame considers returning your calls. Even Johnson, the one-in-a-lifetime Methuselah who deGrom is trying to emulate, had thrown 300 more innings by this point in his career. Knocking Trout off his pedestal would seem like child’s play compared to reaching Cooperstown from deGrom’s starting position.
Even so, the best way I can think to quantify deGrom’s performance so far this year, to show how unprecedented his combination of velocity, command, and athleticism is, is to put it like this: I think he’s on track to make the Hall of Fame.