It’s Time To Believe That Jacob deGrom May Be This Good

By: Brian Mangan

Thanks to his incredible run as of late — he is 6-2 with a 1.52 ERA over his last 8 starts, spanning 53.1 innings  — New York Mets fans and media alike have fallen in love with Jacob deGrom.

To be sure, deGrom has been awesome this season.  Overall, he’s posted a 2.77 ERA in 94.1 innings, with a strong 8.59 K/9, and has looked every bit like an above-average major league starter.

But how good is deGrom exactly?  Does be project to be a back-of-the-rotation starter, or can he continue to pitch like an ace?

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As most everyone knows by now, deGrom was drafted in the ninth round of the 2010 draft out of Stetson University, where he spent most of his time playing shortstop, not pitching.  It was only in his junior year that deGrom started working out of the bullpen, and his senior year he posted a mediocre 4.48 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 12 starts.  Nonetheless, the Mets (the Omar Minaya Mets) liked enough of what they saw to draft him 272nd overall.

Tommy John surgery derailed deGrom after only 26 innings in the Mets’ rookie league, at which point a long-shot prospect became a total non-factor.  By the time he returned in 2012, he was a 24 year old pitching in the South Atlantic League and Florida State League, and although he put up good numbers there, people ignored deGrom because of his age-versus-level context.

Nonplussed, deGrom advanced through the minor league system with decent results (3.61 ERA), with most talent evaluators projecting him as a possible back of the rotation starter:

degrom minor

That continued to be the standard evaluation, even entering 2014.  Fangraphs said “DeGrom, 25, has the ceiling of a No. 3 or 4 starter, especially if he improves his breaking ball.” John Sickels of Minorleagueball.com wrote in April “It is likely we’ll see him in the majors later this year and he’s got a shot at being a number three or four starter eventually.” Amazin Avenue ranked deGrom the 15th best Mets prospect entering 2014.

So what is the deal?  How is deGrom deGrominating at the major league level?

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There is a reason that old habits die hard, and that scouting is so valuable when compared to numbers — any player can “get hot” for a little while.  In deGrom’s case, we have 324 minor league innings which tell us he might be a useful back-of-the-rotation starter, and we have 94 major league innings which say he can be #2A along with Zack Wheeler behind Matt Harvey. Which is it?

For this I go to Fangraphs, to take a closer look at the numbers deGrom has put up this year.  The first thing that you need to know is when certain stats “stabilize” — that means, when there is enough data for a statistic to be deemed useful and predictive.  As we all know, Dmitri Young hit 3 home runs on Opening Day 2005, but did not finish the season with 486 home runs.  Here is when the numbers become useful:

  • Strikeout rate: 70 batters faced (BF)
  • Walk rate: 170 BF
  • OBP against: 540 BF
  • SLG against: 550 BF
  • GB% rate: 70 balls in play (BIP)
  • HR% rate: 400 BIP
  • LD% rate: 650 BIP

At this point, deGrom has 386 batters faced, so most of these statistics are not entirely useful for projection just yet.  But that doesn’t mean that they are useless for prediction.  Therefore although we cannot say yet that we expect deGrom to continue to limit home runs at an above-average rate, we can look at his excellent strikeout rate (he ranks 15th out of 60 in the National League) and subpar walk rate (42nd out of 60) are close to his true talent level.

The famous ERA predictors FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP agree that deGrom has been fantastic this year.  DeGrom’s ERA is 2.77, his FIP is 2.97, and his xFIP is 3.37 — I think Mets fans will take any of those numbers and be quite happy.  DeGrom’s 2.97 FIP ranks 10th in the National League among starters with 90 innings pitched or more (between Hamels, Bumgarner, Wacha, and T. Ross).

DeGrom’s swinging strike rate, one of my favorite metrics of all, is a fantastic 11.5%, which also ranks 10th in the National League (between G. Gonzalez, Teheran, E. Jackson, and Zimmerman).  His first pitch strike % is good (although not elite) at 61.7%, and he has five pitches classified by PITCHf/x which grade out as positive this year so far — the fastball, two seamer, cutter, slider and changeup.  Finally, you may be surprised to learn (as I was) that DeGrom has the 9th fastest average fastball in the National League.

Here are the warning signs for deGrom: 1) xFIP thinks he’ll give up more home runs than he has so far (6.1% HR/FB) and it’s almost certainly right and 2) deGrom’s BABIP against is only .302, despite a line drive % allowed of 24.5%, which is quite high.  Altogether, he’s probably closer to the 3.37 ERA pitcher that xFIP thinks he is than the 2.77 ERA pitcher he’s been so far.

Nonetheless, you’ve got a pitcher who throws hard, throws strikes, gets swings-and-misses, and has performed admirably so far this season.  Even if he takes a few steps back after this hot streak, deGrom has shown enough this year already where it’s no longer crazy to say that this guy should be in our plans next year.

The deGrom story is a major victory for the organization’s scouting and coaching, not to mention another feather in the cap for Mets’ pitching coach Dan Warthen.  Let’s hope that deGrom’s success continues.

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