Cooperstown chances: Jacob deGrom making up for late start with historic numbers

Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball. It’s an unofficial title, sure, but it’s not in dispute. The Mets’ ace won the NL Cy Young in 2017 and 2018, then finished third in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

And you know what he’s done so far this year. Heading into his scheduled start Tuesday, his ERA is 0.95 through 14 starts. He’s made 90 starts since the beginning of the 2018 season, and his ERA in those games is 1.93, with 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.12 FIP.

These are just ridiculous numbers. Historic. Mind-boggling. When you think of guys performing “like a Hall of Famer” you think of what Jacob deGrom is doing right now. He’s up there with the best stretches for Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, to name just a few legends.

But is his spot in Cooperstown secure? Let’s take a look.

If he retired tomorrow, would he make the Hall of Fame?

No, he would not. Technically, deGrom hasn’t qualified yet. This is only his eighth season in the big leagues, and the minimum requirement is 10 years. He’s 33 years old, and didn’t make his MLB debut until he was a little more than a month shy of his 26th birthday. More on that in a moment.

The Cooperstown case

We already mentioned his ridiculous numbers since the start of the 2018 season. But deGrom was no slouch before he took the BPIB (best pitcher in baseball) mantle from Clayton Kershaw. He won the NL rookie of the year award in 2014, made the All-Star team in 2015 and finished top-eight in the Cy Young voting in both 2015 and 2016.

Let’s break his career into four-year stretches.

2014-172.98 ERA107 GS3.07 FIP9.7 K/94.15 K/BB15.9 bWAR
2018-211.93 ERA90 GS2.12 FIP12.0 K/96.42 K/BB24.9 bWAR
Career2.50 ERA197 GS2.63 FIP10.7 K/95.07 K/BB40.8 bWAR

Damn, he’s been brilliant, hasn’t he? Even his “before” period was outstanding.

Not that ERA is everything, but let’s look at the career ERA and ERA+ — a stat that adjusts to allow for comparisons through eras — for a couple inner-circle Hall of Fame pitchers: Lefty Grove, 3.06 ERA, 148 ERA+ (1925-41), Bob Gibson, 2.91 ERA, 127 ERA+ (1959-75) and Randy Johnson, 3.29 ERA, 135 ERA+ (1988-2009). deGrom’s 2.98 ERA and 130 ERA+ slide right in there, and that’s BEFORE he went from great to historic.

If deGrom, who has been pretty incredible from the very start of his MLB career and epic the past four years, isn’t worthy of Cooperstown, why even have a Hall of Fame, right?

The Cooperstown hesitation

deGrom’s Cooperstown push is an all-out sprint, not a marathon. He didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 25 years and 330 days old, which was a massively late start.

Pedro Martinez already had one Cy Young award and a career bWAR of 23.5 by the time he started his Age 26 season. Nolan Ryan had 822 career strikeouts before his Age 26 season. Jim Palmer had 79 career wins before his Age 26 season. Tom Seaver had a Cy Young award, a career 2.49 ERA and 25.9 bWAR in almost 1,100 career innings before his Age 26 season.

Let’s look at it another way. The list of Hall of Fame pitchers who made their MLB debuts later than deGrom is three players long. Three. That’s it.

Hoyt Wilhelm: MLB debut at 29 years, 267 days in 1952. Pitched until he was 49
Joe McGinty: 28 years, 29 days in 1899. Pitched until 1908 (246 wins) 
Mordeci “Three Finger” Brown: 26 years, 182 days in 1903. Pitched until he was 39

For most of the players in the Hall of Fame, the journey is a marathon, with extended sprint-like sections. Not a lot of guys who were solely sprinters.

That shows up in the overall numbers. deGrom’s career bWAR of 40.8 ranks 160th in MLB history, a few ticks above Danny Darwin’s 40.3. His JAWS number — detailed description here — is 42.1, which ranks 130th in MLB history, right behind David Wells, at 42.4. The average bWAR/WAR7/JAWS for a Hall of Famer: 73.3/50.0/61.7. deGrom’s: 43.5/40.8/42.1

How did we go from rubbing elbows with elites like Pedro and Gibson to sharing space with good-not-great guys like Boomer and Darwin? Yeah, deGrom’s candidacy is complicated.

A few more Hall of Fame numbers from deGrom’s Baseball-Reference page: Black Ink, 20 (average HoF: 40), Gray Ink, 111 (avg. HoF: 185), Monitor, 49 (Likely HoF: 100), Standards, 32 (avg. HoF: 50). The short career so far is really working against him.

Similar Hall of Famers

Jacob deGrom’s career isn’t finished. Of course. If we’re lucky, as baseball admirers who love watching the elite players perform at elite levels, deGrom will pitch into his 40s. Then, it wouldn’t be a question. Heck, it shouldn’t be a question after a couple more years.

For today, though, we’re looking how his career so far stacks up. You can’t really compare him to the late-debut guys, because Wilhelm was a reliever and Brown/McGinty were turn-of-the-century guys. So instead we’ll look at two other Cooperstown sprinters: Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean.

Koufax took a while to figure out how to harness his incredible arm, but once he did he was unstoppable to opposing hitters. Elbow pain ended his career. Dean was incredible from the start, but a broken leg in an All-Star Game forced him to change his pitching motion when he rushed back from the injury, and that led to arm problems that he never recovered from. Koufax had nine seasons with 22 or more starts; Dean had just six. deGrom, at the moment, has six, too.

PlayerbWARWAR7JAWS
Koufax48.946.047.4
Dean46.244.145.1
deGrom43.540.842.1

Close, but not quite there. Until you factor in the 2020 season, which was a Peak deGrom year shortened by the pandemic. In 12 starts, he had a 2.7 bWAR. Extrapolate that out to a 32-start season, and his bWAR jumps up to around 7. Add that to his totals, and he gets right up there with Dean, still a bit below Koufax.

Similar non-Hall of Famer

This comparison bothers me. Not because it hurts deGrom’s case, but because it shines a light on what I consider a massive oversight. As of July 6, deGrom is 33 years, 17 days old. Johan Santana threw his final MLB pitch at 33 years, 157 days old. Injuries suck.

As we’ve talked about, deGrom has been brilliant in his first eight years in the majors (Age 26 to 33 seasons). Santana had an eight-year stretch that was magnificent, too (Age 24 to 31) until injuries wrecked his career. He appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot as part of the Class of 2018, and he failed to receive the 5 percent necessary to stay on the ballot. If you’ve read my Hall of Fame writing, you probably know I was one of the few who voted for him.

Let’s compare those peak eight-year stretches.

deGrom40.8 bWAR2.50 ERA2.63 FIP157 ERA+1,254 2/3 IP1.013 WHIP7.0 H/95.07 K/BB
Santana47.8 bWAR2.89 ERA3.31 FIP150 ERA+1,670 2/3 IP1.067 WHIP7.4 H/94.03 K/BB

Pretty damn similar, eh? Have to add this: deGrom has two Cy Young awards (on his way to No. 3) and three other top-8 finishes, while Santana had two Cy Young awards and four other top-seven finishes.

The point isn’t to say that because Santana dropped off the ballot immediately that deGrom has no chance. Of course not. Mostly, the point here: Santana got screwed by the 10-person ballot. Aargh. Here’s hoping the Modern Era Committee rights that wrong down the road.

Coopertown forecast

Jacob deGrom gets in, on his first ballot. Though, I have to admit, it’s a bit scary, how many times he’s exited starts this year with some sort of malady. Every time, you’re just hoping for good news. And so far, that’s been the case.

Another Cy Young award almost certainly locks up his spot, assuming he pitches the required two more years to get to 10 seasons. Stay healthy, ace.

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