Jacob’s Ladder Has a Cy Young Rung Now

Jacob deGrom in his collegiate youth loathed the idea of becoming a pitcher despite being a light-hitting shortstop with a live throwing arm. So much so that he quit his tiny Florida summer league team — then managed by Mets managing legend Davey Johnson — because being made a pitcher for three weeks absolutely mortified him.

That was 2009. This is 2018. And if beating out the nonpareil Max Scherzer in a walk for the National League's Cy Young Award this year is mortifying, deGrom can live with that. He got 29 of 30 possible first place votes; Scherzer got 29 of 30 possible second-place votes. You guessed it: Scherzer got the first place vote deGrom didn't get, and deGrom got the second place vote Scherzer didn't get.

The kid who didn't want to pitch in the first place was baseball's best pitcher in 2018. Well, once upon a time a Brooklyn kid named Sandy Koufax preferred to play basketball. We know how that worked out for him.

DeGrom formerly wore his hair in the shoulder-length, corn-broom style that's still favored by such as his teammate Noah Syndergaard and by the Brewers' sharp young relief pitcher Josh Hader. When Samson let Delilah cut his hair, he became weak as a newborn kitten. When deGrom, already an excellent pitcher, let his locks be shorn last winter, he became Samson.

Alas, Samson got more support from a forgiving God and His children Israel than deGrom got from his Mets this year. Samson finally brought the Philistines' temple down upon them, and upon himself while he was at it. This year's Mets usually let the Philistines escape. The Cy Young Award voters chose wisely not to hold that against him.

Despite seeming to do everything in their power to prevent it, the Mets couldn't stop deGrom from becoming their fourth Cy Young Award winner, after Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (thrice), Dwight Gooden (once), and R.A. Dickey (once). Dickey knew only too well what it meant to pitch like an ace on a team of jokers.

"It was kind of the only thing going with the team at the time," says Dickey, who wrote about it for the New York Post this week, remembering his 2012 Cy Young campaign. "For me it was something to be shared with the fans who had weathered a tough year. I feel like Jacob has treated it the same way. He's been real humble about it."

On the mound, the right-hander is about as humble as a crocodile pit, and just as expressionless when consuming his meals at the plate or maintaining when he comes out of yet another game with yet another 50-50 chance of nothing to show for it except another gold star for his reputation.

"Whether the team made a mistake behind him, or whether it was the seventh inning and the Mets got men on base and didn't score, you never saw his demeanor change," says Gooden, who thought watching deGrom this year was like watching a video game performance. "As a pitcher and a human being, it's only natural that you show some kind of facial expressions, but I never saw that from him."

It only begins with recalling deGrom had 29 consecutive 2018 starts in which he surrendered three earned runs or less, the longest such streak in Show history, right down to his last start of the season, and he only surrendered three five times all year long. Maybe less if you account for those times his relief surrendered the third run.

Let's dispose of the won-lost record issue right here and now, and not just because there have been two previous Cy Young Award winners to win only 13 games. (Fernando Valenzuela, strike-disrupted 1981; Felix Hernandez, uninterrupted 2010.) DeGrom's was, yes, 10-9. And the old-schoolers to whom statistics are the blood poisoning and not the life blood of baseball would holler foul! over such a record winning such an award.

Now, listen up: if you consider that surrendering three earned runs or less is pitching well enough to win, deGrom had 12 games with no decision in which he pitched that way — and he was charged with three earned runs in two of them. Had the Mets won those games with him as the pitcher of record, deGrom's won-lost record would have been (read carefully) 22-9. Scherzer's partisans may be steaming mad, but Scherzer had the luxury of pitching for a team that gave him 4.9 runs per start while he was still in the game and scored 5.4 runs per 27 outs for the entire games in which Scherzer was the starting pitcher.

Well, if you're getting almost 5 runs a turn while you're in the game and you can't win, there's something wrong with you, anyway. Now, look at what the Mets didn't do for deGrom. The Mets on average gave deGrom 2.9 runs per start while he was still in the game and scored 3.5 runs per 27 outs for the entire games in which deGrom was the starting pitcher. Scherzer could pitch in far more favorable game conditions; however stoic he seems on the mound, deGrom couldn't possibly have ducked the thought too often that he had to pitch a shutout or close enough to one just to break even.

Until this season, deGrom was probably the least hyped of the Mets' previously-vaunted pitching youth. Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and the since-departed Matt Harvey have gotten more play. It turns out deGrom is the best of the group and the least glamorized.

Harvey collapsed in a morass of health and psychological issues and is now trying to remodel his career elsewhere. Syndergaard can be a lancer one moment and a target the next. Matz and Wheeler haven't remained consistent or healthy enough to live up to their talent. DeGrom stands taller than any of that quartet have climbed so far.

He's the Mets' steady rider turned precision assassin. These years starting pitchers customarily work on five days' rest. DeGrom pitched 21 times on four and six times on five. The kid who once would rather have had a castor oil on the rocks than pitch has become a young man whose only problem in taking the ball is holding him back.

"My thought process," deGrom has told MLB Network, "was to take the ball and control what you can control."

The National League's 2018 leader in ERA (1.70 — only the ninth pitcher in baseball since 1970 to have a 1.70 ERA or lower for a season), fielding-independent pitching (your ERA when your defense is taken out of the equation: 1.98), wins above a replacement-level player (at any position: 10), home run rate (0.4) and win probability added (6.0) did it while keeping enemy hitters to a sub-.200 batting average overall against him. Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once said hitting against fellow Hall of Famer Koufax was like drinking coffee with a fork. Hitting against deGrom this year was like grinding coffee with a toothpick.

When the Mets rewarded deGrom for his last start by finishing what he started, a 3-0 shutout of the NL East-winning Braves, Braves catcher Tyler Flowers could only shake his head. "I just want to watch the game on TV later," Flowers said. "I know I didn't get anything to hit. I think most of the other guys would say the same thing."

"You hate to face him," said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who's just been named the National League's Manager of the Year for taking the East about a year before the Baby Braves were supposed to do it. "It's almost like you hope you can just play to a 0-0 tie 'till he's done."

He's only the second pitcher since the earned run became an official statistic in 1913 to have a sub-2.00 ERA, 250+ strikeouts, and -50 walks on a season. The first was Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in 2000. The Mets were 14-17 in deGrom's starts — and deGrom's ERA just in those losses was 2.13. That, says the Elias Sports Bureau, is the first time any starting pitcher's ERA in his team's losses on a full season was under 2.35. DeGrom himself was charged with nine losses ... and his ERA in those losses was 2.71.

Eight times in baseball history has a pitcher with 150+ innings pitched and an ERA under 1.70 in a season, and only two of them didn't win Cy Young Awards: Zack Greinke (1.66 in 2015) and Luis Tiant (1.60 in 1968). El Tiante, in fact, led the American League with his ERA, his 2.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, his hits per nine innings rate (5.3), and his win probability added. (6.4) But he didn't stand a chance against Denny McLain's 31 wins. (Neither, as things turned out, did McLain himself.)

DeGrom was Martinez 2000, Bob Gibson 1968, and Koufax 1965-66 this season. The Mets treated him as if he was the late Anthony Young 1992-93, when that hapless but courageous pitcher lost 27 consecutive decisions. And yet deGrom talks aloud about signing a long-term extension with the Mets, and the Mets don't seem unwilling to consider it.

That may make deGrom baseball's version of the abused spouse. The one who lets the bastard come back after he promises for the umpteen hundredth time that he'll never, never, never, ever do that again. But deGrom would probably hear the comparison and then find a real abused spouse to give his Cy Young Award if he thought doing so would truly heal her.

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