The New York Mets badly needed a dominant performance against the Arizona Diamondbacks from Jacob deGrom on Friday. He gave them that and more in what’s becoming his best year yet in the big leagues.
Friday was the start of a crucial 17-day stretch for the New York Mets that includes 18 games mostly against first-place MLB teams. It was helpful to start things off with right-hander Jacob deGrom on the hill to set the tone, but he also hadn’t thrown more than 45 pitches in a game in about three weeks (with a stint on the disabled list in between).
He put those worries to rest in a dominant performance against a struggling Arizona Diamondbacks club with 13 strikeouts, no walks, six hits, and just one run allowed over seven innings. Manager Mickey Callaway and the Mets needed a performance from their ace, and they got that from deGrom.
On the surface, the right-hander has been dominant to start this season — he’s 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA through 51.1 innings. While those numbers will likely regress to a degree, there’s some legitimate improvement in deGrom’s peripherals.
More Whiffs, Fewer Homers, And That's Not All
One of the things that sticks out from deGrom’s 2017 campaign was his boost in strikeout rate to career-high levels. Although it would’ve been better if his 7.1 percent walk rate also didn’t rise — that was the highest it had been since his rookie season (7.5%) — any manager will take that when it’s paired with a 28.9 percent strikeout rate. The sample sizes between what he’s done this year compared to last year aren’t equal, but it certainly grabs your attention.
DeGrom’s walk rate has basically remained the same (7.0 percent), while he’s seen his strikeout rate spike even higher to 34.3 percent. That number has him among the top five qualified starters in all of baseball.
Despite bouncing back from an injury-shortened 2016 with a 4.4-fWAR performance last season, deGrom wasn’t immune to the barrage of home runs the league produced. After giving up 38 dingers through his first three seasons (479.1 innings), he surrendered 28 last year in just 201.1 frames.
He’s corrected that so far in 2018 — opposing hitters have slugged just two balls over the fence against him. His homers-per-nine-innings rate has gone from a career-worst 1.25 in 2017 to its current 0.35 mark, which would be a new career best if the regular season ended today.
The Mets have also benefited from the 29-year-old’s ability to get deep into ballgames. He went about three weeks in between outings of seven-plus innings, but deGrom has pitched into at least the sixth inning seven times in nine starts.
How valuable has his performance been thus far? We can use FanGraphs’ Dollars metric, which assigns a dollar value per fWAR produced by a player. DeGrom is making $7.4 million this season, but his the 2.3 fWAR he’s produced has already been worth $18.1 million.
A Dramatic Shift in Contact Allowed
It’s not secret that deGrom is making opposing hitters swing-and-miss a lot — his 15.4 percent swinging-strike rate is among the best in baseball and is on pace to be a new career high. But what’s happening when hitters actually put the ball in play?
Not much. The below table displays how deGrom’s line-drive rate, ground-ball rate, fly-ball rate, soft-hit rate, and hard-hit rate have changed since 2015.
As we can see, there are some changes in the types of batted-ball events induced, but it’s the quality of contact that’s changed drastically. Again, this will likely regress more towards deGrom’s career norms as the year goes on, but it helps explain why he’s been so dominant.
It’s also worth pointing out that while his 28.9 percent fly-ball rate isn’t far off from previous years, it’s his 33.3 percent infield-fly rate that makes the difference. Heading into this season, his career-best mark in that category happened last year (9.8 percent).
As one can imagine, much of this has to do with his pitch mix. Although his usage rates haven’t fluctuated much, two offerings in his arsenal that have gotten a lot better.
One of the Game's Best Sliders
There’s no other way to say it — batters just can’t hit deGrom’s slider right now. He’s thrown it at a 23.8 percent clip, and the opposition has mustered just a .140/.156/.140 triple slash. That comes out to a -11 wRC+ to go along with just a 2.2 percent walk rate, 40.0 percent strikeout rate, and a 17.6 percent swinging-strike rate with that pitch.
As a frame of reference, hitters produced a .222/.268/.357 triple slash against it last year with a 72 wRC+, 5.5 percent walk rate, 27.5 percent strikeout rate, and an 11.8 percent swinging-strike rate.
The numbers get even better when looking at the value this particular pitch has produced. According to FanGraphs, the value of deGrom’s slider on a per-100-pitch basis is 3.70. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it becomes more impressive when compared to the rest of the league.
Among all starters currently qualified for the ERA title, only Nick Pivetta of the Philadelphia Phillies has a more valuable slider (3.92).
An Equally Dominant Changeup
While deGrom’s slider is clearly his most effective pitch, his changeup isn’t too shabby, either. He’s thrown it at a 12.5 percent clip, and opposing hitters have slashed just .167/.167/.200 with a 6 wRC+ against it.
Furthermore, deGrom hasn’t walked a batter when throwing his changeup and has a produced a 36.7 percent strikeout rate. Those numbers were 6.2 percent and 23.0 percent, respectively, in 2017.
On a per-100-pitch basis, this changeup has produced a value of 2.83. That’s on pace for a new career-best mark, but it also shows us just how good that slider has been throughout the start of this year. Still, that number is among the top 15 qualified hurlers in baseball.
The path to contention for the Mets has been rather clear in recent years. It’s helpful to have a productive offense — after all, you need to score runs to win. However, this team will only go as far as the pitching staff (and more specifically, the starting rotation) will carry them.
Callaway said as much before New York’s walk-off win Saturday night. He reiterated that point following the victory, which ended up being of the comeback variety because Steven Matz allowed four runs on six hits (two homers) in just four innings.
If the Mets want to stay in the playoff hunt as spring turns to summer, the back end of the rotation needs to join the party. That means not just Matz, but also Zack Wheeler and Jason Vargas need to do their part.
DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard have combined to become one of the league’s premier one-two punches. As the rest of New York’s rotation is in flux, they must continue being the foundation on which to build upon.
They’ve both performed well to start 2018, but deGrom has been the clear ace. He must set the tone by continuing to produce at a Cy Young-worthy level and hope the rest of the rotation starts to keep the momentum going.