Once Jacob deGrom enters his late-30s, a transition to the bullpen could allow the New York Mets star to remain an elite pitcher.
Last year, the 31-year-old became the eleventh pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Youngs. The three-time All-Star will now attempt to become the eleventh hurler to win the award a third time. By accomplishing that feat, he’d also become just the third pitcher to capture three consecutive.
deGrom is entering his age-32 season and is looking to lead his team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. In order to accomplish that, he’ll need to be one of the best pitchers in the major leagues once again.
Among all starters with at least 160 innings pitched, deGrom produced the second-lowest ERA (2.43), third-lowest FIP (2.67), third-lowest xFIP (3.11), fifth-highest strikeout rate (31.7%), third-lowest hard-hit rate (29.7%) and second-highest fWAR rating (7.0) during the 2019 campaign.
After handing deGrom a five-year, $137.5 million extension last spring, the Mets are hopeful that he’ll be able to maintain his dominant form through his mid-30s. For the sake of this article, let’s assume that the right-hander doesn’t start showing signs of decline until 2023.
If deGrom exercises his player option for that campaign, he’ll earn $30.5 million during what will be his age-35 season. In 2023, let’s also assume that the former ninth-round selection isn’t the ace of the Mets pitching staff anymore.
With the Florida native’s production slipping by then, the Mets probably wouldn’t exercise his $32.5 million club option for 2024. Nevertheless, New York would likely be willing to bring him back on a cheaper deal.
If deGrom agreed to return, he’d likely slot within the middle of the starting rotation. But, there’s a chance that he could be more valuable in the bullpen and maybe even become their new closer.
While this scenario may sound crazy, it would allow the 6-foot-4 hurler to maintain his dominant form through the later stages of his career. Furthermore, this transition could also let him pitch into his 40s if he’s able to remain successful and healthy.
For this plan to work, both deGrom and the Mets would need to be 100% committed to this transition. If not, their relationship together could potentially end after 2023.
As a reliever, deGrom would likely feature just three pitches, something that he’s already begun doing as a starter. Over the last two seasons, he’s drastically reduced the usage of both his mid-80s curveball and mid-90s sinker.
Through his first four seasons in the majors, the hard-throwing righty utilized his sinker 16.6% of the time and his curveball 10.2% of the time. Since 2018, the usage of his sinking fastball has decreased by 11.4%. His breaking ball’s usage, on the other hand, has lowered by 4.8%.
Based on these results, deGrom wouldn’t need to make any major adjustments to his pitching arsenal as a reliever. In total, he’d focus on his high-90s fastball, his low-90s slider, along with his low-90s changeup as a relief pitcher.
Last season, deGrom’s dominating four-seamer averaged 96.9 miles per hour, 12.2 inches of drop (tied for fifth-best among all pitchers who threw at least 1000 fastballs), and it was utilized 48.1% of the time.
If he were to continue as a starter for the rest of his career, there would be a very high chance his fastball velocity would decrease into the low-90s. His heater would thus drop lower in the strike zone and it’d become a much easier pitch to hit.
deGrom wouldn’t have to preserve his stamina as a reliever though. Simply speaking, he’d be able to utilize all of his energy in just one inning. Moving into the bullpen towards the end of his career would allow him to keep his fastball in the high-90s, which would keep his heater’s location in the upper part of the strike zone as well.
Paired with his high-90s four-seamer, deGrom’s low-90s slider would continue to serve as an elite strikeout pitch for him in the bullpen. In 2019, the veteran hurler relied on his primary breaking ball 32% of the time and it generated a 33.8% strikeout rate and 35.5% whiff rate.
Similar to his fastball, the right-hander may lose some velocity off his slider as he inches closer to 40 years old, making it less deceiving and easier to lay off. Although, he’d be able to prevent that from happening as a relief pitcher.
Along with his slider, deGrom’s low-90s changeup would also continue to record a significant number of strikeouts for him. During the 2019 campaign, he threw his offspeed pitch 15.9% of the time. As a result, it generated a career-high 40.7% strikeout rate and 39.6% whiff rate.
With the right-hander’s fastball averaging nearly 97 miles per hour and his changeup averaging just over 90 miles per hour in 2019, the difference in speeds should allow him to remain effective with his offspeed pitch as a reliever.
The Mets still likely have plenty of time before deGrom’s production starts to decline. Nonetheless, this will definitely need to be something they consider before it’s too late. New York probably prefers to have their All-Star pitcher remain dominant through his five-year contract.
Despite his impressive results since the 2018 campaign, it would be naive for the Mets to think that deGrom could continue at this pace over the next four seasons. Thus, a move to the pen in the near future may be necessary to prolong his elite status.