So far this year, more than 170 starters have thrown at least 10 innings. Of those starters, Jacob deGrom has been the fifth best in all of Major League Baseball. In the prior three seasons he was 12th overall, then 28th, then 12th again. He’s already been worth more than two wins…in less than a third of a season. Last year, he was worth 4.4. John Edwards noted just how berserker his start has been:
Nine wins, y’all. DeGrom is on pace to be worth nine wins. The last pitcher to be that good was Randy Johnson in 2004. Being that deGrom is “only” the 5th best pitcher so far this season, that means four others — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Luis Severino — have been even better, and that they’re on pace to break that nine WAR barrier, too. Given that less than a third of the season has passed, maybe none of them will, or maybe we’re in for a heck of a season from the mound despite a ball that favors hitters.
DeGrom might be of particular interest, though, because he’s showing us a completely different look this year than in the past. Just see for yourself.
Those heat maps are all from the catcher’s perspective. DeGrom is combining his crazy high talent level with a whole new level of conviction. The result? Video game-like command that’s yielded a career-high 12.1 strikeouts per nine and a typical 2.45 walks per nine.
DeGrom is just baffling hitters. His four-seam fastball is generating whiffs at more than twice the average rate of the whole league. It’s always been above average but it’s off the charts this year. What’s interesting is it’s got less run right now, per Brooks, meaning it’s straighter. That isn’t fascinating on its own, but his changeup is straighter, too. Basically, the two pitches look more like each other for deGrom in 2018 than they ever have, but they’re working different parts of the zone. That means they’re creating a wrinkle for hitters that they’ll continue to have a difficult time ironing out moving forward.
All of his offerings have created pretty much league average swing-and-miss or better. There are two outliers: the slider and the sinker. Like the fastball and changeup, the slider appears tighter in its movement to the plate, with less drop but slightly more side-to-side break. I can’t discern if it’s playing up because of that, or because of his other stuff, or if he’s due for some regression on whiffs there. It’s something to keep an eye on, though.
Meanwhile, the curve is plowing away at the low, glove side corner. And the sinker isn’t a pitch anyone uses for whiffs very often, but deGrom’s has been about 80% worse than average this season. Instead of throwing it more arm side, though, he’s using the other side of the plate so it zings back to the edge of the zone to steal called strikes.
Let’s take a breath and recap. DeGrom’s generating a crazy amount of whiffs with his fastball up in the zone. He can mess with hitters’ eye level with his changeup low in the zone. The sinker can steal strikes on the edge. And then the curve and slider are breaking toward that same spot with pinpoint authority. Is this even fair?
Hitters will certainly say no, but that’s kind of the point. Bless their hearts, though; they’re trying. DeGrom’s improved command has coaxed them into 8% less hard contact against him so far this year compared to last year. That’s nice by itself, certainly. But it’s fueled almost the entirety of deGrom’s 8.6% increase in soft contact generated. He now leads the league by that measure at 29.9%. Hitters are hitting less against him, and when they do manage to put the bat on the ball, they’re making life easy for defenders.
The last pitcher to show this kind of jump — from really good to amazing — was Corey Kluber from 2013 to 2014. In 2013 he was worth 2.8 wins in 147.1 innings. A year later he was worth 7.4 wins in 235.2 innings. He generated more soft contact, too, but only half as much as deGrom has added this season, and it didn’t come directly from his hard contact allowed. He struck out about two more batters per nine than the year before. His stuff was in the zone but he didn’t quite command it like deGrom has.
There isn’t much precedent for what Jacob deGrom is doing this season. Time will tell if he maintains his new dominance, but for now he’s pacing nearly the entire league. He’s leveling up.
League average whiff rate and WAR from FanGraphs. Heat maps and deGrom whiffs-per-pitch from Baseball Savant. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from AP/John Bazemore.