The following paragraphs will contain some blasphemy. There will be “what ifs”, and optimistic projections. All in an intellectual exercise to examine where Jacob deGrom lies within the New York Mets Pantheon.
For Christmas, Bill Madden’s latest book on Tom Seaver made its way to Mets fans across the country. Seaver is arguably the best right-handed pitcher of all-time, and thus certainly within the framework of the Mets franchise, he is The Franchise. He is appropriately afforded a level of love and respect his stature calls for. That was not always so, but everyone has come around on Tom Terrific.
Seaver pitched for the Mets for 12 seasons (11.5, grrrr). 400 games, 200 wins, 3000 innings, 2.57 ERA, 2500 strikeouts, 76 WAR. The top pitcher, the top player, for the Mets by wide margins. Seaver’s rotation partner, Jerry Koosman, is largely unheralded, but his accumulated stats in Mets history would be top tier on many teams without Seaver.
You may be saying, “Where are you going with this?”
deGrom started his career at age 26. That is quite late for a player that appears to be the best around. As a result, his career, to date, is approximately 40-45% of Seaver’s, but deGrom has some advantages.
deGrom is currently fourth in career WAR, passing Koosman in the abbreviated 2020. He is 3 WAR behind Dwight Gooden (11 seasons), and 11 WAR behind David Wright. You read that right – deGrom is a season and a half from placing himself as the second greatest Met of All Time. Sure, Ed Kranepool played 18 years with the Mets, but the best players have played 11 or 12. Wright is listed at 14 seasons, but we all know about his last three.
If deGrom plays out his current contract, four more seasons, he will pass Wright and Gooden handily, and be within a few seasons of Seaver’s WAR and Ks. If, like Seaver, he decides to finish his career with the Mets, and the Mets, now Wilpon-less, value deGrom and want to reward his greatness, offer him a two- or three-year extension to finish his career, deGrom will pass Seaver in those key categories, and be remarkably close in games and games started. Due to deGrom’s famously poor win rate, beyond his control, he is not likely to even approach Seaver in wins. deGrom could get closer if he can break out of his luck and win 20 for a couple of seasons.
When Gooden was so dominant, people wondered if he could supplant Seaver, but there are many obstacles – injuries, distractions – for any “next great player”. deGrom has dodged those by arriving to the majors late.
One statistic ignored thusfar is ERA. Seaver’s Met ERA was 2.57. deGrom’s is 2.61 and dropping significantly the last few seasons. After 2021, deGrom is likely to pass Seaver in ERA.
In five years, will we have to reconsider the greatest Met?
deGrom’s greatness is not limited to Mets superiority. In the “Wild Card Era” (since 1995), deGrom is second in ERA to Clayton Kershaw and third in ERA+ to Kershaw and Pedro Martinez. Expanding the era, and deGrom stays in second, whether is it is “Divisional Era” (1969), “Expansion Era” (1961), Integration Era (1947), or even “Live Ball Era” (1920). He is second in FIP, only behind Sandy Koufax. He stays third in ERA+. The caveat is deGrom has not hit his decline phase yet – Seaver’s ERA was 2.57 as a Met, but 2.86 for his career. We can expect deGrom’s last few seasons will be above his current rate, so he will have to drive his ERA down in the next few seasons to minimize the overall impact.
deGrom is more dominant than any of his peers, save Clayton Kershaw. He is definitely on pace for the Hall of Fame, and the Mets should keep him and pay him what it takes to become the next Tom Seaver.
From 2012-2015 Matt Harvey was fabulous on the mound for the New York Mets. His performance in the 2015 World Series was everything a fan wants from a top hurler. He had the persona, the confidence, the dominance and the city to deserve the moniker “The Dark Knight.” It was very fun to be a Mets fan for those seasons.
In 2016, Harvey hurt his arm. Pitchers hide injuries, sometimes subconsciously, because they feel like it is a pain they have worked through before, or maybe they just slept on it wrong. So, they adjust to avoid the pain on the mound. Dizzy Dean famously, perhaps apocryphally, had a line drive hit his foot, and to pitch through that he altered his motion and injured his arm. What was Harvey trying to pitch through?
With Statcast, we can see Harvey change his throwing angle. Statcast data started in 2015, which is key because it shows when he is good.
It may not be terribly obvious without a frame of reference, but his release point for all his pitches are pretty narrow and in the same vertical line. Here’s Jacob deGrom’s 2018:
You can see a nice “football” shape to their release points. Squashed into the vertical.
Justin Verlander’s 2019 season.
Here is Trevor Bauer’s 2020:
You get the idea.
Harvey started 2016 pretty well, but the release point charts show he was “rounding” his release points, and really only getting on top of this 4-seam fastball, and major league hitters only need the smallest of differentiation before you become dead meat. Couple that with declining velocities, and there is a recipe for disaster. Here is Harvey’s 2016 season:
Those pitches suddenly out from the pack are his last game, before shutting down the season. But that release point was tough to come back from.
One can see the roundness of his pitches. And the hand is much further from his body, with changeups being more prominent.
It is about this time people should have noticed. His arm slot is off from his dominant period. Once a pitcher loses that due to injury can he every get it back or does the fear of re-injuring his shoulder override his ability to do what he knows to be needed. Frankly, it is tough to tell if he was coached in what he needed. The Mets gave him another shot in 2018, and it started out well, but the Mets lost patience quickly and shipped him off to the Reds, where he struggled.
His pitch releases were better, but still round, and fewer curveballs. He got a real chance with the Angels in 2019, was not good, and then spent 2020 with the Royals. His 2019 was very round, which basically works as tipping your pitches.
At least Harvey made some money in 2019. As noted 2020 started out with some control, but:
The last two games are represented by the wide release points, which flagged an injury, and he was put on the injured list with a lat strain.
Harvey is an unrestricted free agent. He signed for the minimum in 2020. Harvey hopefully will get healthy and spend some time re-learning how to pitch, his velocity was up some, but his spin rates were down. He needs to hold it like an egg.
Can the Dark Knight Return? Could Rick Peterson fix Harvey in 10 minutes?
This Met fan would love to see him given the chance.
The 2020 Mets were an “also-ran” footnote. The last week was an awfully bad week, but up until then the season was just “also-ran.” The best aspect of the COVID-shortened season was a free season for Noah Syndergaard to recover from TJ surgery. Michael Conforto’s best season was a plus, as was Dominic Smith’s. Hopefully, those 60 games count as Pete Alonso’s sophomore slump. Edwin Diaz seemed to rebound. In a nutshell, if Cohen wants to win now, and who does not, he should go full Huizinga. Complaints about budgets and salary caps to debate what Cohen will or will not do is speculation. This is what he can do.
Let us start with improving the pitching staff. Jacob deGrom, David Peterson, Syndergaard (after Memorial Day), and no one else. Trevor Bauer wants single-year contracts usually, and he would love to face the Braves more. If he takes a single-year contract, sign him. That is just $30M. The Mets can give Marcus Stroman a qualifying offer and if he accepts, have a solid rotation. The Tampa Rays have used a bullpen slot for their fifth starter and the Mets could effectively manage Seth Lugo and a few others to success, but that is a skill they must learn.
The Rays success can be instructional to the Mets coaching staff. In the bullpen, the Mets have a closer, but not much else. A stable of harder throwers, rather than guys who do not know where the ball is going. The best free agent the Mets can acquire could be from the Rays’ front office. Cohen should not keep anyone, in particular, from the bullpen, after Diaz. Dellin Betances makes sense, but he is not a key piece, and if throwing him in a trade makes the deal, it should be done.
There are key existing pieces on the team, and of good players that cannot easily be replaced from the free agent pool. Alonso is going to be at first base, Conforto is going to be in the outfield. Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, Jeff McNeil and Smith have options, making them attractive pieces. They are all left fielders, and thus all of them are unnecessary. On the infield, the Mets thus have three positions up for grabs at camp.
Admittedly, Robinson Cano is going to be on the roster. He does not have to start every game, and Cohen can add DJ LeMahieu if he wants to rock the New York market. LeMahieu is a terrific defensive player and a good hitter, even accepting his MLB leading average and AL leading OPS numbers from 2020. LeMahieu brings something important to the table – turning the double play, something the Mets have struggled with for some time.
Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez both play fine at shortstop, and even hit a little bit. But with deep pockets, why stop there? If the Mets want to win now, they have the option of bringing in players to do that. Didi Gregorius and Marcus Semien are available and tremendous upgrades. Semien may have been over-rated defensively in the past, and Gregorius’ arm seems to be fine. Either would improve the position.
Watching the World Series, it is evident that Justin Turner still has it, at least enough for a two-year contract, and that would make third base much more than a break-even position for the Mets. Even without Turner, this is where McNeil and LeMahieu can share time when Cano has to play.
Now the infield has Alonso, LeMahieu, Semien, and Turner. That is putting together a team that can hit a ton and turn it in the middle.
The outfield is a little more settled. With Conforto playing right field and some mix of Nimmo, Smith and McNeil in left field, the hole is center field. There is a prime center fielder available, George Springer. There are not really other available center fielders to significantly outperform Nimmo. Marcell Ozuna is a mediocre fielder and could be an option to upgrade left field.
There is just one catcher – J.T. Realmuto, so Cohen does not have much to dilly-dally with. Many people consider this to be a key pick up but catchers age poorly and the number of games for him to impact is mostly smaller.
One issue with free agents is they must be a win-now strategy because in order to reach free agency you need six years in MLB and most players do not reach the majors until 23 or 24. And even younger players get a year or two of free agency bought out, as the Mets are discussing with Conforto. So all of these players are around 30 or higher and should be given shorter contracts like two to three years.
How much better would this make the Mets? The infield would be more than 10 wins better. Adding Bauer and a good year from Stroman would add another handful of wins. The addition of these free agents would make the Mets favorites or nearly favorites for the NL East and possibly the NL pennant.
If Cohen didn’t buy the Mets to do that, then why bother?
The season mercifully came to an end on Sunday. The Mets went into Saturday with a chance at the playoffs and proceeded to dump the season in getting swept by the Washington Baseball Team, surging into the National League East cellar.
Tremendously, the Mets played well on offense. The starting nine only had Amed Rosario hitting below average. The Mets poor finish is solely on the shoulders of the pitching and defense. Jacob deGrom was stellar as usual, and rookie David Peterson was excellent. Both have a strong argument for their respective awards – deGrom could win his third consecutive Cy Young (check opponent quality) and Peterson was the top Rookie, and not just pitchers. Ke’Bryan Hayes must play more than that…
The pitching staff will have to be overhauled – Rick Porcello, Michael Wacha and Steven Matz combined for a 2-16 record with an ERA in the sixes. Seth Lugo struggled as a starter but showed flashes of competence. Porcello’s FIP certainly suggests he needed some defensive help. The bullpen did not implode, and Edwin Diaz pitched pretty well.
Let’s talk about the defense. Was it good? No. Was it terrible? No. Well, was it terrible for just 60 games? It was not good. The Mets posted the third-worst defense in the National League. Both the Phillies and the Nationals were significantly worse (7-8 runs), which is why they were just “bad” and not “terrible.” Based on what we expected, how did the Mets do?
As expected, Pete Alonso played first base, mashed a few home runs, made it through his sophomore slump, and performed approximately as expected on defense, perhaps even a slight improvement over 2019. Good work for Alonso in the field, now hit some dingers next year.
At second base, the Mets stumbled around just below average, by a couple of runs. As noted, the five-man committee turned in a performance just below average, and the runs not saved were small. That isn’t a reason not to upgrade the position with an everyday player, preferably one whose agent isn’t the General Manager.
Rosario had a good year with the glove, but rookie Andres Gimenez made some flashy plays, leading people to call for a “youth movement”, even though Rosario is 24. Gimenez was clearly an improvement at the plate, even if his shortstop play was about the same. Gimenez did field well at second and third, so there is definitely room for him on the team.
Third base had a similar five-man operation as second base, and four of them performed average or above. Unfortunately, J.D. Davis gave all of those runs back and more and posted the worst defensive numbers on the team. He simply cannot play third base competently and is more suited to be a designated hitter.
Instead of being an average infield, the Mets chipped away, playing 10 guys in various positions managed to post a -8 runs; in 60 games, or the equivalent of 22 runs over a full season. When the Mets look around for improvements this offseason, finding younger, better fielders is a must.
The Mets defensive bright spot was the outfield. That sounds odd if anyone watched the games, but Michael Conforto played well, a few runs above average. Brandon Nimmo was average when not in center field. Jeff McNeil played well in left and right fields and played half the time there.
In the preseason, we commented that the outfield should improve with Luis Rojas at the helm, and that came true. “Better” doesn’t necessarily mean good, and Dominic Smith, Brandon Nimmo, Jake Marisnick and Davis were all below average generating a cumulative -5 runs (multiply by 2.7 to extrapolate to 162 games), and you can see that left and center need help stabilizing.
The Mets catching improved significantly, but it is hard to tell why. Wilson Ramos “just improved”. Perhaps he had an injury, perhaps it was the sample size, but the catching improved by ten runs. On the other hand, perhaps 2019 was an off year and he returned to his normal performance.
A couple of key takeaways: Davis should be traded for other talent. Nimmo should probably be traded for other talent. Nimmo and McNeil are remarkably similar, with McNeil being slightly better but also a year older. McNeil can also play infield. Cano mashing really makes it hard for the Mets to part with him; besides who would take that contract.
McNeil has a .319/.383/.501 career slash line, and a 139 OPS+, and 9+ WAR in three seasons. Mets fans shouldn’t talk about him as a “bit player”. The Mets have their own Ben Zobrist and should relish it.
Lastly, the Mets best player this year has been Smith. He leads the team in RBI, doubles, OPS, OPS+, and just nudged out on WAR, and so on. Keeping Smith in the lineup is critical to the Mets’ success. Smith’s defense in left field is adequate, and better than Davis’.
Smith has also been a leader on the field regarding how we move forward in society. He knelt for the anthem and spoke about social justice in America. His comments were moving and appreciated. The cancellation of the Mets-Marlins game, and the wins on Jackie Robinson Day were great for him. This writer will cheer him on. Black Lives Matter.