Jacob deGrom’s place among the best pitchers of the 21st Century

Jacob deGrom has back-to-back Cy Young Awards and his 2017 wasn’t too shabby, either. But where does his three-year span stack up against other top hurlers of recent vintage? Let’s look at all of the pitchers of the 21st Century and see what the best consecutive three-year peak was for them. And a pitcher will only be on the list once. For a point of comparison, the best three-year streak for Tom Seaver was from 1970-72, when he posted a 23.0 fWAR.

10. deGrom (2017-19, 20.1fWAR)
Everyone knows the deGrom story by now. A pitcher putting up back-to-back great seasons but for whatever reason, his offense has gone into hibernation when he pitches and his bullpen has been something less than reliable in his starts. Regardless, deGrom has a chance to move up on this list, depending upon how well 2020 goes for him. In 2017, he posted a 4.1 fWAR, a nice total for sure but considerably below what he’s produced the past two seasons.

9. Max Scherzer (2017-19, 20.4 fWAR)
While deGrom has two seasons that stand head and shoulders above what else he’s done, Scherzer has been a machine. Since 2013, he’s produced seven straight seasons with an fWAR between 5.6 and 7.5, with that latter figure being the closest thing to an outlier. Ignoring that 2018 season of his, he’s been in the narrow range of 5.6 and 6.5 every year.

8. Johan Santana (2004-06, 20.6 fWAR)
Circumstance and injury robbed Santana of being able to compile a Hall of Fame career. At the beginning of his career, he had four years where he spent much more time in the bullpen than as a starter. And of course all Mets fans know about the injury issues at the end of his career. In the only season he reached 30 starts for the Mets, Santana put up a 5.2 fWAR. But he was even better before that with the Twins.

7. Cliff Lee (2009-11, 20.8 fWAR)
This might be the most surprising name on the list. The fact that he was involved in two mid-season deals during this three year stretch helped to obscure how good he was those years. The Phillies acquired Lee for the ’09 stretch run and he was a great pickup, winning seven games for them in the regular season. And he was even better in the playoffs, going 4-0, including two wins in the World Series. And his reward was being traded in the offseason for three guys who never amounted to much. Lee made his way back to the Phillies as a free agent for the 2011 season, where he led the league with six shutouts.

6. Justin Verlander (2009-11, 21.6 fWAR)
The Mets had the third pick in the 2004 Draft and Verlander was the second pick that year. In a draft filled with highly-touted hurlers who didn’t live up to the hype, Verlander was everything the Tigers could have hoped for and more. He hasn’t been quite the machine that Scherzer’s been – much more volatility – but he’s been an excellent pitcher for 14 years now. And he’s better now than he was five years ago. The only way to beat him now is to homer off him.

5. Roy Halladay (2009-11, 21.7 fWAR)
It took Halladay a few years to get going but once he did, he was remarkable. From 2003 to 2011, he topped 5-fWAR eight times, failing to do so in only injury-shortened seasons in 2004-05. His best season came in 2011 at age 34, when he put up an 8.7 fWAR. He suffered a shoulder injury the next year and retired following his 2013 campaign due to a persistent back injury.

4. Curt Schilling (2001-03, 22.1 fWAR)
Sometimes it seems that the bloody sock episode in the 2004 World Series has overshadowed everything else in Schilling’s career. But he had a storied career for the Phillies and Diamondbacks before making World Series history with the Red Sox. Another guy who took a while to figure things out at the MLB level, Schilling was on his third organization with Philadelphia before the results consistently displayed on the field. He was the NLCS MVP for the Phillies in 1993, the World Series MVP for the Diamondbacks in 2001 and he went 6-1 for the Red Sox in the 2004 and 2007 playoffs.

3. Pedro Martinez (2000-02, 22.3 fWAR)
Perhaps the most incredible thing about Martinez in this time period is that our arbitrary cutoff of 2000 excludes his dominant 1999 season, when he put up an 11.6 fWAR. One thing that gets lost in Martinez’ story is that it’s entirely possible that the 1994-95 truncated seasons due to labor strife may have been the best thing that happened to him. Used primarily as a reliever his first two seasons by the Dodgers, Martinez was traded to the Expos in time for the ’94 season and inserted into the rotation. His innings jumped from 107 to 144.2 in ’93-’94 and to 194.2 in ’95. Had those been full seasons, he might have put 75 more innings on his arm in his early 20s and ran into arm trouble even earlier than he did.

2. Clayton Kershaw (2013-15, 23.7 fWAR)
We almost take it for granted how magnificent Kershaw has been in his career. This three-year run was amazing but from 2011 to 2016, he was over 6 fWAR each season. And he put up a combined 8.7 the two years before this streak and 11.0 in the three seasons since, despite battling injuries in the latter years. Kershaw hasn’t had success in the postseason, the only thing missing from his career. My hope is that the Mets win the World Series in four of the next five years, missing out once because of an incredible performance by Kershaw in the NLCS.

1. Randy Johnson (2000-02, 28.1 fWAR)
We’ve seen a pretty smooth increase in total fWAR as we’ve moved from 10 to two on our list. But the difference between Kershaw and Johnson is bigger than the difference from deGrom at 10 to Kersahw at two. Johnson’s six year run from 1997 to 2002 of 52.2 fWAR will likely not be duplicated in our lifetime. For a comparison, Sandy Koufax compiled 46.4 fWAR from 1961 to 1966. And after an injury-shortened year in 2003, Johnson bounced back with a 9.6 fWAR season in 2004.

*****

So much nostalgia is built up around the pitchers from the 1960s and 1970s that we don’t give proper credit to the pitchers of today, who have to face much deeper lineups. Mets fans certainly appreciate deGrom but do they think of him as good as, say, Juan Marichal? The Giants ace from the 1960s put up 50.8 fWAR in the heart of his career, from 1963-1971, an average of 5.6 fWAR per season. In his first six years in the majors, deGrom has a 5.3 average. He has a good chance to beat Marichal’s mark if he stays healthy the next three years.

10 comments for “Jacob deGrom’s place among the best pitchers of the 21st Century

  1. JImO
    January 1, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    Josh Beckett must pretty close to making the list too.

    • January 1, 2020 at 5:17 pm

      I looked at everyone who had compiled at least one 6.5 fWAR season and Beckett didn’t make the cut. Looking at him now, his best three-year stretch was 15.2 from 2007-09.

  2. Name
    January 1, 2020 at 6:31 pm

    I think we already had a similar article to this earlier in the season, but the simple fact is more innings = higher WAR. And that’s why 3 of the top 4 streaks are early 2000s.

    • January 1, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      Martinez is third on the list and he threw 533 IP in the 2000-02 period, so he’s not up there because of quantity.

      If deGrom puts up a carbon copy of 2019, he would be third on the fWAR list with 625 innings.

      You want to make everything about innings and disregard that we’re talking about two of the best pitchers in baseball history in Johnson and Martinez.

      Hall of Famer Phil Niekro threw 1,006.2 IP from 1977-79 and posted an 18.9 fWAR. That’s not enough to make this particular top 10 list, despite an enormous edge in IP over everyone named here.

      Innings are important and I’m not trying to pretend otherwise. But there’s more going on here than just innings.

  3. Mike W
    January 1, 2020 at 11:32 pm

    Dont forget about Greg Maddux.

    • January 2, 2020 at 8:45 am

      In what context would you think I would forget Greg Maddux?

    • Mike Walczak
      January 2, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      Yes, he had his great years on the 90’s, but his best three year WAR was 23.7. Just for comparison sake.

      • January 2, 2020 at 6:51 pm

        So, the fact that I included Tom Seaver for a point of comparison wasn’t enough?

  4. NYM6986
    January 2, 2020 at 7:27 am

    I realize that the WAR sabermetrics tool is a created stat and that it has value for comparative purposes. For Jake to be in the company of those great pitchers would be enormous but I’m still looking for good old fashioned wins and loses and would love to know how many of his starts since hid rookie of the year season that the Mets won and how many they blew. The fact that he has won two Cy Young awards with anemic win totals shows how the the value of the number of wins by a starter has diminished overall since what happens after the manager takes the ball away after a quality start is now front and center in the debate. If the Mets had supported him with an average of 4 runs per game, he might have had ten plus more wins in each of the last 2 years and then the traditional comparisons to past award winners would make more sense. It likely would have also propelled the Mets into the playoffs. If their enhanced bullpen can hold a lead after Jake throws 7-8 innings, great things could happen in 2020 and beyond.

  5. Eraff
    January 3, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Seaver’s first 6 seasons…41 WAR, ROY…1CY Degrom, ROY, 2CY, 32 WAR

    Seaver’s 7th Season 10.6 WAR.

    Max S’s last 6 are 40’ish WAR

    Jake is as Good of a Pitcher as you’d ever hope for, right now

    I love this stuff,,,makes me go back to compare my memories to the actual results. Marichal…Seaver..Maddox….Johnson….Clemens It’s staggering to look at some of the 6-10 year runs of High Output.

    Jake is right there with his first six seasons…especially his last 2. All Time Great Takes time

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