deGrom K's 14 to stay in NL Cy Young race

September 22nd, 2020

NEW YORK -- For to win a third consecutive Cy Young Award, joining Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers in MLB history to do so, he will need help from others around the National League. But in a 2-1 loss to the Rays on Monday at Citi Field, deGrom at least gave himself a chance.

The two-time winner matched his career high with 14 strikeouts, joining Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden -- as he has in so many other chapters of franchise history -- as the only Mets pitchers to record multiple 14-strikeout games in a season. deGrom allowed two runs to raise his ERA slightly to 2.14, fifth in the NL. But he also took back the NL strikeout lead, with 94.

“He’s probably the top pitcher in the NL,” Mets third baseman J.D. Davis said. “We’ve played against a lot of great pitchers, hit against a lot of great pitchers, and it’s been unbelievable to watch Jake.”

For a time, it seemed as if deGrom might accomplish even more than that against the American League’s winningest team. He struck out the first three batters he faced, all on 100 mph fastballs. But a leadoff walk led to a run-scoring rally in the second inning for the Rays, and a Nate Lowe home run added another run in the fourth. After that, deGrom retired 11 of the final 12 batters he faced, joining Rick Porcello and David Peterson as the first triplet in Mets history to strike out 10-plus batters in three consecutive games.

In so doing, deGrom added pizzazz to his Cy Young resume, which isn’t as perfect as in years past -- but which could earn him the award regardless. The most significant factor in deGrom’s favor? A glance at the contenders reveals that no one pitcher has a clear and obvious case over the rest of the field:

Trevor Bauer, CIN
ERA: 1.80 (second)
Strikeouts: 88 (tied for third)
Innings: 65 (ninth)
fWAR: 2.0 (seventh)

Bauer may feature one of the most well-rounded resumes of any NL pitcher, but it’s not often a pitcher wins the Cy Young without leading the league in either ERA or strikeouts. He still has a chance at the ERA title, which would do wonders for his candidacy. But many of his best performances have come against the low-ranking offenses of the NL Central and American League Central.

Yu Darvish, CHC
ERA: 2.22 (seventh)
Strikeouts: 88 (tied for third)
Innings: 69 (tied for third)
fWAR: 2.7 (tied for first)

Darvish’s candidacy, like Bauer’s, is well-rounded. He hasn’t been as effective at run prevention as Bauer, but his underlying statistics suggest that’s mostly just because he’s been unluckier. In a normal season, luck would normalize a lot more than it will over 60 games.

Corbin Burnes, MIL
ERA: 1.77 (first)
Strikeouts: 83 (eighth)
Innings: 56 (tied for 21st)
fWAR: 2.6 (third)

Burnes’ case, much like deGrom’s in 2018 before he pulled away down the stretch, is based on run prevention. Pound for pound, he’s been the best pitcher in the NL, with a top two strikeout rate to go along with his league-leading ERA. But Burnes spent a significant portion of this season in relief, preventing him from qualifying for the ERA title until recently. The lack of bulk could hurt him unless he wins the ERA title by a wide margin.

Dinelson Lamet, SD
ERA: 2.07 (fourth)
Strikeouts: 89 (second)
Innings: 65 1/3 (eighth)
fWAR: 2.3 (fourth)

Similar to Bauer, Lamet rates near the league’s best in every major statistical category but does not sit atop the leaderboard in any of them. Unlike Bauer, Lamet doesn’t have a realistic path to the ERA title, although overtaking deGrom in strikeouts would help his cause.

Jacob deGrom, NYM
ERA: 2.14 (fifth)
Strikeouts: 94 (first)
Innings: 63 (11th)
fWAR: 2.7 (tied for first)

deGrom’s WAR is so high because his FIP -- short for “fielding independent pitching,” which attempts to tease luck out of a pitcher’s stat line -- is second in the league. It suggests that poor defensive play behind deGrom has hurt him, as it did in the second inning Monday. When Joey Wendle doubled with Lowe on first base and no outs, Lowe ran through his third-base coach’s stop sign before stopping and doubling back to the bag. As this was happening, Amed Rosario dropped a cutoff throw from Jeff McNeil, allowing Lowe to return safely to third.

The next batter, Manuel Margot, hit a sacrifice fly.

That sort of thing is nothing new for deGrom, who has pitched in front of low-ranked defensive teams throughout his Mets tenure. But this year, it could cost him the Cy. In each of the past two seasons, deGrom found himself in a tight Cy Young race, only to pull away with nearly flawless performances in August and September. This year, the shortened season will prevent him from separating himself over a six-month grind.

“I feel like everything is where I want it,” said deGrom, who has lost innings to mild neck and hamstring issues. “It’s just a short season -- what is that, 11, 12 starts? You’re used to making 30-plus, so I feel like I could keep going and keep improving. But I don’t have that opportunity.”

And yet deGrom still has a chance to make history. No one in the NL has struck out more batters than deGrom, or fanned batters at a higher rate. Plus, deGrom is the reigning two-time NL Cy Young Award winner. If all else is equal, voters could lean toward choosing the name brand.

“He can do some special things,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said, “that can definitely put him back at the top of that race for sure."