Top competition for deGrom? Record book

Righty's ERA is 0.62, the lowest after 9 starts since the stat was adopted

June 6th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- Major League Baseball’s modern, single-season ERA record belongs to Dutch Leonard, who produced a 0.96 mark in 1914. Over the past century, no pitcher has managed to top Bob Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA highlighted a 1968 campaign so thoroughly dominated by pitchers that the league responded by lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches.

For decades, these types of records seemed unlikely ever to be broken. And yet in delivering seven more shutout innings Saturday night in a 4-0 win over the Padres, sliced his own ERA to 0.62 -- the lowest by a pitcher through his first nine starts since earned runs became an official statistic in both leagues in 1913.

Lower than Leonard, in other words, at the same point in 1914 (a season that fell during the “dead ball” era). Lower than Gibson through nine starts in 1968. Lower than Pedro Martínez in 2000, Dwight Gooden in 1985, or anyone else who has stamped his name onto the short list of Greatest Pitching Seasons of All-Time.

“What do you say?” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “He’s really freaking good.”

Whether this type of thing might be sustainable over six months has become one of the burning questions for the rest of 2021: How low can deGrom go?

He entered Saturday with an already microscopic 0.71 mark, then set about further shaving it with scoreless inning after scoreless inning at Petco Park. The only real trouble deGrom ran into occurred in the fourth, when a error led to the Padres loading the bases with one out. deGrom struck out the next two batters in succession to preserve a scoreless tie.

Half an inning later, and Lindor both homered to give deGrom the lead. He wound up throwing 85 pitches over seven innings, at which point manager Luis Rojas cut him short in his third start back from the injured list. deGrom also struck out 11 batters to pass Sid Fernandez for fourth place on the Mets’ all-time list.

“Everything is special,” Rojas said. “Altogether, it’s something that I don’t think anybody else has in the world. This guy, we can single him out as the best pitcher out there.”

This is not deGrom’s first brush with run-prevention greatness. During his 2018 Cy Young season, deGrom led the league with a 1.70 ERA, while also posting the 20th-best league-adjusted ERA+ (218) in Major League history. (Three pitchers later posted better ERA+ totals during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.)

At the time, deGrom’s ERA seemed historic -- a low accomplished only a handful of times over the past few decades. But what he is doing now is altogether different. On Saturday, deGrom became the first pitcher in Major League history to begin a season with nine straight starts of zero or one earned runs. Five of the nine have been scoreless.

“He always goes out there and pitches a great game,” Peraza said.

deGrom is not the type to dwell on these sorts of accolades, despite becoming more cognizant of them as his career has progressed. When deGrom won his first Cy Young Award, he made it his new goal to take home another. When he accomplished that, deGrom of course set his eyes on making it three. He now openly talks about the Hall of Fame as a personal ambition, which no longer seems far-fetched. deGrom, who is under contract through his age-36 season, wants to pitch into his 40s.

And there’s evidence to believe he can do it. At age 32, deGrom has never been better. He’s throwing harder, setting a record on Saturday with 33 triple-digit pitches in a game. (While pitch-tracking data goes back only to 2008, it’s unlikely any previous pitcher had delivered more 100 mph fastballs on a single day.)

Given some minor injury concerns throughout the early season, the Mets have been cautious with deGrom, holding him to relatively low pitch counts so that they can have him at full strength later this summer. In the interim, deGrom has thrived, dulling the argument that he should pitch deeper into games.

After all, it’s hard to quibble with a sub-1 ERA. And while maintaining that sort of thing over a full season may seem impossible in the modern era, so do so many of deGrom’s recent accomplishments.

“Honestly, I try not to think about it,” deGrom said, brushing aside questions of historical significance in his usual manner. “I try to go out there and just put us in a position to win.”

Asked more directly about the significance of a 0.62 ERA, deGrom cracked a smile.

“I’m still not going to think about it,” he said.