New York Mets pitching ace Jacob deGrom pitched another gem Wednesday, striking out 10 batters in six innings with no runs allowed against the Cincinnati Reds. The quality start lowered his major league-leading ERA to 1.77, a mark that is 54 percent lower than average after adjusting for league and park effects. Looked at another way, opposing teams have scored 42 runs fewer than expected against him after taking into account outs remaining in the inning and men on base, almost three runs fewer than the next best pitcher, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals (39.6).
“When I go out there, I don’t want anybody to score,’’ deGrom told reporters after the game. “That’s been how I approached this year. Try to keep guys from getting around the bases.’’
Mission accomplished. That performance has prompted his manager to put him into the Cy Young conversation, despite significant shortcomings in one particular statistical category: wins. And this conversation explicitly shows why wins are a ridiculous stat for pitchers.
A 6-7 record may lead some to believe he isn’t as valuable as Scherzer, who at 15-5 leads the majors in wins. That would be false. Scherzer gets 5.5 runs of support per start while deGrom gets just 3.6, almost a run fewer than the league average (4.4). If both pitchers got an average amount of support, deGrom’s superior ERA should give him more wins, illustrating why pegging a pitcher’s value in wins, whether anecdotally or for an end-of season award such as the Cy Young, is ridiculous. We should focus instead on deGrom’s filthy pitches.
The low ERA is a direct result of the 30-year-old deGrom striking out a career-high 31 percent of batters he’s faced with four quality pitches: a fastball, curve, slider and change-up. The latter has been the most difficult for opposing batters, as they are producing a mere .354 OPS against the pitch with 34 strikeouts in 90 at-bats. deGrom’s “worst” pitch, his fastball, is allowing a .619 OPS against, significantly lower than the league average (.852 vs. fastballs of all types). In sum, hitters can’t catch up to his fastball up in the zone, his change-up is wreaking havoc when thrown in the lower part of the zone, and his curve and slider are hitting the same spot with pinpoint accuracy (down and in to right-handed batters), creating another hole in the strike zone.
Here’s another example. Aaron Nola of the Philadelphia Phillies has a worse ERA (2.28) than deGrom, a lower quality start percentage (83 vs. 78 percent) and strikes out far fewer batters per plate appearance (25 percent), yet he has twice as many wins (12) as deGrom thanks to a higher rate of run support (4.1 per start). Look at that again: a half run more per start gives Nola six more wins on the ledger than deGrom despite an equal number of starts. Same for Arizona’s Zack Greinke (12-7 with a 2.89 ERA, four runs of support per game). Miles Mikolas of the St. Louis cardinals has a 2.74 ERA with a 17-percent strike rate, yet his five runs per game in support helps him boast a 12-3 record. Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs has an ERA almost double that of deGrom (3.44) but 6.1 runs in support per game gets him a 12-4 record in 23 starts, just 10 of those a quality start for the team.
Even with an inferior win-loss record, deGrom leads all NL starting pitchers in wins above replacement (5.8 fWAR) making him more valuable than Scherzer and Nola and nearly twice as valuable as most of the other pitchers mentioned.
If the Mets continue to squander deGrom’s starts, we could see him become one of the most unlucky pitchers in recent history. Since 2006, the first year MLB instituted league-wide drug testing, there has been no pitcher who had both an ERA under 2.70 and run support per nine innings at least a run lower than the league average. The closest is Roy Oswalt, who in 2010 had a 2.73 ERA and just 3.2 runs per nine innings in support, resulting in a 13-13 record by season’s end.
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