Jacob deGrom's Cy Young case and the death of the win

ByEddie Matz via ESPN logo
Thursday, August 23, 2018

Jacob deGrom isn't campaigning for the Cy Young Award. But he's not not campaigning, either.

Standing in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards before a mid-August game, the New York Mets' ace can't contain his excitement about the possibility. His eyes light up beneath the brim of his cap. An ear-to-ear grin spreads across his face. He draws in a deep breath and hesitates, a wordless preface that, roughly translated, means, "I'm not gonna lie." At long last, he spits out his confession, rapid-fire.

"I would definitely like to win it," he says. Only it sounds more like this:


As blunt as deGrom is about his desire to nab his first Cy Young, he's equally candid about the motivation behind it.

"It's the ultimate award you can get as a pitcher," he says, eschewing the kind of team-first clichés that typically dominate these kinds of discussions. "You want to be the best at what you do. That's what you want to win. I guarantee, you walk around and ask anybody in here if they want to be the best baseball player, they'd say yes. And winning that award, you were considered the best pitcher for that year. That's what you strive for -- to be the best."

Still, deGrom knows being on top of his game means he maximizes the chances of the Mets being on top of their game.

"If you're the best that you can be, you're going to help the team win. That's how I take it. I'm going to go out there and be the best that I can be, and if I am, it's going to put us in a pretty good position to win."

The curious thing about deGrom's season is that despite being the absolute best that he can be, despite routinely putting his team in prime position to win, the underachieving Mets have routinely failed to cash in. Heading into Thursday's start against San Francisco, the lanky righty led the National League with a 1.71 ERA that was almost half a run better than the next-closest starter (Max Scherzer, 2.11). He ranked first in home runs per nine innings, fielding independent pitching (FIP) and WAR, and he was second in innings, strikeouts and WHIP. It's the kind of statistical line that, under normal circumstances, might lead to a 20-win season, or something close to it. Instead, deGrom is on pace for ... wait for it ... 10 wins.

"It's a crazy game," he says.

How crazy? Through 25 starts, deGrom has an 8-7 record. Entering Thursday, 47 MLB pitchers have more wins than he does; he's tied with another 16. In his seven losses, the Mets have scored a grand total of 10 runs. That's six fewer than they scored in a recent game against the Orioles, and 14 fewer than they scored against the Phillies the very next day. In his 10 no-decisions, deGrom has allowed a combined 10 earned runs. New York's relievers, who have been bad all season, have been particularly atrocious behind their ace, working to an abysmal 9.19 ERA in his no-decisions. In other words, deGrom's meh record is one part awful offense and one part rancid relief, neither of which has anything to with his pitching performance. Exactly how much that factors into the Cy Young balloting remains to be seen.

When Felix Hernandez won the 2010 American League Cy Young despite a humdrum 13-12 record, it seemed like a landmark victory for advanced metrics (and a landmark loss for wins). But not every year is the same. Of the top three vote-getters in 2010, King Felix led in ERA, innings, strikeouts, WHIP, FIP, WAR and pretty much every category that matters to Cy Young voters, regardless of their age or analytical bent (except for W's, of course). So once voters were willing to overlook the win column, the decision to vote for Hernandez was a relatively easy one. Eight years later, the picture is a whole lot murkier.

This week, in an effort to take the temperature of what appears to be a hotly contested National League Cy Young race, ESPN.com conducted an informal poll of 10 potential voters. Here's how the results shook out:

Scherzer: 6 first-place votes, 4 second-place votes

deGrom: 4 first-place votes, 5 second-place votes, 1 third-place vote

In other words, with a little more than a month remaining in the regular season, it's virtually a dead heat. (By the way, the one second-place vote that didn't go to Scherzer or deGrom went to Philly's Aaron Nola, who's having a breakout season and who received the majority of our third-place votes.) That neck-and-neck nature is reflective of the fact that so far this season, statistically speaking, there is no clear leader in the clubhouse between Scherzer and deGrom:

The table suggests that if both hurlers continue to do what they've been doing, the Cy Young race could come down to a photo finish. It also suggests that win bias really has gone the way of the woolly mammoth. That the precedent established in the historic Hernandez v. The Field case stands the test of time, to the point that a pitcher with X wins and a pitcher with 2X wins are virtually indistinguishable in the eyes of voters. As such, this year's Cy Young balloting could ultimately come down to a semantics argument over which statistical categories carry the most weight.

For the record, deGrom says the stats that matter most to him from a Cy Young perspective are ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and K-to-walk ratio. Wins? Not so much.

"What's the average length a starter goes now -- five innings? Five and a half?" asks deGrom, suggesting increased bullpen usage has deflated the value of the almighty W. (For the record, MLB pitchers are averaging six innings per start this season, down slightly from 6 in 2010.) "That's a lot of baseball left. So if that's the way the game's going, you would say that the wins aren't as important."

That's not to say victories don't matter to the guys in the hunt.

"As a starting pitcher," Nola says, "your goal is to win 15 games, 20 games. We all want to get to that."

Adds deGrom: "I still want as many wins as I can get."

That includes winning a Cy Young race that's currently too close to call -- especially for those involved in it. "Oh, god," says Nola when asked who would top his ballot. "I don't know, man. I couldn't tell you. Coin toss."

Although deGrom acknowledges it's impossibly tight at this point, he admits if he were voting, it'd be hard for him to completely ignore wins. "In the back of your mind, the wins do come into play. There are three guys that are pretty close in this, not terribly far apart. I have the better ERA. [Scherzer] has more strikeouts and a lower WHIP. So now you're pretty close, and then you look at wins."

The good news, at least from where deGrom stands, is he's won three consecutive starts to raise his record back above .500. If that roll continues, he could finish the season with 16 victories, the same number Scherzer had during his 2017 Cy Young season.

Then again, given the way the Mets have played this year, and given deGrom's lack of luck, he could just as easily finish with 16 losses.

And still win the Cy Young Award.