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Jacob deGrom’s Down Year Proves That He’s A Legitimate Ace

Jacob deGrom is an ace now.

It feels like a weird time to declare that. deGrom lost on Tuesday night, dropping his record on the season to 3-3. Much of the first ten weeks of Mets baseball has involved discussion of the struggles of the two best pitchers on the 2015 Mets—deGrom and Matt Harvey. Harvey, indeed, still carries an unsightly 4.66 ERA and 4.52 Deserved Run Average (DRA), despite three excellent starts in a row. But deGrom, well, if you ignore won/loss record, deGrom is handing in something only a little short of your “average” Jacob deGrom season; his 2.82 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and 3.49 DRA would all be career worsts, but would also still be an excellent season. His strikeout rate, a significant concern earlier in the season, has crept back up to 8.7 per nine innings, nearing his career norms. His walk and home run rates are already within those career norms. If this is the struggling version of Jacob deGrom, that this is the low point proves that he really is an ace.

deGrom debuted a little over a month into the 2014 season, so that seems like a good spot to start comparing him to other pitchers. From the beginning of play in 2014 through deGrom’s last turn on Tuesday, 124 pitchers have thrown 250 innings in the major leagues. (I picked 250 innings as the cutoff because that’s around where all the guys who are primarily relievers were excluded). Among those 124 pitchers, deGrom has the fourth-best ERA, only trailing Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke. If you prefer DIPS-based metrics, deGrom is still fourth in FIP, still behind Kershaw and Arrieta, but exchanging Greinke for fellow Stetson alum Corey Kluber. During deGrom’s time in the majors, he’s been more effective at pitching by ERA and FIP than Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, and a bunch of other dudes who you would call aces without a second thought.

DRA is a little more pessimistic on deGrom—minimum 140 innings per season, deGrom ranked 17th in 2014 and 12th in 2015, dropping him behind, among others, Sale and Bumgarner—but overall, deGrom has been one of the eight or 10 best pitchers in baseball since he debuted. It’s often said that there aren’t thirty number one starters in baseball, but there’s surely more than 10, right?

Part of what makes this an odd time to have this conversation is that, matching the shape of the results, deGrom hasn’t quite had his best stuff yet this year. Especially early in the season, his fastball velocity lagged. Per Brooks Baseball, the three worst average four-seam fastball velocities of deGrom’s major league career were all in his first six games this season. This is fairly easy to explain; deGrom was plagued by lat problems for much of the spring, and they persisted into April. Over his last five starts, deGrom’s velocity and stuff profile looks fairly similar to what it looked like in 2014, if still a bit off 2015. I believe we are at the point where 2016 is no longer a stipulation against deGrom being an ace.

Often in these ace conversations the Potter Stewart Clause of “I know it when I see it” comes up. But Jacob deGrom has done the things you’d expect to see from an ace. He throws really hard with some devastating secondary pitches. He was one ball away from an immaculate inning in the All-Star Game. He was the best pitcher on a team that won the pennant. During that World Series run, he pitched two absolutely enormous games of very different types.

When I think about the kinds of games that narratively define aces, there are several different kinds that come to mind. The first, and the obvious, is the completely dominant world-destroyer performance where the other team looks it just has no freaking chance at all. Noah Syndergaard has specialized in these recently. deGrom has one of these on one of the biggest stages possible, opening the playoffs in Los Angeles. Outdueling Clayton Kershaw–who pitched a gem of his own–deGrom struck out 13 over seven scoreless innings to stake the Mets to a 1-0 series lead. Six days later, deGrom came back to Dodger Stadium in a winner-take-all Game 5, and pitched one of the other kinds of ace games. Looking terrible from the first inning, where he was lucky to escape only giving up two runs, and with the Dodgers repeatedly only one hit away from busting the game open, deGrom held serve through the six treacherous innings needed for the Mets to claw three runs from Zack Greinke. Without his best stuff, and largely with guts and guile, deGrom turned in exactly the performance the team needed to get into the NLCS. He’d follow with another gem in the NLCS, before running out of gas in the World Series.

If nothing else, if you’ve watched a Mets game on SNY this season, you’ve surely seen this commercial, which I will eschew embedding for the reader’s sanity. I can think of no better sign of an ace than to have a major ad campaign built around your pitching while corny music plays over top. Only a true ace could make that work.

Photo Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

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