Mets ace Jacob deGrom is putting together a historic season on a team-friendly deal. But giving him a record-setting bag comes with risks.
New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom is delivering one of the greatest pitching seasons of the last half-century, and he’s doing it for a hometown discount.
At the same time, his employers face a volatile situation. The Mets risk losing the 32-year-old righty in free agency in 17 months if he decides to opt out of his unfathomably undervalued five-year, $137.5 million contract.
How below-market is deGrom’s deal? Going into his start Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs, the two-time Cy Young winner is 6-2 with a minuscule 0.56 ERA, with 103 strikeouts and just four earned runs allowed in 64 innings pitched. In a statistic that seems too absurd to be true, the three-time National League All-Star has driven in more runs with his bat (five) than he’s surrendered from the mound.
The stat known as “ERA+” normalizes ERA to factor in a team’s ballpark and opposition, with 100 being average and 150 being 50% better than league average. According to Baseball Reference, Jacob DeGrom’s ERA+ this season is 686.
The sheer amount of value deGrom is creating is staggering. That 686 ERA+ figure would break Baseball Reference’s all-time single-season record, and with a wins above replacement total of 3.7 on FanGraphs that leads all NL players, deGrom has a realistic chance to become more than just the 11th pitcher all time to win a league MVP award, and the first since Clayton Kershaw in 2014.
Rather, JdG is on pace to place himself in the pantheon of all-time great pitching seasons baseball has ever seen.
- In 1999, Pedro Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 213.1 innings for the Red Sox.
- In 2000, he went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and 284 strikeouts in 217 innings.
- In 2014, Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA for the Dodgers.
- Tom Seaver’s 1971 season with the Mets, Steve Carlton’s 1972 campaign with the Phillies, and Denny McLain’s 1968 with the Tigers also stack up incredibly well historically.
But nothing compares to Bob Gibson’s 1968 year with the Cardinals.
The Hall of Famer went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA in 304.2 innings with 13 strikeouts — and was so dominant that the MLB permanently lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 inches high to 10.
DeGrom’s 2021 season is on pace to rival Gibson’s masterful ’68, arguably the holiest of grails among individual pitching seasons.
Taking things a step further, the serious difference between deGrom and his peers based on both advanced stats and the eye test means we may have to go outside baseball to find the proper scale and scope for his current level of greatness. In 2021, he’s outpacing the competition at a level reminiscent of early-2000s Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps at the Olympics, or Lewis Hamilton’s unparalleled run of excellence in Formula 1.
And zooming a little further out, it’s unavoidable that deGrom is doing all this season on a team-friendly contract.
Right before Opening Day 2019, the ace signed a five-year, $137.5 million extension through the 2024 season that includes $52.5 million in deferred money that pays out between 2035 and 2039. It was far and away the shrewdest decision to come out of the doomed tenure of former Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen (who happens to have been JdG’s former agent).
But like everything that appears too good to be true on its face, deGrom’s extension came with a catch. In addition to the Mets holding a club option for 2024, deGrom has an opt-out he could exercise after the 2022 season.
Barring something unforeseen, that means deGrom has a chance to hit the open market at the peak of his powers — and potentially sign a record-setting contract that more accurately reflects his achievements. With that in mind, owner Steve Cohen and general manager Zack Scott must do everything under the sun to ensure deGrom doesn’t reach free agency and sign him to an extension ASAP.
Even when the deferred money is included, JdG’s average annual salary on his current contract is $27.5 million, just No. 9 in the league among starting pitchers. He’s playing like a guy who deserves to be the highest-paid hurler in this category, a distinction currently held by Yankees ace Gerrit Cole ($36 million AAV), Washington’s Stephen Strasburg ($35 million), and Houston’s Zack Greinke ($34.42 million).
But for the Mets, locking deGrom into a long-term deal that would take him to the doorstep of age 40 comes with very real risk.
With his 33rd birthday just days away, deGrom has already dealt with his fair share of injuries, leaving June 11’s victorious start against San Diego with elbow tendinitis. He also spent two weeks on the injured list earlier this season with a strained right side. Right on cue, it’s worth noting that the Mets franchise has been historically burned by signing players to long-term deals in the past only to see them unable to deliver, including David Wright, Bobby Bonilla, Jason Bay, and Oliver Perez.
For now, however, don’t count the ace himself among those fretting about every Mets fan’s worst-case scenario.
“I’ve definitely enjoyed my time here and signed long-term here. Haven’t really thought too much about the opt-out,” deGrom told reporters in February. “The goal is to go out there and perform and then when that time comes, make that decision.”
And when asked about the case of David Wright, JdG isn’t focused on the injuries that robbed him of the second half of his career. Rather, he’s more interested in how the Citi Field faithful hail the seven-time All-Star as an always-loyal franchise icon.
“That definitely had an impact on me,” deGrom said of Wright spending his entire career in Flushing and seeing how beloved he continues to be by Mets fans. “It was definitely cool and special, being there for the last time he took the field, that was really cool. That definitely weighs on your mind, but that’s a decision that’ll be made when the time comes.”
“One thing I do think is really, really cool is whenever somebody spends their entire career with one team. You don’t see it happen a whole lot anymore. So it’s definitely something that I’ve thought about.”
A franchise in the midst of a much-needed reset under Steve Cohen’s ownership can’t really afford to take the risk of losing deGrom in free agency. If he signs a record-setting deal in 2023 or ’24 and becomes less valuable dollar-for-dollar than he is today, it’s still a huge win for the Mets if the ace can continue to produce at historic levels.
We could be witnessing and experiencing one of the most prolific pitching runs in the long of the sport, and at a discount to boot. Jacob Dob deGrom is making history before our eyes — and that’s not something you can put a price on.