First you noticed the last name, specifically its unorthodox spelling, and you made puns because it’s what you do with a last name that looks different. Then you got a load of the hair, particularly its length, and you couldn’t help but get tangled up in that because it, too, looked different. Eventually, you got used to the name and the hair (before most of it disappeared) and you focused fully on the pitcher who needed nothing else unorthodox as a calling card because he already brought to bear something different from all his contemporaries.
He pitched better than every single one of them.
Within the National League, that was made clear Wednesday when the Baseball Writers Association of America displayed uncommon, nearly unanimous wisdom and voted Jacob deGrom  the 2018 Cy Young Award , making it six Cys for the Mets in their history (three for Tom Seaver, three for everybody who isn’t Tom Seaver). Given that the New York Mets compose one-fifteenth of said senior circuit, it follows that the best in the league is the best on his team and, sure enough, we certify that here and now.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody who might have given the matter the slightest passing thought, Faith and Fear in Flushing proudly announces that the winner of the Richie Ashburn Most Valuable Met award for 2018 is — for the second year in a row and the third overall — Jacob deGrom.
Since the inauguration of our little token of recognition, no incumbent MVM has ever been re-elected, but since we began covering the Mets on a going basis in 2005, no player has so dominated the Metscape without interruption. If we stick with the politico lingo, consider deGrom the dark horse victor in a spiritually low-turnout contest in 2014; the default nominee who ran unopposed in 2017; and, in 2018, our winner by acclamation.
Though the Mets as a whole barely made it past the New Hampshire primary phase of the past season, a few theoretical vote-getters dotted their ticket. Brandon Nimmo often gave us reason to grin like Brandon Nimmo; Zack Wheeler corralled his potential and processed it into long-projected success; and if we could smush them together, a second baseman we’d dub “Asdrubal McNeil” would pass as a worthy if belated successor to Edgardo Alfonzo. Honorable mention cap tips can be directed as well toward Michael Conforto and Amed Rosario for finding their respective grooves in the latter stages of the second half.
But deGrom was the one Met who transcended all of Metsdom, a situation that registers as both feature and bug of 2018. If there were more Mets like Jake, the Mets would have been a lot better. Not that Jakeishness is easily passed around the dugout like sunflower seeds, but teams can have more than one transcendent player in captivity at once. I’m sure I’ve seen it.
Yet somehow, especially since there is nothing that can be done about it now, there was something sort of beautiful about the stubbornness of the futility with which the 77-85 Mets surrounded their ace. They wouldn’t pitch in? He’d just pitch better. They lost 18 of his 32 starts? He retained his composure. They sank into the second division? He was first class. In this age of player agents morphing into general managers, imagine Jerry Maguire as Brodie Van Wagenen last winter furiously typing up an iconoclastic mission statement through the night for his client and his client’s team to follow:
Fewer baserunners. Less winning.
Not a formula designed to show us the pennant, but this moment was (to again paraphrase Mr. Maguire) the moment of something real, and fun, and inspiring in this godforsaken season.
Well, maybe not fun with the team losing so much, but definitely real and surely inspiring.
• Twenty Eighteen was the moment during which Jacob deGrom compiled an earned run average of 2.13…in the eighteen starts of his that the Mets lost.
• It was the moment during which the Mets scored no more than two runs in seven of deGrom’s starts. DeGrom posted an earned run average of 1.87 in those same seven starts…and the Mets lost every one of them.
• It was the moment during which five consecutive Jacob deGrom starts yielded 36 innings pitched, five earned runs allowed…and zero Mets wins.
On and on it went like this, from March 31 through September 26, encompassing 32 starts, or approximately one every five games. Despite a barking back that cost him the Opening Day assignment he’d earned through four prior years of superb service. Despite a non-existent rain delay that managed to keep him idle for more than a week in September. Despite the disabled list detour when a briefly hyperextended elbow sent us into hyperextended panic. Despite a veritable shoeless dance across hot coals that followed the DL visit: a first inning in Philadelphia that loaded the bases, required 45 pitches yet resulted in no runs. Not taking any chances after the elbow scare, Mickey Callaway pulled deGrom as soon as he emerged with his bare feet intact. Not singed in the least from his brush with fallibility, Jacob returned to regular rotation duty ASAP, never again lasting less than six innings in any of his succeeding 24 starts, never surrendering more than three runs in a single outing, only once leaving a game while a Mets defensive inning remained unresolved.
Perhaps Callaway learned a little about managing his star if not everybody else on his roster. Leave Jake in as long as you can, Mickey. Your team may not win in the end, but you’ll never do any better before the score goes final.
Twenty-nine of thirty BBWAA voters were suitably impressed by deGrom’s performance — more so than deGrom ever seems by himself. According to Baseball-Reference’s calculations, no National League player at any position, including pitcher, posted a higher total WAR in 2018. Jake finished first in earned run average; second in walks and hits to innings pitched; third in hits per nine innings and walks per nine innings; second in strikeouts per nine innings, innings pitched, situational wins saved, strikeouts and strikeouts-to-walks ratio; and first in fewest home runs per nine innings, adjusted ERA+ (by a lot), fielding independent pitching, adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins, base-out runs saved, win probability added and base-out wins saved.
Some of that needs no explanation. Some of it could probably use a little statistical elaboration. All of it means Jacob deGrom had it goin’ on.
No. 48 with the long locks and the and the small “de” before “G” may have been a surprise when he strolled onto the scene via side entrance in 2014 — he’s not really the type to burst — but by 2018, we shouldn’t have been shocked he’d be a Cy Young contender. Rookie of the Year in ’14. All-Star in 2015. Handed the ball to commence the first Met postseason in nine years. A one-hit shutout highlighting ’16. Fifteen wins for a team that garnered only 70 in ’17, back when we paid attention to how many of those a pitcher was credited with. Jacob deGrom was, by any standard, one of the best around before 2018.
Then he ascended to a whole other level, pitching on a plane that overshadowed the Scherzers, the Nolas and anybody else you cared to identify as one of the best around. Long after the daily grind of the Mets season remained must-see viewing for anybody save the diehardiest of the diehards, Jacob turned every start into a hotly anticipated deGrom Bowl and left you feeling privileged that you got to watch. He did it with run support that would have had to have increased to be described as minimal and he did it with peerless consistency.
DeGrom persevered from beginning (5.2 IP, 4 H 1 BB, 7 SO, 1 ER in his first effective if unremarkable start to defeat the Cardinals) to end (8 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 10 SO, 0 ER in his season finale, when every pitch was a Cy-building cause, utterly silencing the Braves). Closer to the beginning than the end we knew something was up, perhaps because his ERA stayed down as his win total grew stagnant. On May 18, deGrom lowered his world-beating earned run average to 1.75 and raised his won-lost record to 4-0. By the time his next win rolled around, on June 18, his ERA checked in at 1.51. In between, Jake was all but untouchable, yet absorbed a pair of losses and three no-decisions. And after the aberrant 12-2 victory at Colorado in mid-June, the drought resumed: 2 Ls, 2 NDs, 3 Ls…and an earned run average that ballooned clear to 1.85.
There was no question he’d be an All-Star (the only Met selected). His Cy Young candidacy was presumed before the first half was done, though his primacy was no sure thing. We were still grappling with the idea that a 5-5, 5-6, 5-7 pitcher could compete with rivals who were into double-digits before the Fourth of July. Scherzer notched his tenth win on June 1 (10-1). Nola got there on June 28 (10-2). As late as September 16, Jacob deGrom was a sub-.500 pitcher…in language we used to use.
Besides retiring nearly every batter he faced, deGrom smashed a paradigm that had held sway for more than a century. Jake wasn’t the first starting pitcher to make us re-evaluate the efficacy of the win, but nobody so definitively knocked the W down to lower-case in common perception. At the break, it had to be argued that a pitcher whose season was indifferent to wins and losses was worthy of consideration as the league’s top pitcher. As the year wound down, the fact that Scherzer and Nola were, respectively, eight and seven wins ahead barely resonated.
The Mets found it within themselves to score four runs in deGrom’s penultimate start to boost him to 9-9 (Jacob reached .500 on September 21, the same date the 1973 Mets did, when they also climbed into first place) and three in his last to push him over the hump at 10-9. If 1.70 and everything else didn’t say enough, now he was what previous generations called a winning pitcher. “There,” Jake might have been saying, as if putting on a coat and tie to quell a parent’s nagging, “you happy?” He knew a season like this wasn’t about superficial niceties. It was about what you did and who you were.
And in 2018, he did and was the best.
Since we’ve said something similar twice in the previous four years in conferring MVM honors on Jacob deGrom, maybe we need to expand his horizons. Let’s look into two contexts and see where we can further fit Jake.
MET OF THE 2010s
If you haven’t noticed, we’re about to close out a decade. Mets fans should know you can’t write a ten-year history too far in advance. The 1969 Mets blew up perceptions about what kind of Sixties the franchise enjoyed and the 1999 Mets altered the narrative of the Nineties. If the 2019 Mets upset expectations and win it all (or a substantial chunk of it), and if…
• Michael Conforto has an MVP season;
• or Yoenis Cespedes pulls a Heaven Can Wait and stumbles into a healthy body that will steer him back to his August 2015 incarnation;
• or some heretofore unknown free agent appears in Flushing and puts up a string of statistics that evoke Barry Bonds, Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby
…while Jacob deGrom takes the theoretical world championship year off, then the question of who the Met of the 2010s is will be up for a shred of debate. Otherwise, there will be no debate. A triple Ashburn winner with a Rookie of the Year award, a Cy Young, at least two All-Star appearances and a key role on a pennant-winner etched into his five-going-on-six-season Met ledger is going to be nearly impossible to beat. DeGrom’s blend of longevity and excellence looms as unmatched for the seasons encompassing 2010 through 2019.
But no need to get ahead of ourselves. We can do the 2010s when the deGrom decade is over. It definitely looms, however, as the deGrom decade. Or deCade if you still dig that sort of thing.
ONE OF THE TOP METS PITCHERS EVER
You may recall and perhaps revile the ESPN telecast of August 13, when the Mets visited the Bronx to make up a rainout against the Yankees. Keith Olbermann held court as de facto play-by-play announcer. While deGrom was on the mound striking out twelve and putting to rest the silly notion that any pitcher anywhere else in New York was his equal (Luis Severino gave up four runs in four innings before exiting), KO basically hosted a chat show with a ballgame in the background. It’s only the Subway Series, Keith. Even for an Olbermann acolyte like me, the experiment offered a mixed bag. Some of his patter was irrelevant, some of it was self-indulgent, but, because he’s KO, plenty of it was intriguing.
The most compelling element of his conversation with Tom Verducci and Eduardo Perez, amid a strained appraisal of who the best Mets ever were, was Olbermann’s incidental mention of Jacob deGrom as a Top Five Met. He didn’t trumpet it with Olbermannian gravitas; he just kind of dropped Jake’s name in, somewhere behind Seaver. You could have missed it if you were busy being aghast that he was dismissing Piazza altogether because he tended to think of Mike as a Dodger.
Until KO brought it up, it had never occurred to me to think of deGrom within the realm of Greatest Mets, probably because his arrival seemed so recent and his story was still unfolding. Yet in the middle of his fifth season, when he was hyperextending his unhittable spurt and elbowing aside all competition, perhaps the time had arrived to give it some thought.
There’s never any mystery to No. 1 Met of All Time. By any measure, it’s Tom Seaver. It’s been Tom Seaver since 1967 and, though somebody else needs to come back and confirm this assertion 49 years from now, it will be Tom Seaver in 2067. If a future Met wishes to surpass Seaver, he is welcome to excel.
When I last fully contemplated the matter, as the Mets were turning 40, I was convinced Keith Hernandez had edged out Mike Piazza for No. 2. David Wright didn’t come along until the Mets were in their forty-third season. Now he might be No. 2. Or it might still be Hernandez. Or it could be Piazza, no matter what Olbermann thinks. Piazza played a few more years after my initial rankings, cemented his status as an icon, and was elevated to Seaverian status when he went into the Hall of Fame as a Met and had 31 raised above Citi Field adjacent to 41. Yet Wright, as we were reminded intensely in September, is the only Great, Great Met to stay a Met and nothing but a Met for his entire long career (no offense, Eddie Kranepool). And he’s David Wright. Then again, Keith Hernandez, as the script of “The Boyfriend” clarified, is Keith Hernandez, the only position player among these three Great, Great Mets to lead — and I mean lead — the Mets to a world championship.
Two through Four is a fascinating exercise, one that isn’t the point here. The point is deGrom. I don’t think he’s quite at the Keith-Mike-David level. He’s not Darryl-Doc Great, Great Met great, either, not yet. He hasn’t endured like Jerry Koosman, who was outstanding early, outstanding late and clutch when it counted like crazy.
I’ve named seven Mets whom I don’t think Jacob deGrom can be ranked above at present, three of them pitchers. Let’s stay with pitchers, since that’s what Jake is. Let’s accept that Seaver is beyond comparison within the Met universe; and that Gooden was not just spectacular for a couple of years but solid for a long while; and that Koosman, despite not wearing the ace title until Seaver was exiled, was front-of-the-rotation material for more than a decade. I’m comfortable with them as my Top Three Mets Pitchers.
Is Jacob deGrom, five seasons in, already the best or greatest or most accomplished — however you wish to phrase it — Mets pitcher who isn’t one of those three?
I’m not sure he is, but I’m also not sure he isn’t. DeGrom’s Mets career to date — with plenty more to come, we hope — shines no less bright than those attached to arms we’ve long revered.
Sound the roll call… Matlack. Swan. Darling. Fernandez. Ojeda. Cone. Jones. Reed. Leiter. Martinez. Santana. Dickey. Plus a handful of others who stuck around meritoriously without generating much reverence. DeGrom fits in fine with this crew. He slots above several already and seems en route to topping all of them. For what it’s worth, he’s also outlasted or outstripped everybody who’s pitched in the same rotation as him, regularly taking the ball with noticeably less self-imposed drama than a couple of them. Superhero personas are entertaining as all get out as long as you get outs. But sometimes you don’t mind a starting pitcher who bypasses phone booths on his way to the mound and requires no costume flashier than a Mets uniform.
He’s not a bird. He’s not a plane. He’s Jacob deGrom. Pitching doesn’t get any more super than that.
FAITH AND FEAR’S PREVIOUS RICHIE ASHBURN MOST VALUABLE METS
2005 : Pedro Martinez
2006 : Carlos Beltran
2007 : David Wright
2008 : Johan Santana
2009 : Pedro Feliciano
2010 : R.A. Dickey
2011 : Jose Reyes
2012 : R.A. Dickey
2013 : Daniel Murphy, Dillon Gee and LaTroy Hawkins
2014 : Jacob deGrom
2015 : Yoenis Cespedes
2016 : Asdrubal Cabrera
2017 : Jacob deGrom
Still to come: The Nikon Camera Player of the Year for 2018.