Jacob deGrom has passed Tim Lincecum on the way to Johan Santana, with Roy Halladay as the destination.
This is deGrom’s Hall of Fame path. He is trying to make up for a late start to his major league career and evolve from impressive to immortal.
DeGrom’s Cooperstown brand would be burnished if he could win a third straight Cy Young award. Eleven pitchers have won two in a row. Only Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson did more, both winning four straight. That merely augmented the candidacy of two 300-game winners who would be on the short list of best pitchers ever and Hall of Fame locks even without four straight Cys.
DeGrom is not going to sniff 300 wins. He probably will never make it to 200. He needs at least two more good years to even get to 100 (he is at 66). As we have seen, however, with deGrom’s consecutive Cy Youngs, the modern Baseball Writers Association of America voter has downgraded wins as an important stat — and the veteran members of the BBWAA vote for the Hall of Fame.
What would help deGrom is a third Cy Young — three in a row is best, but just a third Cy Young would be a real boost — some further postseason success and more years that look like the ones he has already registered. Ten pitchers have won at least three Cy Youngs. All are in the Hall except the steroid-stained Roger Clemens and the active Clayton Kershsaw and Max Scherzer, who probably are already Cooperstown certainties.
When I asked Brodie Van Wagenen if he thought he was watching a Hall of Famer, the Mets GM said, “I do.” Van Wagenen is not unbiased, having represented DeGrom before becoming the executive who recommended that Mets ownership give the righty a five-year extension for $137.5 million — the same total once bestowed upon Santana by the Mets.
Nevertheless, Van Wagenen summed up the status of the case well: “[DeGrom’s] performance since he showed up at the big league level has never wavered. He has been an elite, front-of-the-rotation starter since his rookie year. That has been five years of his career. If he can repeat that over the next five years, he will be one of, if not, the dominant pitcher of his era. For my book, that defines a Hall of Famer.”
DeGrom actually is six seasons into his career, counting his 22-start Rookie of the Year 2014. To even get on the ballot, a candidate must play at least 10 seasons. DeGrom is going to need at least a decade of excellence to gain strong consideration.
He is hurt by a late beginning to his career. DeGrom was mainly a position player in college and lost a season after Tommy John surgery in the minors. Thus, he didn’t reach the majors until a month shy of his 26th birthday.
Thirteen Hall of Famers did not throw their first major league pitch before 25. But one was barred from the majors and relegated to the Negro Leagues until he was 42 (Satchel Paige). Three were relievers (Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Hoyt Wilhelm). Two were knuckleballers (Wilhelm and Phil Niekro). Six threw their first MLB pitch before World War I (Joe McGinnity, Mordecai Brown, Eddie Plank, Red Faber, Old Hoss Radbourn, Jack Chesbro), and the other two were down before World War II concluded (Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell). So it has been a long time since anyone who has started as late as deGrom with none of the knuckleball, relief, etcetera ties made it to Cooperstown.
However, Johnson was 10-13 with a 4.48 ERA in his age 24 and 25 seasons before figuring out how to harness the talent in his 6-foot-10 body. Dazzy Vance had no early success and did not begin his run as the preeminent strikeout artist of his era until he was 31 in 1922.
As opposed to a Dazzy, Dizzy Dean made it to the Hall of Fame with a high peak over a six-year span. Most famously, Sandy Koufax did the same. But Dean threw 1,728 ¹/₃ innings in his six-year peak, Koufax 1,632 ²/₃ and deGrom 1,101 ²/₃. That is why his comparison is going to be with more modern starters with modern workloads who had high peaks.
Lincecum, like deGrom, won consecutive Cy Youngs. But by 27 he was done as a consistently excellent starter. So deGrom has exceeded The Freak. DeGrom is edging into the Ron Guidry and, especially, Santana territory. Both Guidry and Santana were not made full-time major league starters early in their careers — losing the chance to produce bigger, more appealing bulk numbers. But their highs were very high.
Santana won Cys in 2004 and ’06 and probably should have in 2005 (he was third). Had he won three in a row, maybe his Hall candidacy would have been elevated. Instead, he became a victim of not enough quantity to go with the great quality. He had nine terrific seasons, just five with 30-plus starts and received 2.4 percent of the vote in his only year on the Hall ballot — falling below the 5 percent necessary to stay on.
Thus, deGrom is going to have to outdo Santana, making Halladay the comp for which to aim. Halladay had mixed success from ages 21-24, getting demoted to the minors in 2000 when he posted a 10.64 ERA. But beginning in 2002, Halladay ran off 10 years of brilliance in which he went 170-75, a 2.97 ERA, a 148 ERA plus, won two Cy Youngs, finished in the top five five other times and threw a no-hitter in the playoffs. He was elected to the Hall at 85.4 percent in his first year on the ballot.
DeGrom has a 148 ERA-plus through six seasons. In his lone postseason, he had a 2.88 ERA in four starts. He has put down impressive steps. Now he must continue the path of Halladay in order to get to the Hall of Fame.