When statistics are murky or incomplete, sometimes the best argument-ender is the eye test. Greatness that just oozes through the television screen, their dominance so profound that even non-fans know of them. But in baseball there is one enemy that threatens to invalidate the eye test and the weight it carries. Longevity. The sensational Jacob deGrom is going to learn that the hard way.
Aside from a few New Yorkers who cannot resist breaking out an “I told you so,” most of the baseball world is reeling following the news that the Texas Rangers pitcher and Mets great needs to undergo Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career. It is a blow to Rangers fans who felt deGrom could put their overachieving starting rotation over the top in the postseason, and anyone who just appreciates the art of pitching.
Perhaps most sickening of all, though, it is a major gut punch to his potential Cooperstown enshrinement. Supreme excellence usually makes for an iron-clad case, but the 34-year-old unfortunately lacks endurance in a sport that sanctifies it. The road to recovery will be made even more perilous for a pitcher who has made just 32 starts in the last three seasons combined.
deGrom will return, but the sad truth is that there is a strong likelihood more setbacks will follow. And if that happens, there will not be enough time for him to reach the necessary milestones the Baseball Writers' Association of America so vehemently demands and defends.
Cruelly, and maybe unjustly, Jacob deGrom's Hall of Fame chances have been all but ended.
Why Hall of Fame is out of reach for Jacob deGrom
Full disclosure, I believe Jacob deGrom deserves a bust in Cooperstown. I put a lot of stock into the aforementioned eye test. He dominated in a way that is almost unfathomable in this era. What suffices for me, however, means nothing to the writers who cast a Hall of Fame vote. deGrom does not meet their criteria.
Let's start off by examining the crux of his case. deGrom has a sterling 2.53 career ERA, a 2.90 postseason ERA (five games), two Cy Young Awards and four All-Star selections. Those credentials are enough to leave an indelible mark on the game, especially since they have essentially all come under the pressure cooker that is New York. But they are not quite enough to be immortalized in the Hall.
At most, he has compiled six-and-a-half Hall of Fame-caliber seasons. While the best of those years likened comparisons to Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, it is the 215 starts, 44.6 WAR and 1,652 strikeouts that will keep him out. Those numbers are quite outstanding for deGrom's sample size, but that does not matter. Purists cherish durability.
Game: 8.0 IP, 2 H, 10 K
Season: 217 IP, 269 K, 1.70 ERA
Jacob deGrom had a dominant finish to one of the most dominant pitching seasons in MLB history. pic.twitter.com/GYa3NUAoOu
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 27, 2018
While Cal Ripken Jr. is in the Hall of Fame for several reasons, his record for most consecutive games played (2,632) defines his place in history. He is from a different generation than the writers who will decide deGrom's fate, but attendance, and just numbers in general, mean more in this sport than any other. There are benchmarks that must be cleared. You don't need to check them all, but the right-hander does not really meet any of them.
Even the borderline HOFs had something that deGrom doesn't
Think about every controversial Hall of Fame pitcher. Some like Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry had a bevy of unspectacular seasons but lasted long enough to amass incredible lifetime achievements. Similarly, Mike Mussina was always overshadowed during his time and feels more like a good hurler rather than a great one, let alone elite. And yet, his 270 wins and 82.8 WAR put him in that company, according to the writers.
Believe it or not, even players like C.C. Sabathia and Zack Greinke could be afforded more leniency. They can't really measure up to deGrom in any way, except, of course, that dreaded longevity. Pitching more than twice as many games than the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year is something that will garner at least some consideration.
The beacon of hope for deGrom emanates from the bust of another man I briefly mentioned earlier. Sandy Koufax. The Dodgers icon has just a slightly better WAR and lesser ERA than the deGrominator. Injuries derailed his transcendent career as well. He still made it, though, largely due to being one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time (0.95 ERA). deGrom's playoff numbers are impressive, but they will not move the needle.
And there you go. Whether it is old-school stats like wins or modern barometers like WAR, Jacob deGrom falls short. Writers will agonize and try hard to justify his candidacy, but they will go where the numbers take them. And that won't be far.
Leaving this superb talent out of Cooperstown feels criminal, but even as much as baseball and its writers have changed, I cannot see tradition being forgone in favor of empathy.