If I were to tell you that the two highest paid players in baseball in 2018 were Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout, you’d probably say something along the lines of “good, they’re the best players of this generation.” And you’d be right. No pitcher and position player are more qualified to than those two.
However, when it comes to the highest paid players in baseball — pitchers more specifically — the list becomes a bit murky as to who deserves to be the highest paid players in the game. Jacob deGrom, who is coming off one of the best statistical seasons a pitcher has ever recorded in route to a Cy Young award, deserves to be alongside the Kershaws of the MLB. According to statisa.com, in 2018, the next four highest salaries amongst pitchers were Zack Greinke, Jake Arrieta, David Price, and Justin Verlander. While each is a proven and capable MLB-arm at the top of their respective rotations, it would be a mistake to consider four of them in the top 5 of baseball’s current best starting pitchers where deGrom has clearly staked a claim (side note: Verlander is the only one who should be included, not Kershaw. But I’ll save that for my next piece. **cue uproar**).
The top 5 pitchers in baseball, based on their value over the past 2–3 seasons are Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Verlander and deGrom in no particular order. Obviously this is always subject to change going forward, but considering factors like age, durability, FIP, xFIP, K/BB, Runs Above Replacement (RAR), and Wins Above Replacement (WAR), there are few that threaten this list. Honorable mentions: Luis Severino, Aaron Nola, and shocker special, Carlos Carrasco. In this article though, I want to shed light on why deGrom, fresh off his historical season and in search of a contract extension with the Mets, is well deserving of being one of the highest paid players in baseball. With an impressive statistical track record, a somehow improving arsenal of pitches, and in the middle of his prime, deGrom is well worth building around.
The dollar value of a player has essentially become based on two big factors with a bunch of other tiny factors sprinkled in. Those two big factors are Runs Above Replacement (RAR) and more importantly Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Since front offices began looking at a player’s value in terms of his contribution to a win, the monetary value of 1 WAR has grown every season. As the value of WAR changes, so does the market for players.
So what does this mean for his potential contract extension in 2019? Well, let’s put it into value in dollars. In the three seasons that deGrom has thrown 190+ innings, he’s produced WARs of 4.3, 5.2, and 8.8. He was still able to produce a 3-win season in each of the two in which he didn’t surpass 150 innings. This past season he produced a RAR of 73.8, a tenth of a point behind NL MVP Christian Yelich, and a Mike Trout-level $70.1 million dollars in dollar value. Given the value of 1 WAR (~$8 million) in today’s market, his total value in dollars, over the first five years of his career is $197 million. That is not a predictive number, it is just a measure of his production. It’s basically stating that if the Mets wanted to let deGrom go and replace him through free agency, a rough estimate of how much they would have to shell out would be almost $40 million per year. That’s how much value in dollars they’d be losing in deGrom. However, this doesn’t take into account factors such as age, innings pitched, or injury risk — three things that are very prominent in the proper evaluation of the pitcher market. By using his past statistical production and taking into account innings pitched and injury history, identifying trends and making projections becomes easier when discussing a players monetary worth in contract negotiations. Given his upward career trajectory and minimal injury history, it’s a safe estimation that deGrom has 4–5 years left in his prime. If and when the Mets begin negotiating an extension, I would expect his agent to value him somewhere around the 7 year/$210 million contract that Scherzer got in 2015, if not higher due to the climb in market value of dollars/WAR.
When attempting to put a dollar value on a player, it’s important to look at injury history and innings pitched. However, his past work can’t be overlooked. Since deGrom debuted in 2014, he has the fifth most WAR out of all starting pitchers. His 2.67 ERA sits second best among all starting pitchers and 10th best among both starters and relievers. His 2.81 FIP is fourth best out of all starters and his 3.02 xFIP is seventh. He is in the discussion for the best pitcher in baseball based on his consistent ability to dominate offenses and stifle run production. One of the biggest contributing factors to that is his ability to limit contact. He ranks 13th in all of baseball since his 2014 debut with a K/9 of 10.03 and his K-BB rate is as dominant as it gets — 21.7%, good for seventh best over the last five seasons. He had always been considered a great pitcher — he began his career with two seasons of an FIP at 2.70 or below. And although his 2016 and 2017 were good, they were a bit down by his standards due to a spike in his BABIP. Given the fact that he was producing a higher rate of soft contact in 2016–2017 than in 2014–2015, it was likely that he was hit with some poor luck and due for regression. Based on his similar rates of getting people to swing and miss and his batted ball profile, 2018 really shouldn’t have been all that of a surprise. Quite frankly, I’m not sure how the Mets didn’t take advantage of trying to extend him prior to this season. That ship is now long gone.
His 2018 was so deGrominant (sorry, I had to) that realistically, he should have been the 2018 NL MVP. Yelich, whose extension by the way was perfectly executed by the Marlins in 2015 before being traded to Milwaukee, was worth 7.6 WAR — good for tops amongst NL position players. However, deGrom was worth an astounding 8.8 WAR. For as good as Yelich was, deGrom was worth more than a full win more. Realistically, he most likely fell victim to the comical “bad team, shouldn’t win MVP” idea that many like to throw out there. Nonetheless, award or not, he was easily the most valuable player in the National League. Not only that, but he produced one of the 11 best single seasons since 1989 by a pitcher. His 8.8 WAR ranks 11th over that timespan, but the ten performances that rank in front of him were produced by just five pitchers (Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling). Last time I checked, that’s pretty good company to be in.
While all of this is impressive, the amazing thing that separates deGrom from the others is the fact that since his call-up in May of 2014, he has actually managed to increase the velocity on all four of his pitches each season. During his 2014 NL Rookie of the Year season, his average fastball velocity (vFA) was 94.5. This past season it was up to 96.7. The amount of pitchers that see that significant of an uptick in velocity during their age-30 season is scarce. Even Scherzer has never seen an uptick like deGrom. While still impressive, Scherzer has *only* managed to keep his vFA between 93.9–95.2 for 11 straight seasons. What’s even more remarkable is the fact that deGrom actually got better as this past season went on. From his first start of the season against the Cardinals to his last start against the Braves, he saw his vFA jump from 94.3 to 97.4. While most pitchers fall victim to fatigue towards the end of the season, deGrom managed to record his second highest fastball average velocity of the season in his final start.
As the chart shows, deGrom has seen a gradual increase in the speed of his fastball. While Kershaw, Verlander, Scherzer, and Kluber were all able to sustain largely successful numbers over their first five seasons, deGrom has managed to not only improve upon his numbers, but also improve his overall stuff. With this trajectory, it’s hard to imagine his giant 2018 being a complete fluke. While a near 9-win season is unprecedented when it comes to pitchers, deGrom certainly has the stuff and the underlying metrics to make multiple 5.5-win seasons very feasible.
deGrom’s consistent dominance is incredible. With the average amount of innings that a starting pitcher gets through in a game decreasing every season, guys who can get through the order three or four times without getting “figured out” or losing velocity become extraordinarily valuable. According to Fangraph’s Splits tool, deGrom was 10th in the MLB in wOBA allowed third time through (TTT) the order at .262. For reference, that’s like facing a worse hitter than Billy Hamilton (.279 career wOBA) every time he went through an opposing teams lineup for the third time.
Over the last two seasons, deGrom has logged the third most innings pitching against a lineup TTT, while producing the seventh best wOBA allowed over that same timeframe. While it is reasonable to assume the more innings he throws will result in decreased production and velocity, there has been no indication of that occurring any time soon.
The Mets have made contractual mistakes in the past. Some by failing to execute, some by executing the wrong one. This is one they need to get done. There is enough evidence from evaluating deGrom that there is no reason for him to be paid less than the likes of Greinke, Price, and Arrieta. Nothing against them, but that just speaks to the kind of arm they have in Flushing, NY. deGrom may not have gotten the trophy for it, but the Mets have the most valuable player in the National League on their team. Don’t let him get away.