Jacob deGrom didn’t win his third straight Cy Young, but here’s why he still could be on a Hall of Fame run

Wednesday evening, the results of the BBWAA voting for the Cy Young in each league were revealed, and Mets ace Jacob deGrom fell short of winning his third straight NL Cy Young. He finished third behind Trevor Bauer and Yu Darvish, who placed first and second, respectively.

Regardless, deGrom is still in the midst of some kind of run. Despite having been a shortstop when he arrived at college and a relatively late arrival in the majors at age 26, he’s got a shot to end up in the Hall of Fame someday. If he does, we’re right in the middle of watching the peak run that lands him there. 

When we discuss “peak” Hall of Fame candidates, we’re talking about players who don’t have the longevity that is going to hit notes like 300 (or 200, etc.) wins, 3,000 strikeouts and the like. Instead, it’s more that there was a peak that was so dominant, the player still earned his way to Cooperstown. The gold standard peak Hall of Fame pitcher is Sandy Koufax. DeGrom needs to forge a similar path in order to be enshrined one day in Cooperstown. Right now, he has the foundation. 

First off, the list of pitchers to win three straight Cy Youngs is awfully short. In fact, no one has ever won exactly three in a row and stopped. Greg Maddux (1992-95) and Randy Johnson (1999-2002) each won four straight NL Cy Youngs. As such, deGrom coming up short here in 2020 is far from a disqualification. 

Sticking with those who have won the award in back-to-back years, here’s the best finish either immediately before or after the consecutive victories: 

  • Koufax: third
  • Denny McLain: no votes either before or after
  • Jim Palmer: second
  • Roger Clemens (first time he went back-to-back): sixth
  • Maddux: four straight wins
  • Clemens (second time): no votes either before or after
  • Pedro Martinez: second
  • Johnson: four straight wins
  • Tim Lincecum: 10th
  • Clayton Kershaw: 2nd
  • Max Scherzer: 2nd
  • deGrom: 3rd

Where deGrom can make serious inroads on his peak Hall of Fame resume is now to win the 2021 Cy Young. If we were to hone in on a four-year stretch, here are the pitchers who have won it three years out of a four-season stretch: 

  • Koufax (1963, 1965-66 MLB)
  • Jim Palmer (1973, 1975-76 AL)
  • Maddux (1992-95 NL)
  • Pedro Martinez (1997 NL, 1999-2000 AL)
  • Johnson (1999-2002 NL)
  • Clayton Kershaw (2011, 2013-14 NL)

Adding deGrom there would put him on a list with only six other pitchers, all of whom are Hall of Famers (arguably inner-circle greats; they’ll all be first-ballot Hall of Famers once Kershaw is voted in on his first try). 

Little has changed regarding the counting stats situation from when I discussed things back in the spring: deGrom is short. That isn’t going to change substantially the next few years. 

Imagine the horror if you described to a die-hard baseball fan that we’re talking about a starting pitcher with a 70-51 career record possibly having a shot at the Hall of Fame? The baseball fan version of a heart attack would ensue. Similarly, three complete games and just one shutout wouldn’t work, nor would the 1,359 strikeouts in this day and age of high-octane whiff numbers. 

Even if we looked at the modern counting measure of WAR, deGrom is 196th in career WAR among starting pitchers. He’s 167th in JAWS (which, funnily enough to me, puts him ahead of Jack Morris and Catfish Hunter, but that’s a subject for a different day). 

DeGrom, however, isn’t off the table as a Hall of Famer due to his exceptional rate stats and the current run he’s on. He’d be looking to get in as a peak candidate, as noted, somewhere between Johan Santana and Koufax. Some might have forgotten or might not have even known, but Koufax wasn’t great for long (relatively-speaking) when it comes to the Hall. From my previous deGrom Hall of Fame installment: 

Through six seasons, Koufax was 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA (100 ERA+). Then he had a very good season in 1961. Then he became the man nicknamed “The Left Arm of God.” In his final five seasons, Koufax was 111-34 with a 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+). He led the league in ERA every single year. He won three Cy Youngs and an MVP. 

This is the path deGrom must continue to follow. He’s already on his way. First off, let’s point out the run scoring environment in eras isn’t comparable. The 1960s were incredibly pitcher-friendly. ERA+ adjusts for ballpark and era. Koufax’s career mark is 131 compared to deGrom’s 150. In fact, deGrom is third all-time among qualifying starters, behind just Kershaw and Martinez. Koufax’s five-year OMG peak yielded a 167 ERA+. DeGrom is only three years into this run but his ERA+ is 188. 

Of course, we must point out three seasons isn’t five, so it’s not like I’m saying deGrom’s run is better than Koufax’s. Secondly, we just went through a 60-game season in which deGrom only made 12 starts. It’s a lot easier to have an amazing season under such circumstances, smaller samples and all. Let’s be clear that easier isn’t easy. It obviously isn’t easy to do what deGrom did during the 2020 season. I’m saying, on a relative basis, that 2020’s numbers were easier — in terms of on-field play — than they were to post in 2018 or 2019. 

So, again, deGrom isn’t Koufax, but it’s possible he’s starting to build the modern version of that type of peak Hall of Fame resume.

Remember, deGrom was a very good pitcher his first four years in the league (45-32, 2.98 ERA, 130 ERA+, 1.12 WHIP, 731 K, 680 2/3 IP, one All-Star Game, two times receiving Cy Young votes, 2014 Rookie of the Year). In the last three years, he’s been the obvious best pitcher in baseball and has won two of the last three Cy Youngs while finishing third in the other. He’s already in select company and taking one in 2021 pushes him even further. 

In fact, even if deGrom doesn’t win his third Cy in 2021, adding another at some point means he joins Clemens, Johnson, Steve Carlton, Maddux, Kershaw, Koufax, Martinez, Palmer, Tom Seaver and Scherzer as the only players to ever win more than two. 

As such, deGrom heads to his age-33 season needing to continue this path. Seeing that age and knowing how much pitchers break down in this era definitely makes it sound like a daunting task, but we’ve seen elite-level power arms like those of Scherzer and Justin Verlander hold up through their mid-30s, and deGrom has less wear and tear on his right arm at this point in his career. It’s possible to stay on this path and keep adding hardware for another three or four years. 

To be clear, deGrom still needs to stack up the counting stats, because all Hall of Fame cases need to be as well-rounded as possible. The main thing when it comes to deGrom’s case, however, is to stick as close to the top of Cy Young voting for as long as possible. He’s building what could become a Koufax-like peak case. The 2020 vote was another big piece, even if it wasn’t the best-case scenario. Now we turn to 2021 and enjoy watching what he does next. 

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