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Developmental or aging curves aren’t always helpful on the micro level. This type of large-scale data analysis shows overarching trends, which shapes the way we think about expected growth, but these curves are not unbreakable laws when it comes to individual players.

With that in mind, I have a soft spot for the players who defy expectations, the ones who somehow become major-league stars when they were nothing but mediocre prospects. Corey Kluber captured the hearts of many in 2013 and 2014. As recently as 2011, he posted a 5.56 ERA in Triple-A Columbus as a no-name 25-year-old, only to obliterate the league three years later and win the AL Cy Young Award. It wasn’t supposed to happen. But during a rain delay in Columbus one evening in 2011, the right-hander began experimenting with a sinker that revolutionized his game. That, as well as the introduction of a cutter, allowed him to ascend to elite status.

Jacob deGrom failed to crack the Mets’ top-10 prospect list in 2014. Not that he should have. The former ninth-round pick sat in the low-90s with his fastball and owned an ERA north of 4.50 the previous year, splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A. His pre-season writeup from Baseball Prospectus included the following assessment:

Sources aren’t sold that he’s a viable major-league starter, but he could find a home in the bullpen—where the 25-year-old arm could offer versatility, pushing the arsenal up a few ticks to work in bursts—or chew innings in a long relief/spot starter capacity.

Again, this is not quoted to criticize Jason Parks or the BP Prospect Team. At that moment in time, this assessment was accurate. Prospect lists only evaluate snapshots of a broader process.

But deGrom wasn’t supposed to challenge for the NL Rookie of the Year or become one of the best young pitchers in baseball. Then again, he wasn’t supposed to experience an uptick in velocity that saw him average 94.49 mph a year ago and 95.81 mph in 2015. His slider and changeup weren’t supposed to become above-average offerings as a starter, either.

That is what’s so fascinating about deGrom’s meteoric rise. Scouts across the league didn’t “miss” on the right-hander; instead, he has become something that no one foresaw, likely including deGrom himself. Part of it is probably because he mostly played shortstop in college and was still learning his craft in his mid-20s. But he also gained a couple of miles per hour on his fastball after tweaking his mechanics during a routine session in the majors with pitching coach Dan Warthen—a velocity increase that trickled down to his entire repertoire.

Suddenly, the 6-foot-4 hurler became borderline unstoppable. He jumped from an 18 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A to a stellar 25.5 percent in the majors. Guys aren’t supposed to magically get better in the big leagues. It’s the most difficult transition in the game.

And the most insane piece of this story is that deGrom has somehow gotten better in 2015. His velocity has jumped over a mile per hour. His strikeout rate has increased from 25.5 to 27.3 percent. His swinging-strike rate has improved almost a whole point to 12.7 percent. His command has sharpened, too, as shown by his minuscule 5.1 percent walk rate. Better run prevention has followed. His 2.54 ERA is his career-best, aside from a 2.43 ERA in A-ball back in 2012.

It’s difficult to appreciate just how good Jacob deGrom has become. Today’s game is saturated both with fireballing youngsters and with a depressed run environment, not to mention the future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw (yeah, I said it). Since the dawn of the Deadball Era, though, here is the complete list of pitchers who have compiled a better strikeout rate than deGrom with a walk rate better than his 5.1 percent:

Player

Year

K%

BB%

Pedro Martinez

1999

37.5%

4.4%

Pedro Martinez

2000

34.8%

3.9%

Clayton Kershaw

2015

33.8%

4.7%

Chris Sale

2015

32.1%

4.9%

Clayton Kershaw

2014

31.9%

4.1%

Curt Schilling

2002

31.1%

3.2%

Max Scherzer

2015

30.7%

3.8%

Randy Johnson

2004

30.1%

4.6%

Curt Schilling

2003

28.8%

4.8%

Curt Schilling

2001

28.7%

3.8%

Ben Sheets

2004

28.2%

3.4%

Stephen Strasburg

2014

27.9%

5.0%

Matt Harvey

2013

27.7%

4.5%

Three things from the above table: (1) Pedro Martinez is peerless; (2) I didn’t expect Curt Schilling to appear on this list three times, which means I likely underestimated his dominance in the early part of the century; and (3) the fact that four pitchers, including deGrom, make this historical list is mindboggling. In the end, though, this is to suggest that Jacob deGrom has been incredible this year. The fact that the industry wasn’t convinced he could stick as a back-end starter prior to last season reflects the unlikelihood of his development.

The combination of a low walk rate and a high strikeout rate is possible because he induces a ton of swings. Unlike against high-strikeout guys like Francisco Liriano and Tyson Ross, where opposing hitters rarely swing and cause problems that way, deGrom’s propensity to pound the strike zone means the opposition is forced to swing early and often. The right-hander has the second-highest swing percentage (52.3) of any qualified starter—behind only Scherzer—which helps his efficiency and his effectiveness.

The narrative that his story creates is wonderful, but there’s ample evidence to suggest that what he’s doing is sustainable—well, evidence aside from his filthy arsenal on the mound. His 3.03 DRA ranks ninth among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings this year. Furthermore, his 78 cFIP projects him to be 22 percent above average in the future. Only nine starters have a better cFIP than deGrom. He also pitches most of his games at Citi Field, which had the third-worst run environment for hitters in Major League Baseball this year (it was the third-worst a season ago, too).

In short, the right-hander is one of the fascinating counterexamples to the developmental curve and the prospect projections. He wasn’t supposed to be, but he’s a stud.

BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY

When committing to a high-end pitcher, it’s important that the downside is minimal and the likelihood that he remains elite is high. Jacob deGrom checks both boxes. His stuff is electric, his traditional numbers made him a top-10 fantasy starter, his #flow is iconic, and his sabermetric statistics are top notch. He’s one of the rare starters that you’re willing to back the truck up to acquire in dynasty leagues. He’s also one of the rare starters that you avoid selling, even in a rebuild, as he’s only 27.

During the preseason, I predicted that deGrom would finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young race. He might not—thanks to the brilliance of Kershaw, Arrieta, and Scherzer—but that’s more a reflection of the quality of his competition. He’s still legit, no matter which way you slice it, and I’ll be “all-in” once again in 2016.

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timjrohr
10/12
4x4, 11-team NL-only, $260 budget, 13/10 H/P. So, in the spring, I get to decide how long a contract to sign him to. I can go one year at $5, two years at $10, or three years at $15? 1/$5 is pretty easy to eliminate, obviously. I've NEVER signed someone to a three-year deal, but deGrom might be the first. I'm leaning toward 2/$10, though. Thoughts?
jimmyb1799
10/12
In an NL-only, I don't see $5/yr being a heavy price to pay. Elite starters carry more marginal value than mid-tier guys, so feel free to go for the third year.
GeorgeBissell
10/13
I'm pretty sure deGrom earned close to $40 in NL-only formats this season...To be able to lock him up at less than half of that for the next three seasons is an easy decision in my opinion. Barring injury, he's a near-lock to earn at least $15 per season going forward.
huztlers
10/12
I am glad that you clarified that the scouts were not wrong about DeGrom. It is important not to hurt their feelings. I thought scouts used grades like 40/60. Was DeGrom not projectable enough?
jimmyb1799
10/12
I think that you're misinterpreting the point of my comment on scouts. It has nothing to do with their feelings or giving scouts an "out" (or whatever you want to call it); rather, it's about deGrom taking an unexpected step forward. It's precisely that the projection didn't appear to be there as a starter. No one saw him suddenly finding 3+ mph on all of his pitches over a two year period -- why would anyone reasonably project that? -- and that's the awesome part of his story.
oldbopper
10/12
I understand that this is a fantasy article and I admit that I never saw deGrom before he started for the Mets in May 2014, but I could never figure out what the scouts didn't see. One look from that first game and it was clear that he was something else, but I kept seeing this great stuff and reading that he was not a prospect, just a flash in the pan. Was that something else not there before or did the scouts, operating off pre-conceived opinions choose not to see what deGrom was bringing, and he WAS bringing it! By the way, deGrom did not simply challenge for the 2014 NL ROY, he was named ROY and could you imagine the travesty if Billy Hamilton had received that award over him.
PunDeck
10/12
deGrom or G Cole in a keeper league?
jimmyb1799
10/12
I don't think you can go wrong. I'd probably lean toward deGrom, due to his higher strikeout numbers and swinging-strike rates, but it's really splitting hairs. One could easily make the argument that Cole is more valuable because he's two years younger and could be poised to take another step forward in his third full year.
MikePemulis
10/12
How much of an impact did DeGrom's game 1 performance have on Utley's slide/Tejada's injury? I notice that no one has brought that up in this article so thought I'd start the conversation.