The Jacob deGrom of 2021 was a synthesis of exceptional athleticism, acumen, competitiveness and analytics, and it stands to reason that what he was last summer — before he was sidelined with an elbow issue — was the best starting pitcher we will ever see. He accounted for 10 runs as a hitter, scoring four and driving in six, and as a pitcher, he allowed 11 earned runs in 92 innings. Opponents had one extra-base hit against him with runners in scoring position.
But there’s one question that has been quietly kicked around by evaluators: Would he and the New York Mets be better off if the best pitcher on the planet backed off just a little bit?
More specifically: Would deGrom benefit from dialing down his record-setting velocity and instead work more consistently at a speed that doesn’t require his body to redline on each delivery?
In his 15 starts last year, deGrom’s average fastball velocity was 99.2 mph, the highest for any pitcher with at least 200 fastballs thrown as a starter (dating back to 2008, the start of the pitch-tracking era).
That deGrom achieved that terminal velocity in his age-33 season reflects his own growth in understanding how to use his body most efficiently — how to best apply his long legs, arms and fingers as he catapults baseballs. According to Mets staffers, deGrom regularly asks about the state of his velocity, understanding it’s a really good barometer for how he uses his body.
But as fastball speeds have climbed among all pitchers in recent years, there is a corollary conversation — whether pitchers heighten the chances for breakdowns as they strive to throw harder. Among the fastballs deGrom threw last season, 61.9% were clocked at 99 mph or higher. The last pitch he threw in his start July 7, to Milwaukee’s Jace Peterson, was 100.2 mph. And he didn’t throw another in a game in 2021.
For years, the standard operating procedure among many elite pitchers, from Pedro Martinez to Roger Clemens to Justin Verlander, was to save their maximum-effort fastballs for big moments, punching up their velocity as they tried to close out a rally, an inning. Former Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka did this routinely, usually throwing his fastball at 89-91 mph before spiking upward to 94-95 mph when needed, like a long distance runner making a late kick to the finish line.
Would deGrom be better off pitching at 93-95 mph, relying less on velocity and more on his exceptional command?
Last year, deGrom was still a great pitcher even when he wasn’t throwing 99 mph or higher. Paul Hembekides dug out these numbers, adding: “As you can see, his fastball does not need to reach triple digits in order for him to be incredibly effective.”
His velocity actually might be his second-best weapon. DeGrom’s utter domination of that sliver of space above his glove-side corner of the plate — outside to right-handed batters, inside to lefties — was difference-making. As Hembekides noted, he allowed an OPS of .329 in 2021 on outer-half pitches. That is comparable to how pitchers hit leaguewide last season (.293 OPS). Nearly an automatic out.
One former Mets staffer who knows and admires deGrom believes that for the right-hander, the notion of dialing down is, well, unthinkable. “He’s as competitive a player and a person as I have ever been around,” the staffer said. “I don’t know if he’s capable of backing off, even if it might be for his own good.”
And that sort of adjustment is more complicated than it sounds. A rival executive noted how pitchers in this generation train their bodies to work at higher velocity. “He’s been throwing at that velocity, and his body is conditioned to throw at that velocity,” the official said. “You’re applying X-energy, with X-efficiency — and you could actually add to the stresses on the various parts of his delivery if you change to work at a lower velocity. Your body responds differently to different forces and torque. When you change how your delivery works, it doesn’t mean a breakdown is definitely going to happen, but it could happen.”
DeGrom’s status for the start of the 2022 season is unclear. But he demonstrated last year that when he’s on the mound, he is the best there is, maybe the best there ever was.
The top 10 starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, based on the input of industry evaluators, followed by the top 10 relievers:
1. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
His current contract with the Mets runs through the 2024 season, but he has an opt-out after the 2022 season. DeGrom could set himself up for a hell of a payday — if he can consistently take the ball and demonstrate he’s healthy.
This from Sarah Langs, about deGrom’s mastery of his glove-side corner: “He allowed an .053 batting average in right-handed opponent plate appearances ending on the outside corner (defined as the edge of zone and outside zone), lowest among all pitchers with at least 75 plate appearances ending in that spot. He threw 104 two-strike pitches to righties on the outside corner — 45 of them resulted in a strikeout. That’s 43.3% — highest such rate of anyone to throw at least 50 two-strike pitches in that area to right-handed batters.”
Following the 60-game 2020 season, all teams faced the same question of how to handle the workload of their starting pitchers, and the Brewers’ solution of strictly adhering to a six-man rotation seemed to have worked out the best — for the team, which handily won the NL Central, and for the individual pitchers, most notably Burnes, who won the NL Cy Young Award. The Brewers finished third in the majors in staff ERA, and Burnes allowed just seven homers in 167 innings on his way to a 2.43 ERA.
Burnes overpowers the hitters he should handle. Think about this: The batters in the No. 6 through 9 spots in his opposing lineups combined for 257 plate appearances — and only one home run — accounting for just 12 runs the entire season.
A year ago, after the Phillies’ front office did its due diligence and dangled Wheeler in the trade market, owner John Middleton insisted that he would not trade Wheeler for Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. That perspective didn’t seem so wild after Wheeler overpowered hitters last season.
With his high-end velocity and extraordinary command, he is exceptional in preventing this era’s home run hitters from driving the ball out of the park. Wheeler has allowed only 19 homers in his past 41 starts, over the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Among the 49 starting pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings over the last two seasons, only Corbin Burnes and Logan Webb have better ratios of home runs per nine innings.
4. Max Scherzer, New York Mets
Forget about what happened in the NL Championship Series — the man posts up. From 2009 through 2021, he’s only had two seasons in which he failed to make 30 starts — 2019, when he had a relatively brief stint on the injured list, and in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Assuming he keeps making his starts in the summer ahead, Scherzer will likely climb into the top 12 pitchers all time in strikeouts during the ’22 season, passing some guys you may have heard of: John Smoltz, CC Sabathia, Curt Schilling, Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez and Fergie Jenkins.
Like many pitchers, Cole had his challenges in adapting following the enforcement of the sticky substance rule. The numbers are the numbers: Cole had a 3.92 ERA in the 18 starts after the news of the crackdown broke, surrendering 19 homers and 30 walks in 105⅔ innings. Before that, he had a 2.26 ERA, with only 11 walks and 6 homers allowed in 75⅔ innings.
It would make sense that by the start of the 2022 season — whenever that is — MLB and the players would have reached some kind of compromise about the surface of the ball.
Cole’s delivery is machinelike in its consistency, the root of his great command, his stuff, and his ability to maintain his health.
With a month to play in the 2021 season, he appeared to be the front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award, but with Wheeler, Scherzer and Brandon Woodruff setting an absurdly high bar, Buehler wound up finishing fourth. But Buehler is 27, and it stands to reason he will move up this list and perhaps win one or more Cy Young Awards in his career.
Last season, Buehler was lethal for hitters when he got ahead in the count — opponents batted only .138 in those situations, with a .238 slugging percentage, and only seven homers in 323 plate appearances.
Injuries limited him to only 16 games last season, and in those, he was damn good — 134 strikeouts in 96⅔ innings. He made 28 starts over 2020 and 2021, basically one full season, and in those games, he had 256 strikeouts and only 54 walks in 174 innings. The Guardians believe he’ll be back at full strength as 2022 begins.
Bieber has the best range of repertoire in the majors. According to FanGraphs, he is the only pitcher who scored at least a 3.4 runs saved with five different pitches in his work over the last two seasons. It’s as if he’s been perfecting a pitch a year.
8. Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers
He racked up 211 strikeouts in 179⅓ innings, and his strikeout rate of 10.59 was the ninth best in the big leagues. But he also generated a lot of ground balls, at a rate of 1.28 for every fly ball.
Fried’s progress as a pitcher is remarkable since those days at the end of the 2018 season, when there was a debate within the organization about whether to promote him in September. Since then, he has made changes with his delivery, his tempo, his pitch selection, and as the 27-year-old moves forward, it figures he will improve in high-leverage moments and in his efficiency in finishing off hitters.
Nobody was close to Ray last season in his ability to strand runners — he led the majors in leaving 90.1% of runners on base. That is the highest rate for any starting pitcher since … well, ever, if you exclude the data from the 60-game season in 2020. From Sarah Langs: “Ray’s 90.1% is the highest by a qualified pitcher in the modern era (since 1900), surpassing 1977 John Candelaria at 88.8%. Next on the list are 2019 Justin Verlander (88.4%) and 2018 Blake Snell (88.0%).”
Best of the rest
Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers. He threw the highest percentage of strikes of any starting pitcher in the majors last year.
Clayton Kershaw, free agent. A high-ranking executive believes that the relative silence hovering over Kershaw’s situation is that the left-hander is in the process of deciding what he wants. When Kershaw pitches, he is still an excellent pitcher, but it’s been seven years since he last made 30 starts in a season, and he compiled a total of 15⅓ innings after July 3 last year. He turns 34 in March. “Once he starts his throwing program for this year, then he’ll have a better idea of how he’s feeling, and maybe what he wants to do,” said the executive.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals. He’s like the old guy in the pickup basketball game who wins day after day. He doesn’t throw as hard as his peers, he’s not going to scare anyone, and the at-bats for hitters might be comfortable. But you can’t possibly argue with the results: He was one of four pitchers to reach 200 innings last year, and he had a 3.05 ERA. He led the majors in called strikes, which would seem to be a reflection of his ability to win the mental chess match with opposing hitters — to throw a pitch the batter is not anticipating.
Charlie Morton, Atlanta Braves
Trevor Bauer won the NL Cy Young Award in 2020, but it’s unclear whether he’ll pitch in 2022. Bauer was on administrative leave for about half of last season, but it is possible he’ll face suspension after his case is resolved — and there is great skepticism in some corners of the Dodgers organization that he’ll throw a pitch for that team again.
Top 10 relievers
Relief pitchers have never borne a greater share of innings than they do in this era, and have never been entrusted with more responsibility. In the postseason last year, for example, the relievers accounted for a record-setting percentage of the innings.
1. 2021 55.1%
2. 1947 50.4%
3. 2020 50.1%
And that doesn’t even account for all of the relievers who masqueraded as starters — the openers, like the Braves’ Dylan Lee, who was on the mound for the first inning of Game 4 of the World Series last year, in his third major league appearance.
But the growing importance of the bullpen guys has not translated into big dollars. Before the owners’ lockout of Dec. 1, some of the big-time shortstops got paid. Robbie Ray got $115 million from the Mariners, Kevin Gausman signed for $110 million with the Blue Jays. The relievers? Not so much.
Raisel Iglesias got a four-year, $58 million deal with the Angels, a team desperate for pitching. Kendall Graveman signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the White Sox. But no other reliever got a deal of more than two years.
And it figures that after the next collective bargaining agreement is signed and transactions resume, even some of the best relievers will feel the depression in market prices — especially in light of the fact that there are about 125 unsigned pitchers.
Here are the top 10 relievers in the game:
1. Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox
If there were a stat for fearlessness, then Hendriks would probably be the league leader for the way he relentlessly attacks hitters. Last season, Hendricks issued only seven walks and struck out 113. His absurd strikeout-to-walk ratio of 16.1-to-1 was the highest of any relief pitcher with at least 100 strikeouts in any season — and generally dwarfs some of others at the top of this list.
Here are the top 5 strikeout-to-walk ratios among relief pitchers with at least 100 strikeouts in a season:
2. Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
The left-hander has seemingly replaced Francisco Lindor as the player most linked to trade rumors, which is what happens as a superstar level player accrues service time for a small-market team. According to MLB Trade Rumors, the arbitration-eligible Hader will be in line for a salary in the range of $10 million next season, which is pricey for any reliever pitching for a club that fields a modest budget (and the Brewers’ payroll was about $100 million last year).
There is already a perception among other teams that Milwaukee is open to offers for Hader — and if the labor stalemate persists and clubs start to shave their projected budgets, maybe the Brewers will be motivated to sell.
Hader continues to be an elite strikeout machine: He has whiffed 44.4% of the hitters he has faced in the big leagues. Last year, he posted the best Adjusted ERA+ of his career — 348. Left-handed batters had one extra-base hit (a double) in 50 plate appearances.
Think about this: When Hader had plate appearances resolved when he was ahead in the count in 2021, opponents were 6-for-90 with no homers and 60 strikeouts.
3. Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Guardians
He whiffed 74 batters in 69⅔ innings last year, solid but unspectacular in this era. What Clase does so well with his spectacular stuff — an average fastball velocity over 100 mph, a wipeout slider — is to generate ground balls. He mustered 127 grounders last year, and only 34 fly balls, which is why he allowed just two homers. In the second half of the season, he had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 16.5 to 1.
4. Blake Treinen, Los Angeles Dodgers
With his hard-veering sinker and nasty slider, Treinen keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat. No relief pitcher generated a higher rate of soft contact last season than the right-hander.
5. Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels
His repertoire is highly unusual for a short reliever. Some bullpen guys rely on one pitch, some succeed with two. But Iglesias has three really good pitches — a fastball he deploys at the top of the zone, a changeup at the bottom, and an excellent breaking ball. This made him almost equally effective against right-handed and left-handed batters.
He has pitched in the big leagues for nine seasons, but from start to finish, last year was his probably his best, with Pressly posting the best home run and walk rates of his career.
7. Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Williams generates outs while throwing the ball in the strike zone only about one-third of the time, 36.2% over the 2020-21 seasons — the fourth-lowest rate among all relievers with at least 70 innings in that time frame. Think about that. The chances of hitters doing damage against Williams are greatly diminished because they can’t reach his pitches as well as they can against others. The contact rate against Williams the last two years is 56.9%, easily the lowest among all relievers.
8. Jonathan Loaisiga, New York Yankees
With his sinking fastball and his curveball, Loaisiga beats opposing hitters in the strike zone; Even when they make contact, they seemingly aren’t able to barrel up the ball. According to FanGraphs, Loaisiga allowed the lowest rate of hard contact of any pitcher in the big leagues, at 18.5%.
9. Aaron Loup, Los Angeles Angels
The Angels paid him very well earlier this offseason, a two-year, $17 million contract, because he mitigates damage. Loup allowed just two extra-base hits in the 93 plate appearances he faced lefties, and he wasn’t bad against righties, either: Right-handed hitters mustered just a .257 slugging percentage against him, with zero homers in 125 plate appearances.
10. Edwin Diaz, New York Mets
While he is still fully capable of meltdowns and of losing the strike zone in a big moment, his stuff still generally crushes hitters — his average fastball at 99 mph, his average slider at 91 mph. It’ll be interesting to see how he evolves under new manager Buck Showalter, who has an excellent track record of building strong bullpens and properly resting relievers.
Best of the rest
Craig Kimbrel, Chicago White Sox. But probably not out of the top 10 for long. Kimbrel is likely to be dealt before the start of the 2022 season, perhaps to a team where he can be the closer. He needs 28 saves to become the seventh pitcher ever to reach at least 400 saves in his career.
Jordan Romano, Toronto Blue Jays
Chad Green, New York Yankees
Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals
Garrett Whitlock, Boston Red Sox
Aaron Bummer, Chicago White Sox
Kendall Graveman, Chicago White Sox
Paul Sewald, Seattle Mariners