Let’s get the specifics out of the way first, so we can all gasp and react together. Jacob deGrom is now a Texas Ranger, after he signed a five-year, $185 million deal with a conditional option for a sixth year, as Jeff Passan first reported:
BREAKING: Right-hander Jacob deGrom has signed a five-year, $185 million contract with the Texas Rangers, sources tell ESPN. Physical is passed. Deal is done. Includes conditional sixth-year option that would take total deal to $222 million. Full no-trade clause. A massive haul.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 3, 2022
Alright, now that we’ve got that written down: gasp! I have to say, I didn’t see this coming. Earlier this week, I described deGrom as the one pitcher I’d want on the mound if humanity was going to play a single baseball game against an alien society to determine the fate of the world. Simply put, he’s the best doing it right now when he’s available.
His opponents next year won’t be aliens. In fact, they’ll be the ones who feel like they’re facing an extra-terrestrial, because the way deGrom pitches doesn’t resemble any other starter. He pumps 100 mph fastballs and hits the edges of the strike zone with frankly inhuman precision. The velocity understates how good his fastball is. Even the location understates how good his fastball is. He also induces tremendous vertical break on the ball, and his delivery means that his fastball crosses the plate at a comically shallow angle. I wouldn’t trust any characteristic-based pitching model that didn’t grade deGrom’s fastball as an 80 – it’s as good as it gets.
His slider is similarly peerless. He throws it at a speed that would be respectable for a heater, and peppers the glove-side edge of the strike zone so consistently that back-to-back pitches sometimes look like replays. You’d never try to teach someone to pitch like deGrom, in the same way that you’d never try to teach someone to play basketball like Kevin Durant.
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Rangers just signed the best pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis, and perhaps the best pitcher since Pedro Martinez. But per-inning is doing a lot of work in that sentence. In the past two years, deGrom has only pitched 156.1 innings, and at times it seems like his body simply can’t hold up to the rigors he puts it through. Maybe there’s a reason that no one else throws sliders that top out at 96 mph.
ZiPS projects deGrom to be better than any other pitcher in baseball by a ludicrous amount… when he pitches:
ZiPS Projections – Jacob deGrom
I struggle to wrap my head around a projected 2.40 ERA. That’s the kind of season that might net you a Cy Young if you do it over 32 starts – and it’s not an outlier season for deGrom, but a median expectation. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, either; his career ERA checks in at 2.52, and he’s pitched most of his career in an offense-friendly environment.
As Dan cautioned in his initial writeup, ZiPS takes a generalized approach to injuries that probably doesn’t peg deGrom exactly right. It’s better at predicting rate statistics, and the rate statistics are spectacular. There’s no knowing the future, but it’s a good bet that every time deGrom takes the mound while he’s a Texas Ranger, he’ll do so as one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
The Rangers are betting on him being at least passably healthy. They surely don’t expect to get 32 starts a year – if you could expect that of deGrom, his contract would have been meaningfully larger. For a team that is short on starting pitching and on the fringes of playoff contention, though, every extra start counts.
Before signing deGrom, the Rangers looked like a .500 team. That’s not good enough to make the playoffs, even in the expanded postseason era, but it’s not far off. Adding deGrom puts them in a position to compete for a postseason berth immediately. Are they challenging the Astros for first in the AL West? Certainly not. But that’s not the minimum bar anymore. Eighty-six wins was good enough for a playoff spot in the AL last year, and 87 was good enough in the NL. The Rangers might not be a slam dunk playoff team, but they’re already in the running, and I expect that they’ll make some outfield improvements before next year to round out the offseason.
Before this signing, I’d convinced myself that playoff locks were deGrom’s natural suitors. If you’re very likely to play in October, missed innings in the regular season hurt less. Assuming he’s healthy come playoff time, no player in the game offers a bigger advantage in a short series.
When you put it that way, though, teams that are gunning for a Wild Card berth and a best-of-three series should want deGrom even more. If you think having the best pitcher in a five-game series is a big deal, imagine applying that to a three-game series. Sure, maybe he could throw twice in the five-game version, but if I were the team signing deGrom, I’d be giving him as much rest as possible, and one out of three beats one out of five.
Assume you’re next year’s AL Central champions. Is there a team you’d be less interested in facing than the Rangers? In the last three years, deGrom has allowed one or fewer runs in 60% of his starts. Baseball is a game of thin margins, and even the best pitchers lose plenty, but beating deGrom is a steep uphill climb. That’s a nice edge to bank if you’re the kind of team that probably won’t have a playoff bye.
The Rangers are making an interesting tradeoff by signing deGrom. If their goal was to maximize their projected wins in 2023 by spending $37 million (the average annual value of his contract), they could have done better by spreading the money across several free agents. Any reasonable projection will bake in enough missed starts for deGrom that an ensemble crew would likely accrue more WAR.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it — winning in the playoffs is what every team is trying to do (or should be), and I’d rather have deGrom than five league-average starters if I were the Rangers and my only goal was to win a playoff series. That logic doesn’t work for every team – if you’re the Rockies or the Reds, you’d still be pretty bad even with deGrom, so increasing your baseline level is more important than adding a star – but for teams in marginal playoff position already, a magisterial ace with health issues seems like a worthy gamble.
I projected deGrom for a higher-dollar, shorter-length deal, but these terms feel broadly similar in terms of expected career earnings. Depending on how you account for options, it’s either the second- or third-highest AAV in the history of free agency, and that feels broadly right for a pitcher of deGrom’s stature. The Rangers are paying him an absolute mint, but they’re getting one of the best players in baseball in the deal. Anyone saying this contract is either an obvious bargain or an obvious overpay is projecting false certainty. The best we can say is that it’s a risk, but one with substantial upside.
Expect to see plenty of coverage in the next few weeks touting the fact that the Rangers are betting on deGrom’s health, and sure, they’d love that. I think that’s a misstatement of facts, though. The Rangers don’t need deGrom to throw 180 innings a year to make this deal make sense. No one in baseball, short of perhaps Jacob deGrom, thinks he’ll make it through the next five years without missing significant time. He’s not a health unicorn; he’s a per-inning unicorn, so much so that if I had to pick one pitcher to accrue the most fWAR in baseball over the next two years, I’d take deGrom, even accounting for injury risk.
I didn’t come into this offseason expecting the Rangers to sign the best pitcher on the market. I like what they’re doing, though. Once you’ve improved your team to the point where they’re a fringe playoff contender, you might as well keep going. Doing so by signing a superstar is obviously great, and they’ve become a team opposing managers will have nightmares about with the stroke of a pen.
I’m always hesitant to psychoanalyze players’ free agency decisions, and I’ll keep my commentary on deGrom’s decision short. $185 million is a lot of money, particularly when taking into account the different state tax regimes. I left New York at 34, and I’m happier for it; it’d hardly be a surprise if deGrom just wanted a change. But projecting my own feelings onto elite professional athletes is a dangerous game. As I’ve already mentioned, deGrom scarcely seems human at times. Whatever his motivation, he’s now a Texas Ranger, and the AL West looks a lot different than it did a week ago.