Jacob deGrom entered this year with a natural — but daunting — question looming over him: After winning the 2018 National League Cy Young Award with a historically great season, what could he possibly do for an encore?
After April turmoil, the answer officially came Wednesday night: Win the Cy Young again.
DeGrom was named the league’s top pitcher for a second season in a row, snagging 207 points and 29 of 30 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which voted before the playoffs and announced the results Wednesday. Just like last year, deGrom was one vote away from being the unanimous choice.
That blew out the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu, who received 88 points and one first-place vote. In third was the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, who finished outside the top two for the first time since 2015, getting 72 points.
The back-to-back feat further establishes deGrom as one of the best pitchers of his generation and puts him — with continued success and health — on a potential Hall of Fame track. In six seasons, deGrom has these two Cy Youngs, the Rookie of the Year award in 2014 and three trips to the All-Star Game.
He also joined an exclusive group, becoming only the 11th pitcher to win consecutive Cy Young Awards. That list is littered with Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers: Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson (four straight), Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens (twice), Greg Maddux (four straight), Jim Palmer, Denny McLain and Sandy Koufax.
Put another way: For all that deGrom has done in recent years to put his name in the same conversation as Mets pitching greats Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, he now has accomplished something that they never did. Seaver — who won in 1969, 1973 and 1975 — is the only other Met to win more than one.
“Being mentioned with the names that are on those lists, both in major-league history and in Mets history, is truly an honor,” deGrom said, “and something that, when I first came up, if you had asked me that or told me that this was going to happen, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.”
The race came down to deGrom and Ryu. DeGrom had a 2.43 ERA, second in the majors behind Ryu (2.32). His Cy Young case was built around the idea the small difference in ERA was not enough to outweigh deGrom’s leads in strikeouts (first-in-the-NL 255 to 163), WHIP (tied-for-best-in-the-NL 0.97 to 1.01) and innings (204 to 182 2/3), among other categories. DeGrom led the league in opponents’ slugging percentage (.323) and was second in opponents’ OBP (.257).
Unlike last year, when he was the obvious top choice more or less beginning to end and finished with a 1.70 ERA, deGrom’s Cy Young defense featured a stumble in April: a brief stint on the injured list with a sore right elbow and a 9.69 ERA during a three-start stretch.
DeGrom admitted Wednesday that pitching in the shadow of his previous season was initially difficult.
“I feel like I was trying to better what I did in 2018,” he said. “Once I had those three starts that weren’t so good — they were terrible, actually — I got back to my mindset of 2018.
“Looking at what I did in 2018 and how I took the mound, I didn’t let much bother me. It was one pitch at a time, make it to the best of your ability, and if you make a mistake, get the ball back and that was over with, focus on what you’re about to do.”
DeGrom returned to his next-level dominance after the All-Star break, when he allowed 15 earned runs in 14 starts (95 innings) and had 117 strikeouts (to 19 walks). He finished his season on a 23-inning scoreless streak.
As deGrom cruised over the summer, Ryu tanked his commanding lead with a four-start run in August and September, during which his ERA rose from 1.45 to 2.45.
In between deGrom’s mediocrity and excellence, the Mets fired pitching coach Dave Eiland in June and replaced him with the tandem of pitching coach Phil Regan and pitching strategist Jeremy Accardo. That coincided with a marked increase in deGrom’s slider usage, so much so that in some games he threw it more than his fastball.
“I’ve had a lot of good pitching coaches and taken little bits and pieces from them and just try to learn everything I can,” deGrom said.
DeGrom acknowledged that he perused the short list of pitchers who have won two Cy Youngs in a row. He said he hadn’t looked at the even shorter list of those who have done it thrice consecutively — Johnson and Maddux, who each won four in a row — but he will have a chance to join them in 2020.
“In the offseason, you reflect a little bit,” deGrom said. “But now starting to focus on 2020 and getting ready to find a way to get outs in that season.”
PITCHERS TO WIN CONSECUTIVE CY YOUNG AWARDS
Jacob deGrom (2018-19)
Max Scherzer (2016-17)
Clayton Kershaw (2013-14)
Tim Lincecum (2008-09)
Randy Johnson (1999-2002, four straight)
Pedro Martinez (1999-2000)
Roger Clemens (1997-98, 1986-87)
Greg Maddux (1992-95, four straight)
Jim Palmer (1975-76)
Denny McLain (1968-69)
Sandy Koufax (1965-66)