Tuesday, September 26, 2023 Sep 26, 2023
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The Rangers Bet Big on an Outlier. Now Jacob deGrom Must Become One Again.

No one has ever pitched like Jacob deGrom. Now Texas needs him to author a comeback unlike any other, too.
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Jacob deGrom faces a long spell on the sidelines. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There has never been anyone like Jacob deGrom, which begins to explain why the idea of signing a 34-year-old inveterate visitor to the injury list was so intoxicating. From 2020 through 2022, deGrom hurt his neck, his hamstring, his side, his elbow, his shoulder, his forearm, his shoulder again. His first notable development in a Ranger uniform was a wrist injury. The next one figures to be postponed for at least a calendar year now that he’s torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow—the traditional precursor to Tommy John surgery—for the second time in his career.  

But there is also the hellraising fastball, with 98.7 mph of average velocity, a number most relievers strain to hit, let alone seven-inning starting pitchers. And that 91.8-mph slider, how it turns and torqued, a fighter jet on the attack.

No starter has paired two offerings quite like those together, and deGrom rode the liveliest arsenal in baseball to numbers from the game’s dead-ball era. Only a handful have matched his dominance. The career 2.53 ERA. The preposterous 95-start streak with a 1.95 ERA. The magical 2018 season, when his 1.70 ERA was the second-lowest number for a league ERA champion since Greg Maddux at his apex. The third-best strikeout rate in baseball history among starting pitchers, without the wildness that tends to accompany it.

The Rangers have waited their entire existence for an ace like that. Not Nolan Ryan in his surprisingly radiant golden years, nor Cliff Lee’s four-month cameo, nor flawed demigods like Yu Darvish and Ferguson Jenkins, but an era-defining pitcher to call their own. Never mind that, knowing what we do about baseball, the brilliance was breaking him. Arms are not built to withstand throwing a baseball this hard, this often, with this much action—not even a reconstructed one like deGrom’s. Then again, arms aren’t supposed to be able to do the things deGrom’s can in the first place.

And so the Rangers gambled. Jacob deGrom had not topped 15 starts in a season since before the pandemic, and his former employer went on record two years ago saying that he was pitching with a partial tear in that repaired UCL. The risk was so high that the Rangers could not secure insurance on what would become a five-year, $185 million contract. Hence the arcane sixth-year option they negotiated as an insurance policy—that perhaps they could recoup some value on the back of the deal if deGrom fell apart on their very expensive watch.

But perhaps he could continue on like he had been, creaking and cracking without crumbling. Perhaps he could do even more. Hypotheticals become awfully seductive when they involve someone who can flirt with perfection each night he does step onto the mound.

Now deGrom has succumbed to wear and tear like conventional wisdom suggested he inevitably would. The best-case scenario involves undergoing an internal brace surgery, a fairly new and relatively less severe operation that nevertheless puts deGrom out the rest of this season and, per the Morning News’ Evan Grant, a healthy chunk of next. The worst is a second Tommy John, which features a recovery period in the neighborhood of a year and a half.

Either route is fraught. Consider this database maintained by baseball writer and analyst Jon Roegle, which, among other things, tracks the number of pitchers who have undergone internal brace surgery or a second Tommy John. Per Roegle’s research, 33 MLB players have undergone the former since the Cardinals’ Mitch Harris was the first to attempt it in 2016. The list of double-TJ guys, meanwhile, is 288 names long, dating back to 1989. Each number is a pinprick among the generations of names who have made it to the big leagues. The number of successes? Smaller still. Only 19 of the 33 players who underwent internal brace surgery have returned to the previous competition level they played at prior to the operation. Just 87 of the 146 Tommy John repeaters made it back at any level.

Peruse those lists, and you won’t find a single player of deGrom’s ilk. The odd All-Star notwithstanding, the names are a menagerie of relievers and mid-rotation arms, occasionally interspersed by position players. Perhaps—there’s that word again—talent trumps trauma. But none of them have made a living on such sustained violence, either. Nor did any of the successful recent analogues—the Cubs’ Jameson Taillon, the White Sox’ Mike Clevinger, and deGrom’s Rangers teammate Nathan Eovaldi—undergo those surgeries in their mid-30s the way deGrom will. And, as CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry points out, only five pitchers saw a longer gap between their first and second surgeries—and, by extension, were further removed from the grueling rehab process—than deGrom’s 13 years.

Once again, then, the Rangers need deGrom to be an outlier. He must transcend medical history the way he has baseball history and return as at least a facsimile of his old self, if not the full article. Then he must remain there as he creeps into his late-30s, warding off the conventional damage time and age deal. And then he must hope that his fastball and slider, those beautiful, brutal weapons of choice, don’t send him on the path of Tampa’s Drew Rasmussen, a 27-year-old who was cementing himself as the best-case scenario for two-time Tommy John recoverees until his pitching elbow gave out once again last month.

Because impressive as Texas has been out of the gate, this team is not built to sustain long-term excellence without deGrom. While Eovaldi and Jon Gray each rank among baseball’s top-eight starters by ERA, the underlying metrics strongly point toward regression. The former is a very good pitcher, the latter a strong one, but neither is the world-beating, rotation-heading arm Texas is compensating deGrom to be. It’s too soon to pluck one from the farm, either, at least not until Jack Leiter continues his resurgence over a larger sample or 20-year-old Brock Porter’s ascension carries over to the higher levels of the minors. Barring a mega trade, only deGrom provides the ceiling necessary for the Rangers to achieve their potential in the Marcus Semien-Corey Seager window.

It’s a rickety foundation for the edifice to be built on, this spectacularly broken maestro. There is no telling what comes next, only that the Rangers are on the hook for many tens of millions no matter how much or little deGrom provides them. This may not work. This has to work. And now we wait on science, and a man who has spent a career defying it, to tell the rest of the story.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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