New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom is having one of the best seasons in Major League Baseball this year. He is a strong candidate for the National League Cy Young Award on the merits of his Wins Above Replacement marks; by the WAR measure used by FanGraphs, deGrom is the single-best pitcher in baseball this season, as well as the best overall player in the National League.
Jacob deGrom has a 1.71 ERA (the best in baseball among leaderboard-qualified pitchers), and he isn’t purely a benefactor of batted-ball luck, either: his 2.06 fielding-independent ERA trails only Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale among qualified pitchers. And his win-loss record, for generations the most commonly cited metric of pitcher success, deGrom is 8-9.
The degree to which deGrom’s overwhelming dominance by any other measure has not correlated to team wins and losses is impossible to overstate. Lucas Giolito, the worst qualified pitcher in baseball this season by ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and pitching for a terrible Chicago White Sox team, has won ten games. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Godley has 14 wins with a 4.67 ERA (in his defense, his peripherals are better than this, but from a practical standpoint, allowing runs is the only pitching statistic with a direct causation effect with pitcher record).
With eight wins and 8.7 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (which is based on runs allowed), deGrom has a very real chance for his Wins Above Replacement to eclipse his Wins for a full season. Only once before has a qualified pitcher earned more WAR than wins during the World Series era–in 1937, when Eddie Smith of the 54-97 Philadelphia Athletics had a 4.2 WAR season with only four wins. Smith was 20% better by park-adjusted ERA than the average pitcher in 1937; deGrom has been 116% better. What he is doing is unprecedented.
Obviously, no St. Louis Cardinals pitcher has ever had such terrible luck, seeing as I just listed the players who have had such terrible luck (were you people ever listening?!?!?!), but that isn’t to say the Cardinals haven’t had some pitchers who, usually because the team surrounding them played poorly, embodied the spirit of Jacob deGrom in 2018.
There have been thirteen seasons in Cardinals history in which a primarily starting pitcher’s WAR total was more than half of his win total in seasons where the pitcher had at least five wins (this threshold is mostly to exclude fluky situations such as 2015 Tim Cooney, who had one win with 0.6 WAR). The seventh and eighth such seasons were courtesy of Bob Gibson in 1968 and 1969. Now, neither of these two seasons were really in the spirit of what deGrom represents–Gibson won 22 and 20 games, respectively; he was just so good that he snuck his way into this leaderboard. The five players since Gibson fit the criteria. Let’s talk about these players, as they probably didn’t get the respect they deserved at the time because, while Jacob deGrom still might win a Cy Young, previous eras were much more strident about wins and losses than this one.
1972 Scipio Spinks: If his name weren’t Scipio Spinks, I probably wouldn’t know who Scipio Spinks is. But that’s his name and it stands out in a list of Cardinals pitchers so I know it. And in his brief MLB career (his last game occurred at 25, thanks to a rash of injuries; he currently works as a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, according to a very possibly out of date Wikipedia entry), 1972, his first in St. Louis, was easily his best season. Spinks started 16 games, posting an impressive 2.67 ERA, but he went just 5-5, all while being more valuable by WAR than teammate Lou Brock, who finished 15th in MVP voting.
1988 John Tudor: Tudor’s most famous season came in 1985, when his Cy Young-caliber season just happened to run into the gauntlet that was Dwight Gooden, but his next-best season was 1988. With a Cardinals team that went 76-86, Tudor had a 2.72 ERA, good for 4 WAR, despite amassing just six wins. Tudor might get a little bit of an asterisk because he was traded during the season to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but his composite numbers also fit the criteria for this list (5.2 WAR, ten wins).
1988 Joe Magrane: The 1988 Cardinals weren’t a terrible team, and yet they have ample representation on this list. 1988 Joe Magrane is an interesting case, and may be the most deGrom-like player in recent memory: his record was just 5-9, but he also managed to lead the National League in ERA. He barely qualified for the title, so his WAR wasn’t quite as high as you might suspect, but 3.7 WAR to five wins is rather lopsided (and obviously if he pitched more, he’d risk winning games). 1988’s second-winningest pitcher, Scott Terry, was primarily a reliever. What a time to be alive (a few months before I was born).
1991 Jose DeLeon: The winningest pitcher from the aforementioned 1988 team, DeLeon cracked this list on a winning team, one which went 84-78 (which is a better record than the 2006 World Series champions, because baseball refuses to obey basic logic). DeLeon twice lost 19 games in a season, in 1985 and 1990, but in 1991, he matched Magrane’s 1988 record of 5-9. Of the team’s five primary starting pitchers, DeLeon had the lowest ERA (2.71; the next lowest was Bob Tewksbury’s 3.25) while also having easily the fewest wins (the other four each had eleven).
1998 Matt Morris: The 1998 Cardinals, despite the 70 home runs (and countless walks) of Mark McGwire and quietly elite seasons from Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford, were not a great team (one of their top ten players by WAR, J.D. Drew, made his debut on the same night Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run). Morris was the team’s fourth most valuable player, and its most valuable pitcher, but despite a 2.53 ERA during a season near the peak of the (to put it in politically correct terms) late-1990s home run boom, Morris went just 7-5, albeit in just 17 games (Morris was worth 3.5 WAR). The team’s winningest pitcher, Kent Mercker, had an ERA more than double that of Morris. Again, 1998 was a strange year of Cardinals baseball.