With his first pitch in a Texas Rangers uniform, Jacob deGrom threw a 99.6 mph fastball. His next five fastballs, in his Opening Day start this March, clocked in at 99.4, 99.5, 99.7, 100.1 and 101.0. He lasted just 73 pitches in that outing, his first with the Rangers after signing a five-year, $185 million contract as a free agent, but deGrom would throw 16 of them at 99 mph or faster, plus another dozen at 98 mph.
It seemed like a bright omen of things to come. Instead, his final pitch of 2023 came just 29 days later, on April 28. He went on the IL a day later, and it was announced Tuesday that deGrom will undergo surgery to repair his ulnar collateral ligament. He will miss the rest of the season and likely much of 2024, meaning that for Texas in 2023 — and possibly next year, too — he threw 451 pitches. The most bittersweet stat of all: 189 of them were at least 98 mph — nearly 42%.
With the news, my first thought was of my colleague Jeff Passan’s book, “The Arm,” in which he captures the importance and the fragility of the arm, at a time when Major League Baseball was seeing unprecedented numbers of Tommy John surgeries. A basic synopsis might be that the human arm, with more than 20 muscles in the upper arm and forearm, simply isn’t constructed to repeatedly throw a small leather sphere overhand at 100 miles per hour — no matter how much fun we have watching it do so. “One thing I now know,” Jeff writes, “is that for all its travails, all the heartache it can cause, all the frustrations left in its wake, the arm is capable of wondrous things.”
That has certainly been the case with deGrom.
Few pitchers in the sport’s history have matched his peak level of excellence. He led the league in ERA in 2018, when he won the first of his back-to-back Cy Young awards, and he made at least 30 starts in four of the five years after his rookie campaign. In the first half of 2021, he went 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA in 15 starts for the New York Mets, striking out 146 batters and walking just 11 in 92 innings. He had mastered an unhittable combination of velocity and command.
Even this year, until leaving his sixth and final start in the fourth inning, he remained dominant: 45 strikeouts, four walks and a .171 batting average allowed. Going back to 2018, deGrom has been the best starter in baseball when he’s healthy enough to go on the mound.
Unfortunately, the second half of his career now reads like this:
2020: 12 starts (COVID-shortened season)
2021: 15 starts (forearm strain)
2022: 11 starts (stress reaction in right scapula)
2023: six starts (elbow surgery)
All might not be lost. Yes, deGrom turns 35 in a couple weeks — meaning he will be 36 if he optimistically returns after the All-Star break next season. But, well, Justin Verlander returned from Tommy John surgery last season at 39 and went on to win a Cy Young Award.
Even if he does, though, it’s still a bummer to miss out on a year-plus of watching deGrom spin his magic. The news of his surgery followed the sad news that a 34-year-old Stephen Strasburg might have thrown the final pitch of his career. Strasburg, who signed a $245 million contract with the Nationals the offseason following their win, last pitched in June of 2022. He’s made eight starts since they won that World Series four years ago And the Washington Post reported Saturday that the 2019 World Series hero has been completely shut down from physical activity.
With both Strasburg and deGrom, there’s just something about their careers that makes you wonder “what if?”
Among pitchers with fewer than 1,500 career innings (not including relievers), deGrom and Strasburg rank first and third in career WAR via Baseball-Reference:
1. deGrom: 41.9
2. Brandon Webb: 33.0
3. Strasburg: 30.9
4. Aaron Nola: 30.8
5. Teddy Higuera: 30.3
The injuries to these two aces certainly show the risks of signing pitchers to these big, long-term contracts. The Post reported that, due to Strasburg’s previous injuries before the $245 million deal, the Nationals weren’t even able to obtain insurance on him. They’ll likely end up getting one win from their high-stakes gamble.
These are hardly isolated cases. The Mariners signed Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract before 2022. He made one start this season before going down with Tommy John surgery. The Yankees signed Carlos Rodon to a $162 million deal this past offseason and he’s yet to pitch after going down in spring training with forearm and back issues. Chris Sale helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2018, signed a $145 million extension that didn’t kick in until 2020 and is only now healthy again after missing all of 2020 and most of 2021 and 2022 (although he’s not pitching at his previous high level of dominance). And the list goes on and on.
But the lure of that arm that’s “capable of wondrous things” is just too hard for front offices to resist. The Rangers, desperate for starting pitching after ranking 25th in the majors in rotation ERA in 2022, not only brought in deGrom as a free agent, but signed Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney, re-signed Martin Perez when he accepted the team’s qualifying offer, and traded for Jake Odorizzi (and this after signing Jon Gray as a free agent in 2022).
Of those five pitchers, four spent time on the injured list in 2022, with only Perez escaping the season unscathed. Odorizzi won’t pitch at all for the Rangers; he’s already out for the season after shoulder surgery. But general manager Chris Young says he was going for depth with exactly these kinds of injuries in mind — and he struck gold with Eovaldi in signing him to a two-year, $34 million deal (that also includes a vesting option for 2025). Eovaldi is a leading Cy Young contender so far, going 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA.
Now, he can also be an inspiration for deGrom. This will be deGrom’s second elbow surgery, after having one in the minors. Eovaldi has also had two Tommy John surgeries, the first in high school and then a second in 2016. He hasn’t been completely healthy since then — he missed time in 2019 with “loose bodies” in his elbow and spent two separate stints on the IL last season with back inflammation and then shoulder tightness — but at 33 years old, he’s pitching the best baseball of his career.
With Gray also pitching well, Texas is second in the majors in rotation ERA in 2023, and in fact has been humming along in first place without deGrom for weeks already.
So, yes, the Rangers apparently have an ace they signed in free agency — just not the one everyone thought — plus a powerhouse lineup that will allow them to go toe-to-toe with the Astros in the AL West. Now they just need Eovaldi and Gray and company to stay healthy.