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Jacob deGrom has a Hall of Fame arm. Of this, there is no doubt. He’s done things on the mound throughout his career that leave other major league players awestruck, both opposing hitters and his fellow pitchers. 

But with the news Tuesday that the Rangers’ ace is headed for Tommy John surgery and expected to miss at least 12 months, his hopes of ever being inducted into Cooperstown have almost certainly ended. He’ll be 36 when he returns. 

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Instead, he joins the ranks of the prestigious, but wistful, members of what is unofficially known as Eric Davis Club. The players here were immensely talented, but injuries (plural) robbed them of a chance to play a full career. It’s just not fair, to the players or to the fans who loved watching them perform. 

The What Might Have Beens have a special place in our hearts — Nomar Garciaparra, J.R. Richard, Don Mattingly, Herb Score, Grady Sizemore and Mark Prior, among others — but they’ll never get a plaque in the Cooperstown gallery. It’s a damn shame.

Davis was special. At least deGrom got a couple of full seasons, something Davis never was able to accomplish. He played parts of 17 seasons in the bigs, but never appeared in more than 135 games. Still, the talent was tantalizing, and undeniable. 

In 1986, his Age 24 season, he had 27 homers and 80 stolen bases, in 132 games.

In 1987, he played 129 games, hit 37 homers, stole 50 bases

No other player in MLB history has ever hit at least 37 homers and had at least 50 stolen bases in a season.

“Eric has more talent than any player I have ever seen in my life, including Willie Mays,” Pete Rose, then the Reds manager, told The Sporting News in a 1987 cover story. “I think everything said about him is justified. I saw Mays and Aaron and Clemente, but I can’t imagine them doing more things than Eric can.”

I could go on and on, but this isn’t about Eric The Red, and how he might have been in the conversation about the greatest players ever if he’d stayed healthy. 

It’s about Jake de(could have been)Goat. 

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In 2018, his Age 30 season, deGrom posted a 1.70 ERA/1.98 FIP and won the NL Cy Young. Then he won it again in 2019, with a 2.43 ERA. He made 12 starts in the shortened 2020 pandemic season, finishing third in the Cy Young vote. That was three basically full seasons, of 32, 32 and 12 starts. 

And he was better than ever to start the 2021 season. In 15 starts through July 7 — he missed a couple of starts in mid-May — deGrom had a 1.08 ERA, with a 1.24 FIP and 0.554 WHIP. In 92 innings, he struck out 146, allowed only 40 hits and 11 walks. 

Just silly stuff. Then, he landed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. He was hopeful to return, but after a couple of setbacks and with the team out of contention, he was held out the rest of the season. He looked healthy to start spring training 2022, but right near the end of camp he was shut down again, this time with a stress reaction in his right scapula. 

He returned in August to make 11 starts, with a 2.14 FIP, 14.3 K/9 and 5.6 H/9. The Rangers saw enough to give him a massive five-year, $185 million contract. 

deGrom made six starts, posting a 2.67 ERA, then landed on the IL. Now, this news.

Before we go, let’s look at the Hall of Fame possibilities. The door isn’t completely shut, but the chances are not good. As we mentioned, he’ll be 36 when he returns, best-case scenario, in the second half of 2024. And he’ll be coming off Tommy John surgery. That’s challenging in a pitcher’s mid-20s, even more so in his late 30s. 

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So where does he stand with his Cooperstown resume? 

We’ll start here: deGrom has thrown only 1,356 1/3 innings. The smallest number of innings for any starting pitcher currently in Cooperstown (AL and NL players only): Dizzy Dean, with 1,967 1/3.

That’s a big difference, 611 innings. The most deGrom’s ever thrown in a three-year stretch was 622 1/3, from 2017 to 2019. That wouldn’t be repeatable from Age 37 to 39, so getting to Dean’s total would mean deGrom staying healthy and pitching in his 40s. 

And it’s not like getting to Dean’s total is any sort of guarantee. Look at Johan Santana as a prime example of that truth. Santana was part of the class of 2018 ballot, and he failed to receive even the 5 percent necessary to stay on the ballot. Full disclosure: I voted for him, and wrote often why I cast that vote. 

Like deGrom, Santana won two Cy Young awards. Santana led his league in ERA three times, in FIP three times and in bWAR three times. Like deGrom, Santana’s career was severely shortened by injuries. Unlike deGrom, Santana did his best work in his 20s. Santana finished with 2,025 2/3 innings, multiple Cy Youngs and lots of black ink on his Baseball-Reference page, and he didn’t even get a second year on the ballot.

Now, let’s look at how deGrom compares with the patron saint of pitchers with dominant but with far-too-short careers: Sandy Koufax. deGrom has a career 2.53 ERA, Koufax is at 2.76. That’s a good start for deGrom. In his best five-year stretch, deGrom had a 2.05 ERA; Koufax had a 1.95 ERA in his best five-year stretch. Another fine comparison.

But in his best five-year stretch, Koufax threw more innings (1,377) than deGrom has in his entire career (1,356 1/3). In his career, Koufax threw 2,324 1/3 innings. deGrom isn’t catching that, not unless he’s going for a Nolan Ryan type push into his mid-40s.  

So here we are. Jacob deGrom is having Tommy John surgery soon. Will he ever be the same? Probably not. Will he ever have a plaque in Cooperstown? Probably not.

But will he be a beloved member of the Eric Davis club, an unforgettable figure in baseball history?

No doubt about that.



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