When my Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh opined in June that pitchers have become so bad at hitting that the National League should adopt the DH, he probably had something like last Monday’s first matchup between Jacob deGrom (pitching) and Joey Lucchesi (batting) in mind. The Mets righty is maybe the majors’ best pitcher at the moment; the Padres rookie lefty, conversely, has been a pleasant surprise on the mound but boasts little meaningful experience at the plate: He didn’t hit in college, batted just four times in the minor leagues, and had struck out 11 times in 20 MLB plate appearances before facing deGrom.
The at-bat was over in 24 seconds, too quick for the Mets broadcast team to even finish discussing a simple graphic. DeGrom threw a fastball down the middle for strike one, then a second fastball down the middle for strike two, then a third fastball down the middle for strike three and a bemused walk back to the dugout for Lucchesi.
It was a low-stakes, low-intensity, low-effort affair, and just about the least exciting strikeout imaginable. DeGrom has already achieved tremendous feats this year, both statistical and aesthetic, and he doesn’t need to prove his worth by retiring a pitcher with a few relaxed fastballs. But deGrom’s dominance of fellow pitchers warrants further inspection, as it has become the sort of statistical and aesthetic marvel that makes a long season so esoterically entertaining—a delightful little baseball story told over 34 anticlimactic plate appearances.
Over the whole season, pitcher plate appearances against deGrom have ended as follows, in chronological order, with the positive outcomes for the batter bolded: strikeout, flyout, groundout, groundout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, pop-out, sacrifice bunt, strikeout, strikeout, pop-out, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, groundout, lineout, reached on error, groundout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, groundout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, strikeout, lineout.
To recap: That’s one successful sacrifice bunt and an 0-for-33 batting line, with 22 strikeouts and a grand total of three balls hit to the outfield. Collectively, pitchers have recorded a batting average of .000, an on-base percentage of .000, and a slugging percentage of .000. For all intents and purposes, deGrom hasn’t stumbled once all year against a fellow hurler. (The one blemish on deGrom’s perfect record, if in spirit rather than on his actual stat line, came against Masahiro Tanaka, when erstwhile Mets first baseman Adrián González bobbled a slow grounder. The Yankees’ Tanaka is the only American League pitcher to reach base via error this season.)
It helps, of course, that pitchers have never hit so poorly as they do now, meaning deGrom’s foes in this split give him whatever the pitching equivalent of batting practice is. Among the 73 pitchers who have faced at least 20 pitcher-hitters this year, only seven pitchers have allowed even a .500 OPS; the worst OPS for a qualified hitter, for comparison, is Alcides Escobar’s .512.
Yet even against a light-hitting group, deGrom is on a historic pace. He’s one of only a handful of pitchers in league history to strike out at least 64 percent of opposing pitcher-hitters in a season, and he already ranks fourth all time in most batters faced (34) with a .000 OPS allowed; Ron Villone (36 in 2001) and Frank Pastore (39 in 1981) are both within reach, while Masato Yoshii (57 in 1998) is likely too far away, as dwindling starter innings in 2018 mean deGrom simply hasn’t faced pitchers frequently enough to catch Yoshii.
By no means is this close to the most remarkable set of statistics that have emerged in deGrom’s magical 2018 season. His sub-2 ERA tells a more understandable story of his overall performance, for one, and he’s on pace to become the second qualified starter in MLB history to exceed his pitcher win total with his WAR, which tells a more tragicomic story about that performance in a miserable Mets context. Even from a batting order perspective, it’s almost certainly more impressive that he’s held opposing cleanup hitters to a .169/.197/.271 slash line and no. 6 hitters to a .167/.224/.185 output. And over a sample this small, against competition this feeble, the difference between deGrom’s .000 OPS allowed and, say, Clayton Kershaw’s .250 OPS allowed doesn’t hint at any meaningful difference in ability. Villone, Pastore, and Yoshii are rather mundane names to top a leaderboard.
But almost nobody in baseball—nobody in sports—is perfect for any length of time; a pitcher retiring every hitter he faces in a game is the most celebrated potential outcome in any regular-season game. Over a full season against pitcher-hitters, other recent pitchers have come close but missed—in 2015, Madison Bumgarner allowed a single walk and no hits in 57 matchups, while Zack Greinke was just as stingy against 55 pitcher-hitters—and deGrom is only one errant hit by pitch or blooped single away from a permanent blot on this otherwise impeccable record.
As it is, he has been rather lucky to last this long with a .000/.000/.000 opposing slash line. Statcast’s hit probability metric, which measures how likely a batted ball is to become a hit based on its exit velocity and launch angle, calculates that deGrom’s batted balls allowed have had just a 2 percent chance of all being converted into outs. So far, no play has required a true web gem, but fortuitous positioning has helped him on some moderately well-struck grounders, and given enough batted balls, the odds are that at least one would sneak through.
Yet those three zeros stand out amid a vast collection of crooked numbers across the sport’s statistical pages. There is something inherently satisfying, something primally overwhelming, about watching this magnitude of sheer uninterrupted dominance at any level, against any manner of competition. It’s a reminder of the overly pubescent preteen in Little League who strikes out every noodle-armed hitter, and Jennie Finch against MLB All-Stars, and Satchel Paige in his most swashbuckling barnstormer days.
That manner of extreme imbalance is also not as common in the majors as the poor leaguewide performance of pitcher-hitters might suggest. Because of the DH, half the league’s best pitchers face pitchers at the plate only in interleague play, and because of usage patterns, closers—the most dominant per-plate-appearance arms in the sport—rarely do so at all. Kenley Jansen has faced nine pitchers in his career, Aroldis Chapman two, and Craig Kimbrel zero; in his 19-year, 1,115-game career, Mariano Rivera never faced another pitcher even once.
It’s not as though deGrom needs to reach deep into his bag of tricks to mow down opposing pitchers. He throws more fastballs and targets the strike zone more frequently when facing pitchers as opposed to real hitters, but that pattern isn’t unusual across the league. What is extreme is how effective this simple strategy has proved. DeGrom gets ahead of opposing pitchers and stays there, allowing him to send them back to the dugout with little strain; he hasn’t faced a 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1 count against a pitcher all season, and just 5.6 percent of all the pitches he’s thrown against pitchers have come in a hitter-friendly count. That’s the lowest share of any pitcher who’s faced pitcher-hitters anywhere as close to as much as deGrom. Not all opponents are like Lucchesi, either; they do swing on occasion. But they look predictably foolish when they do, whiffing 52 percent of the time, 12th-highest among 123 pitchers with at least 10 swings against.
There’s one final twist in this odd little tale, though: Despite his career-long success against actual hitters, DeGrom hasn’t always dominated fellow pitchers so thoroughly—not even close. Over his career, among 106 active pitchers who have faced at least 100 pitcher-hitters, deGrom ranks just 87th in OPS allowed, while two of his teammates approach the lead instead (Noah Syndergaard ranks second and Steven Matz sixth).
At times, he’s been even worse. Since the introduction of the designated hitter in the AL in 1973, pitchers have accumulated nearly 3,000 different seasons of facing at least 34 pitcher-hitters (deGrom’s number so far in 2018). The worst performance in that giant sample—as measured by the Baseball-Reference stat sOPS+, which compares OPS to the overall league average in a given season—belongs to none other than deGrom, who allowed an OPS to pitchers more than four times the average in 2016. He gave up a home run to Madison Bumgarner that year and somehow surrendered a .600 BABIP to pitchers—now just two seasons later, he’s on pace for perhaps the best season against opposing pitchers in MLB history.
Baseball is weird; baseball is perfect. And through 21 games thus far, facing 34 pitchers and not allowing a single walk, hit, or run, deGrom’s been weirdly perfect, too.