You can order them however you would like now that Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom are finally ensconced at the top of the Mets’ pitching rotation. Each would be nearly every other team’s No. 1 starter, and, either way, you’re not really choosing the order of the team’s rotation or the pitchers’ projected statistics; mostly you’re choosing the phraseology for an idea. Or a fantasy.
From 2016 to 2019, the National League’s four Cy Young Awards all went to Scherzer (then a Washington National) or deGrom (so far, a career Met). From 2016 to 2019, only two NL pitchers earned more than 20 wins above replacement: Scherzer (27) and deGrom (24). With Scherzer and deGrom paired together, it’s easy to imagine that they’ll make a great team only greater. How couldn’t they?
The last two weeks have given us a glimpse of what they can be, and it has been fairly spectacular. Scherzer and deGrom — in that order, thus far — have started back-to-back games three times, and even with deGrom still building up his endurance, they have mostly lived up to their billing: 37⅓ innings, 25 hits, six earned runs , three walks … and 50 strikeouts.
Let’s tap the brakes though, however lightly, on what this means as far as the Mets’ improving.
For one thing, after Sunday’s 6-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Mets’ record was 75-40, which few people outside New York were talking about, mostly because the Los Angeles Dodgers have been even better. But the Mets’ .652 winning percentage was just off the pace for a franchise record (set by the 1986 championship team, which won 108 games). No matter what sort of player you add to a .652 team, the team is not likely to play better than that (because of math that’s not actually complicated).
For another, Scherzer and deGrom have been co-aces for two weeks, and it is not fair yet to expect another two uninterrupted months. DeGrom missed half of last season with an elbow injury and the first four months of this season with a shoulder injury. Scherzer, in his first season with the Mets after signing a record-breaking contract, was on the injured list from mid-May through early July with a strained oblique muscle.
Together — finally — they might well become the premier pitching duo in the major leagues (although Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler have a claim to that). But they would have to avoid the injured list, which hasn’t been a given for either of them in recent years.
But what if Scherzer and deGrom can stay healthy and in the Mets’ rotation? What if they can pitch as well as they did during their Cy Young seasons or in shorter stretches since then? Would we ever have seen anything quite like them?
In terms of strikeouts, we probably have not. Among the many hundreds of pitchers with at least 1,000 innings in their major league careers, deGrom and Scherzer rank fourth and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings. But that’s primarily a function of this high-strikeout era; the three pitchers ahead of them in career strikeout rate are also active this season. As are Nos. 7 and 8.
The pitcher with the sixth-best strikeout rate in history?
The Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. And it’s Johnson upon whom all fantasies about pitching duos must be measured. Because there has never been a more dominant pair of pitching teammates than Johnson and Curt Schilling, who reached their co-ace peak with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and 2002.
Which isn’t to suggest that Johnson and Schilling are the only names that come to mind.
Before Christy Mathewson became a New York Giants legend, he was outmatched for a couple of seasons by his teammate Joe McGinnity, whose nickname was Iron Man.
For a few years in the 1950s, Cleveland’s pitching staff included four future Hall of Famers, three of whom were in their prime. Among them was Early Wynn. In 1956, he and Herb Score could have made a solid argument that they were the two best pitchers in baseball.
In the 1960s, the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were often spoken of as a unit, and in superlative terms. But Drysdale never came particularly close to matching peak Koufax (the latter’s real competition came from National League rivals like Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal).
From 1975 to 1977, the Angels teammates Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana both won exactly 50 games and ranked first and second in the majors in strikeouts. (Tanana wasn’t remotely close to Ryan, and nobody else was close to Tanana.) But mid-70s Ryan was still walking far more batters than anyone else, and generally was not considered the equal of fellow MLB stars like Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton.
In the 1990s, MLB’s top duo was usually Greg Maddux and whichever of his Atlanta teammates was having his best season: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz or even Denny Neagle one year. But during those years of dominance, there was never really an argument for another Atlanta pitcher as the game’s best (or second-best). If it wasn’t Maddux, it was Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez or Johnson.
Johnson, who first became a star in Seattle, signed as a free agent with the Diamondbacks after the 1998 season. In 1999, just the franchise’s second season, he won his second Cy Young Award as the team rocketed into the playoffs. In 2000, he earned his third Cy Young; midway through that season, Arizona traded for Schilling, the ace of the Phillies, who proved to be good (but not great) down the stretch. Arizona finished third, and Manager Buck Showalter — 22 years before he got a dugout seat for the Scherzer and deGrom show in New York — got fired.
In 2001, Johnson won his third straight Cy Young Award and fourth overall. But his 21 wins weren’t enough for the league lead because Schilling won 22. That fall, Johnson and Schilling combined for nine postseason wins as the Diamondbacks rolled to a World Series championship, capped by Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off single against Mariano Rivera in Game 7 against the heavily favored Yankees. Johnson and Schilling finished one-two in Cy Young balloting … and then did it again the next year, with Johnson winning his fourth straight (nobody else has won more than three straight).
Things fell apart in 2003. While both Johnson and Schilling still had good years ahead — despite being in their late 30s — in 2003, neither was healthy all season and both finished with losing records. In those first two glorious seasons, though, they had been the two best pitchers in the major leagues and had all the prizes and statistics — wins, strikeouts, ERAs and wins above replacement (retroactively) — to prove it.
Major League Baseball had never seen anything quite like them, and might never again. For Scherzer and deGrom to even begin to match Johnson and Schilling, they will need to stay healthy the rest of this season and next season, and do something spectacular in at least one October. All while pitching as well as they’ve ever pitched before. And, of course, they’ve both pitched tremendously before.
The good news for the Mets? Nearly every World Series-winning team in history did not have the sport’s two greatest pitchers, or even two truly great pitchers. There are plenty of other ways to win, and the Mets were able to find them as they waited for their aces to return.
Rob Neyer is the author of several books about baseball, including “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” written with Bill James. Neyer’s latest, “The Umpire Is Out: Calling the Game and Living My True Self,” is a collaboration with former umpire Dale Scott.