The New York Mets have four young, ace-caliber talents within their projected 2016 rotation, and which is the one I most want to draft to my fantasy team?
The oldest one, and the only one of the four who has never graced a preseason top 100 prospects list: Jacob deGrom.
On a pitching staff sure to generate as much interest as any other in baseball -- three Mets place among our top 17 starting pitchers in our staff rankings -- deGrom is the one who never seems to receive enough credit for his overwhelming success through his first season and three quarters in the majors.
Consider: Since his May 15, 2014 debut, deGrom ranks fifth among qualifiers in ERA (2.61), 10th in WHIP (1.05) and eighth in strikeout rate (26.5 percent of hitters faced). And from a historical perspective, deGrom's 40 quality starts through his first 56 games were tied for the third most in the past century, and his 349 strikeouts during that time were 10th most, per Baseball-Reference.com. Only Dwight Gooden (41 quality starts and 433 strikeouts) had more of both than deGrom through that many career starts.
DeGrom has done this by making substantial improvements to his changeup, which is a major reason he has been able to boost what was a 15.2 percent strikeout rate against left-handed batters in the minors in 2013, to 26.9 percent in the majors in 2015. He now has four plus pitches -- four- and two-seam fastballs, a slider and changeup -- which makes him a vastly better pitcher than the one who generated scouting reports that caused him to fall short of past top prospect lists.
Certainly, Matt Harvey also makes a compelling case to be selected first -- and the ESPN Fantasy staff ranks him that way -- and their Nos. 9 (deGrom) and 10 (Harvey) finishes on the 2015 Player Rater give the decision the look of an effective coin flip. Don't get me wrong; it is a proverbial coin flip, but leaving it one serves no reader. Besides, there's enough evidence to spin that coin to deGrom's side.
Comparing their 2015 numbers, deGrom beat Harvey in strikeout rate, well-hit average allowed, miss rate on swings, strike rate, swinging strike rate (percentage of misses out of all pitches thrown), FIP (fielding independent pitching), xFIP, WAR (wins above replacement), SIERA (skill-interactive ERA), strikeout-to-walk ratio, quality start percentage and average game score.
Harvey beat deGrom in only walk rate, first-pitch strike rate and contact rate on pitches within the strike zone, and he led in each by minuscule amounts.
Harvey also had the more favorable numbers in traditional "luck"-based categories such as batting average on balls in play (BABIP), left on base percentage and home run-to-fly ball ratio.
Surely his greater reputation must be a product of the snazzier nickname.
DeGrom also has thrown 178 2/3 and 191 innings, facing 726 and 751 batters, the past two regular seasons, with a step-ladder workload progression the past four years that make him look up to the task of being a 33-start, 215-plus-inning workhorse with minimal health risk in 2016.
Harvey, meanwhile, threw an identical number of innings as deGrom (216 each, postseason included) while facing eight additional batters (864-856) in 2015, but he did so after missing the entirety of the 2014 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery. By doing so, Harvey amassed the greatest number of innings pitched by any major leaguer in history in his first season following that surgery. In his defense, of the five pitchers to throw at least as many as Harvey's regular-season 189 1/3 in their first seasons following a Tommy John surgery, four enjoyed an innings pitched increase while lowing their FIPs the following year, with the group averaging a 10 1/3 inning increase and two-thirds of a run drop in FIP.
Again, it's a proverbial coin flip ... but count me among those who prefer the relative safety of deGrom.
What of Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz?
Drawing the other two young members of the Mets' rotation into the discussion, the main reason that Syndergaard and Matz don't force us to seek a three- or four-sided coin is their more limited experience. In Syndergaard's case, his sizable bump in workload last season is also a slight concern, and in Matz's, the lat injury that cost him seven weeks of 2015 is a bit of a worry.
Syndergaard, however, possesses a fantasy ceiling -- even if limited to beneath 200 innings in 2016 -- that rivals either deGrom or Harvey. After all, Syndergaard's 27.5 percent strikeout rate and 5.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season both ranked fifth all-time among rookies with at least 20 starts, and he flashed three outstanding pitches: a four-seam fastball, sinker and curveball.
Will Syndergaard's 198 2/3 innings pitched (postseason included) -- an increase of 63 2/3 from 2014 -- come back to haunt him? Perhaps not, in which case he has an outstanding chance at finishing inside our top 20 starters come season's end. However, it's possible that he's a pitcher better left to an opponent on draft day, targeted on the trade market several weeks into the season in the event of an early-season struggle; but in keeper leagues, his talent makes him well worth absorbing any of the effects in exchange for what might be one of the best 2017-21 runs of anyone currently in the majors.
Matz, meanwhile, shouldn't suffer any lingering effects of his injury, but that it limited him to only 141 innings during the regular season (155 2/3 if you add the postseason) makes some sort of workload cap inevitable, considering the Mets' history. Chances are, Matz won't be afforded more than 180 frames during his first full season in the bigs, in which case there'll be a limit to how much he can contribute to a fantasy team.
Matz's ceiling also might be the lowest of the bunch, being that his strikeout potential isn't quite as high as that of deGrom, Harvey or Syndergaard. More of a four-seam/changeup pitcher with at best an above-average curveball, Matz must rely more upon his defense, putting his fantasy fate more to the whims of chance. As the No. 46 starter in our rankings, he's perhaps the best draft value of the bunch, but at the same time, it might be difficult for him to make the top 25 at his position come season's end (think more like a top-30 starter's ceiling).