The Yankees inked Gerrit Cole to a record-setting deal at 9 years $324 million, and while he’s been one of the best pitchers in the sport, last season was an oddity.
Cole had his worst ERA and ERA- (which is adjusted for the league and park environment) since 2017, and it’s lowered his stock among the elite starting pitchers, but is this a fair way to assess Cole going forward? Gerrit Cole’s HR problem is well-documented, but what can be expected of Gerrit Cole in 2023? Is he the dominant ace that we saw in the first two years of the contract, or is he the mid-3 ERA pitcher of 2022?
- Yankees still have a big starting pitching decision to figure out
- Yankees can still land top remaining free-agent left-fielder if asking price comes down
- Yankees settle with Gleyber Torres on one-year deal, avoiding arbitration
Can the Yankees Fix His HR Problem?
Gerrit Cole’s 1.48 HR/9 in 2022 was the 5th worst mark in baseball in 2022, giving up the most HRs in the sport (33), a dubious honor to lead baseball in. Gerrit Cole has always given up HRs at a high rate, with a 1.34 HR/9 from 2020-2021, but he was top 10 in ERA- in that timespan (min. 200 IP), whereas in 2022, he was 30th among 45 qualified pitchers. His HR/9 skyrocketed with runners on base, as he had a 1.96 HR/9 in those situations, explaining the inflated ERA. HR distribution during the course of a game is random, so it’s key to limit how often it occurs in a game.
A pitch that Gerrit Cole picked up and then abandoned in 2022 was his cutter, and while the pitch doesn’t grade out well in Pitching+ (93.8), cutters tend to be BABIP suppressors that generate soft contact. The Yankees, as a team adopted the edge, and for good reason. In 2022 cutters averaged a .291 BABIP and 87.1 MPH Exit Velocity Against, and Cole’s cutter had done the same thing for him through his first 11 starts.
- 180 wOBA
- .152 AVG
- 82.1 MPH EV
- 0 XBHs
Cole was also posting elite numbers on the season up to that point, with a 2.78 ERA, 2.56 FIP, 2.77 SIERA, and most importantly, his HR/9 was just 0.84. The Yankees were looking at a new version of Gerrit Cole that generated groundballs (45% GB%) and had elite K-BB rates (25.7%), but it all came crashing down against Minnesota.
Gerrit Cole got the breaks beaten off of his cutter, giving up 2 HRs on cutters over the middle of the plate, and subsequently reducing its usage from that day forward to just 2%. This seems like an overreaction to what was one bad day at the office for his cutter, so why did he ditch it? It’s possible he wasn’t comfortable or confident in the cutter anymore, and we’ve seen his confidence wane over the course of the season with his very visible displeasure with himself.
No one is harder on themself than Gerrit Cole is on himself, but this might have been an example of him overcorrecting an issue. The Yankees and Matt Blake could perhaps identify what went wrong with that pitch and fix it.
When Gerrit Cole is locating his cutter properly, it’s a pitch that plays well off of his pitch mix, as it comes out of the hand exactly like Cole’s FF but has 10″ of vertical separation that makes it an easy pitch to roll over or swing over. It wasn’t a high whiff pitch, and cutters typically are more contact-oriented, something Cole doesn’t have in his arsenal. Having a pitch he can use to limit hard contact can help in spots with runners on, so it’s imperative that he utilizes his cutter more in 2023.
It’s hard to suggest a pitcher use a pitch again for two reasons, the first one being I’m not Gerrit Cole. Comfort matters for a pitcher, thus, I can’t figure out what makes him comfortable or uncomfortable. For the second reason? I’m not a pitching coach, and the data I’m using would be primitive to what the Yankees have in-house. If the Yankees and Gerrit Cole decide a cutter just isn’t for him, then who am I to argue? This is just a hypothesis, and the 2023 season is the only way to test if I’m right or not.
There is some natural regression that should occur with his HR/9 rates, with a 16.8% HR/FB% not being very sustainable. With that said, let’s tackle the biggest blemish on Gerrit Cole’s tenure with the Yankees: Sticky Stuff.
Unaffected By the Foreign Substance Ban
Let’s dissect the argument that Gerrit Cole is a “spider-tack merchant” into two segments: Stuff and Location. Pitchers either saw a dip in their raw stuff due to a decrease in RPMs or a dip in their command due to a worse grip on the baseball. First, we have Gerrit Cole’s raw stuff, which has remained top-of-the-line despite the crackdown on foreign substances. There is no doubt Gerrit Cole was using a foreign substance, but so had most of the league. Making him the poster child of the foreign substance ban was an unfair attack on Gerrit Cole that felt entirely based on the fact that he was highly paid and a member of the New York Yankees.
What people won’t tell you is that Gerrit Cole’s four-seam fastball and slider were largely unaffected by the substance ban. With 2,428 RPMs of spin, he’s down just 24 RPMs on his four-seam spin rates from 2021, and in terms of pitch movement, he generated similar IVBs with 10+ inches of horizontal break. His slider lost just 31 RPMs and 0.3 inches of horizontal break, which are within the range of variance for RPMs and pitch movement. Perhaps what we need is to look at a metric that evaluates all of these aspects of a pitch and gives us a number to point to for regression.
Eno Sarris of The Athletic and Max Bay (R&D Analyst for the Astros) developed Stuff+, Location+, and Pitching+, which will help us have a number for Cole in 2021 to point at for regression or progression. While one metric isn’t going to tell the whole story, these metrics do correlate with success for pitchers and are going to give us the best crack at projecting for 2023.
His Stuff+ in 2022 was 127.4, which was one of the best marks in baseball and ranked him among the likes of Stephen Strider, Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes, and Tyler Glasnow. He has ridiculous stuff, and it’s actually 3.3 points higher than what it was in 2021. Let’s throw out the idea that the Yankees paid a guy who was only good because of spider tack because that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Location is far more difficult to put a number on, as in terms of quality of contact, it wasn’t much different for Cole in 2021 and 2022. In terms of barrel rate, average exit velocity, and hard hit rate, everything was similar, so what about his K-BB rates? Well, he had a 0.7% increase to his BB%, but again that doesn’t seem to be anything worth noting. In 2021 he ended the season with a 104.4 Location+, while in 2022, he had a 102.6 Location+, which is a -1.8 decrease. While this could be seen as the reason he performed worse, his Pitching+ was separated by just 0.8. Again, the sticky stuff ban didn’t really affect the Yankees’ ace.
What it seems like we have with Gerrit Cole is…the same pitcher we had in 2021 when he was 2nd in Cy Young voting and was an anchor for the Yankees. Sticky stuff or not, he’s a $324 million man for a reason. The entire argument of regressing Cole for 2023 because he didn’t have sticky stuff and using 2022 as the evidence doesn’t really add up, and it’s one that fans need to stop making. We aren’t looking at a pitcher that’s lost without foreign substances, in fact, we’re looking at one who’s remained elite despite their obvious use of it in the past.
Strikeouts Still Matter
The Yankees value strikeout pitchers, and Gerrit Cole is no exception. K-BB% is one of the most stable metrics to look at when projecting a pitcher, with few pitchers consistently finding success without good K-BB numbers. Sandy Alcantara and Framber Valdez are the only two pitches in Steamer’s top 15 pitchers for 2023, with a K-BB% in 2022 of less than 20%, and that’s for good reason. K-BB% and run prevention go hand-in-hand, and while BABIP suppression can help a pitcher overperform their K-BB rates, very few can do so at a level where they’re in the top 10-15 for SPs.
Framber Valdez is an extreme outlier, generating groundballs at a historic pace that can’t be replicated by any other starter in the league. Sandy Alcantara is another groundball pitcher, but he’s also a master of preventing ideal launch angles (which pitchers have control over), as he had the 2nd lowest qualified LD% in baseball. While his ERA might regress in 2023, it won’t matter since he’ll lead everyone in innings pitched. Outside of those two, there really isn’t an elite SP who doesn’t excel in K-BB rates.
Gerrit Cole’s 26.1% K-BB% was the 2nd best mark in the sport behind Shohei Ohtani and tied with Carlos Rodón (now on the Yankees), so why is Cole treated like an outlier? His contact against isn’t great, but it isn’t abnormally terrible. I expect Gerrit Cole’s SIERA to outperform his ERA as SIERA largely doesn’t account for how hard you’re getting hit, but I don’t expect that gap to remain a 0.73 run gap. A strikeout is an out that has a .000 BABIP and .000 xBA, thus making it the most reliable way to put away a hitter, and it makes what Gerrit Cole brings to the table far more valuable.
The only counter to this point that I could imagine is arguing Cole won’t strike out batters at the same pace as he did in years past, but that would be a guess without statistical evidence. As pointed out earlier, Gerrit Cole’s stuff and location are in-line with what he did with the Yankees in 2021. Good pitchers usually strike out a lot of batters, and unless you’re bringing a unique way to suppress BABIP to the table, it’s always going to be this way. There’s no reason to separate Cole from his strikeout-heavy peers, thus, there’s no reason to leave Cole out of the top 5-6 of SP lists coming into 2023.
How Much Should ERA Sway Your Opinion?
ERA “not mattering” is a silly overcorrection of the over-reliance of ERA to project future results. ERA/FIP give us metrics we can look at for production, and they haven’t lost their value for individual season performance. A pitcher is trying to limit runs, but how they limit runs is what helps us predict what their ERA will be going forward. xFIP and SIERA are largely considered “predictive” metrics, but they detail what an ERA should have been for that given season, not for the following season. A pitcher won’t maintain the exact same K-BB% and batted ball distribution, which is it isn’t always perfect, but it’s a start.
We’ve discussed the importance of a strike K-BB%, and that’s the heavy basis for xFIP and SIERA, though they try to normalize HR rates and factor in batted ball distribution (GB/LD/FB). They’re scaled exactly like ERA, and they should still play a role in how we project pitchers going forward because they factor in things we should pay attention to when projecting ERA. Gerrit Cole’s 3.50 ERA meant he had a subpar season for his standards but has no bearing on his 2023 results. So in a sense, ERA matters, but ERA also does not matter.
Now that’s even more confusing than before, so let’s try to explain that even further. ERA does matter when looking at an individual season and determining All-Stars, Cy Young, and ranking pitchers for that specific season. ERA does not matter when we’re trying to figure out what the ERA for a pitcher will be next season due to its lack of predictiveness. The Yankees should expect that Gerrit Cole’s ERA will normalize in 2023 because his K-BB% and batted ball distribution suggest he should be a low-3/high-2 ERA pitcher, which reflects what he was from 2018-2021.
ERA should be a metric you use when voting on awards or picking All-Stars, but it’s not a metric we should use to find true talent level or to project how a player will perform next season.
Where Does Gerrit Cole Rank Among Starters in Baseball?
In Gerrit Cole’s three-year stretch with the Yankees, here’s where he ranks in MLB among qualified starters:
- 9.9 fWAR (9th)
- 80 ERA- (12th)
- 79 FIP- (8th)
- 2.91 SIERA (2nd)
- 26.9% K-BB% (T-1st)
- 70 xFIP- (2nd)
- 455 IP (4th)
These metrics give us a range to set for Gerrit Cole’s ranking, as he’s top 2 in ERA estimators while being somewhere around 10 in actual production. One of the two has to give, and in 2 of those 3 seasons, we’ve seen Gerrit Cole pitch close enough to his ERA estimators to say we can assume his production will be better than what it was in 2022. It seems unreasonable to give a pitcher who’s a backend top 10 pitcher a ranking in the middle of the top 10, but we’ve combed through why metrics like ERA aren’t great tools for projecting future results
Steamer projects Gerrit Cole to be the 4th-5th best pitcher in baseball (he’s tied with Shohei in both projected WARs), and that gives us a start in where to rank him. Sandy Alcantara isn’t projected ahead of Gerrit Cole, but I’d say he’s a better pitcher because he has a unique ability to manage launch angles perfectly and pitch into the 8th inning with relative ease. The pitchers I’d say have the argument to be ahead of Gerrit Cole are as follows:
- Jacob deGrom
- Sandy Alcantara
- Corbin Burnes
- Shohei Ohtani
- Carlos Rodón
- Max Scherzer
I’d say it’s hard to rank him ahead of Burnes or Alcantara, who have no durability or volume issues and are the better per-rate pitchers, and deGrom is #1 off of just how good he is when he actually pitches. This gives us a range of 4th-7th for ranking Gerrit Cole, and I think I’ll settle for the 5th spot. One of Rodón, Scherzer, or Ohtani could outpitch him, but I’m unsure as to who that is exactly. Gerrit Cole is definitely not in the tier of “definite top 3 starter”, but that has more to do with the emergence of Alcantara and Burnes and less to do with regression.
No matter how you slice it, Gerrit Cole is in the small circle of elite starters, and he’s going to enter 2023 with a great shot at the AL Cy Young award. He’s in position to have a few more prime seasons and enter the Hall of Fame one day, and he’d most likely go in as a New York Yankee. He’s the ace of the Yankees, and there’s no real reason to expect that he isn’t great next season. He’s one of the best postseason pitchers of his generation (2.93 ERA in 104.1 IP) and is one of the most feared hurlers in the league.
Don’t wait too long to be on the right side of the Gerrit Cole “debate” because the Cole Train is about to leave the station.