Yankees’ Gerrit Cole wins AL Cy Young after dazzling 2023 season

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Yankees
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 2022 season where people began to question Gerrit Cole’s excellence, the Yankees’ ace turned in a remarkable year. While it looked different than what we’re used to from the power pitcher, Cole would have his lowest ERA (2.63) since his fabulous 2019 season despite having his worst strikeout rate (27%) since 2017. As he’s gotten older, wiser, and more poised on the mound, it culminated into a year that’s now been rightfully capped off with his first Cy Young Award.

The 33-year-old ace likely should have collected that first Cy Young Award back in 2019, when he struck out 326 batters with a 2.50 ERA and 7.5 fWAR, but Justin Verlander wasn’t too shabby either. With multiple large media outlets believing he was on the decline, Cole would flip the script on his doubters, and he’s etched his name into MLB history with the illustrious award.

How Gerrit Cole Returned to Being the Pitcher the Yankees Paid For

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays
Aug 25, 2023; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) gives a thumbs up against the Tampa Bay Rays at the end of the first inning at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole had the lowest HR/FB% of his career since 2016, back when he was just 25 years old and still a Pittsburgh Pirate. This is after he had a 16.8% in 2022, and playing in the American League East, it seemed as if home runs would just be part of his game. The Yankees signed him to a record-breaking $324 million deal to give them the best starter on the mound in any matchup, and with his 15.1 fWAR, he’s been the most valuable pitcher in the AL.

Among all starters, not just American League ones, he has the most innings pitched (664) and strikeouts (816) in baseball, but controlling damage contact was a pressing need. He had allowed a .394 xwOBACON, his worst-ever mark, and this metric helps capture the quality of contact allowed by a pitcher. This past season, Cole’s xwOBACON would drop to .367, a mark only bested by his 2019 season since leaving Pittsburgh, and the advent of his cutter played a huge role in that development.

His cutter would feature prominently after the All-Star Break, using it 12.6% of the time and having great success with it. Batters chased 39.8% of the time at the pitch with a 29.7% Whiff%, and when contact was made on the pitch, they’d only muster a .341 xwOBACON on it. The average xwOBACON this past season was .376, that cutter played such a huge role in his quality of contact suppression. When Gerrit Cole began featuring that cutter more in those 14 starts, everything across the board improved:

  • Before All-Star Break (3% Cutter Usage)
    • 2.85 ERA
    • 3.40 FIP
    • 3.91 SIERA
    • 18.7% K-BB%
    • .374 xwOBACON
  • After All-Star Break (12.6% Cutter Usage)
    • 2.35 ERA
    • 2.86 FIP
    • 3.26 SIERA
    • 24.6% K-BB%
    • .351 xwOBACON

The star of the show this season for his pitch mix remained that dominant four-seam fastball, and while he’s picking his spots more in terms of when he’ll dial up his velocity, it was much improved in terms of location. Cole often found his fastball leaking over the middle of the plate instead of throwing it up in the zone for swings and misses or soft contact in the air, and the difference between his 2022 and 2023 four-seam location was night and day.

As a result of this shift in location up in the zone, his fastball went from +8 Run Value to +29 Run Value, a massive swing in production. In fact, according to Run Value, his four-seam fastball was the best pitch in all of baseball. In a sense, Gerrit Cole got a lot wiser this season; relying less on trying to use anger and emotion to power through hitters, and more on his finesse and strong command to keep hitters off-balance.

He joins Roger Clemens, Ron Guidry, Sparky Lyle, Whitey Ford, and Bob Turley as CYA winners for the Yankees, and becomes the first Yankee to do so since the 2001 season. Looking ahead to the future, Cole is a few strong seasons away from cementing himself as a Hall of Famer, with over 40 WAR according to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. If he gets to the 60 WAR plateau, the COVID-shortened 2020 season alongside the decrease in workhorses in the modern game will likely help the right-hander get into Cooperstown.

This Cy Young case helps him immensely, and the Yankees will look to get Gerrit Cole back into the postseason, where he can add a ring to his resume and ascend even higher on the postseason strikeout list, where he’s ninth (134).

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