There’s been a little bit of doom and gloom so far in Yankees’ camp. The injury bug has bit the team yet again with guys like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton on the shelf. Yet, this Yankees team is still fantastic. A big reason for that? The team finally reeled in its self proclaimed white whale over the winter: Gerrit Cole.
It’s been a long time coming for Gerrit, of course. He’s been a Yankees fan his entire life, as I’m sure we’ll hear about many times this season. Moreoever, he’s been just out of the Bombers reach on multiple occasions: from passing on signing after the 2008 draft and trade pursuits. Better late than never, of course. Cole is now perhaps the best pitcher in the world, and better yet, he’s on the Yankees.
There are, understandably, quite high expectations for Cole and the Yankees this season. The 29 year-old righty was viewed as the franchise’s missing piece, so now it’s World Series or bust for this year’s club. The path has become a little more difficult given some of the injuries the team has already suffered, but that doesn’t change the ultimate goal. Gerrit will have to play a huge part to get the Yankees back on top.
Fortunately, it shouldn’t be difficult for Cole to deliver what the Yankees need from him. The Yankees can basically set it and forget it: he should be dominant all year long without much help needed. Even though it’s hard to imagine him falling short of expectations statistically, there are still a few storylines worth exploring in his debut year in the Bronx. Let’s get to it.
Is there anything he can improve upon?
The main reason the Yankees brought in Cole is because he’s already great. One of the sport’s best pitchers, in fact. Cole’s not a project like acquisitions past such as Nathan Eovaldi. Nonetheless, Cole didn’t achieve greatness by being complacent. He assuredly is trying to get better. But from my meager perspective, it’s really hard to find something Cole could improve upon.
If you squint though, there is something that Cole could get better at: limiting hard contact and home runs. It’s a little silly to ask this because Cole is already good at these things, but he’s not at elite levels like other facets of his game.
Cole went from allowing 0.85 home runs per nine in 2018 to 1.23 last season. The 2019 number looks a little high at first glance, but considering the hitting environment last season, it’s actually 15 percent lower than league average. That said, Cole’s 2018 mark was 30 percent lower than average. So I guess you can say he’s trending in the wrong direction. And gosh, if his outing against Detroit yesterday tells us anything, it’s only going to get worse!
Please don’t take that seriously.
Anyway, Cole actually improved his Statcast batted ball profile year-over-year. In 2018, his exit velocity and hard hit percentage were in the 25th and 11th percentile, respectively. That’s pretty bad! But last year, he improved to the 66th and 57th percentile in those marks. That makes his home run “spike” peculiar. It certainly seems like he ran into some bad luck: his 16.9 percent home run to fly ball rate was a career high and up from 10 percent a year prior.
There’s also Cole’s new home ballpark to consider compared to Houston. Yankee Stadium is known for its short porch, the namesake for this here blog, but Houston’s pretty darn homer friendly itself. Yet, last year, the Bronx Bombers’ home was 25th in its home run park factor. Meanwhile, Houston was the sixth-most homer friendly park. Seems like an anomaly more than anything for Yankee Stadium, as it was 6th in 2018 while Houston was 12th. In any case, Cole probably won’t benefit (or be hurt much) by the home park move.
From 2013 through 2016, Cole never allowed more than 0.72 homers per nine. The game has changed and so has Cole the pitcher since then, so I don’t expect him to revert to those marks. That said, I’d like to think he’s bound for some regression this season in terms of home runs allowed. Regression isn’t the same as improvement in terms of skill level, but it’s still something that can go in Cole’s favor. So in an indirect way, yes, Cole can get better in 2020.
What can other Yankees learn from Cole?
The Yankees have a new age pitching coach in Matt Blake, but that doesn’t mean Cole’s acumen won’t rub off on the rest of the organization. Even though Cole was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball since high school, it took him a while to unlock his full potential. He had some good years with the Pirates, but it wasn’t until 2018 — his sixth year in the majors — that Cole lived up to his ace potential.
Cole already seems like a very cerebral pitcher and has shown a willingness to be a leader and teacher, which is great news for the rest of the staff. Check this out:
Look, no one is going to throw Cole under the bus in a video like the above. Still, just listen to what some of those other pitchers said. It’s hard not to get excited when you hear one of the Yankees’ top prospects, Clarke Schmidt, glow over Cole’s presence in camp.
I’m happy to rag on the Astros all day, every day, but we have to give them credit for helping Cole get to the next level. Perhaps part of that was getting away from the Pirates’ organization, but still. Cole went from solid mid-rotation starter to ace from 2017 to 2018. The quality of his entire arsenal jumped in transition, particularly spin rates:
The secret sauce may be pine tar, as Trevor Bauer has insinuated before, but this is a pretty incredible jump from one season to the next. This is the sort of thing that Cole may be able to help other pitchers on the staff with in order to get more out of their repertoires.
Take Jordan Montgomery, for instance. Take spring training radar guns for what they’re worth, but he’s hit 95 on a few occasions in Grapefruit League action. That’s out of character for him. Monty worked in the low 90s pre-Tommy John surgery. Maybe he simply has a fresh arm without a full season’s workload on it since 2017 or maybe Blake unlocked something. But hey, there’s always the possibility that Cole rubbed off on him to some degree.
It’s going to be impossible to quantify what Cole means for other pitchers in the organization, and that’s fine. It certainly seems like the team has taken a big leap forward, especially if you listen to what Sonny Gray and CC Sabathia discussed on a recent episode of R2C2. Cole is certainly a part of that, too. Some of the tricks of the trade that he learned while in Houston can stand to benefit plenty of other Yankees.
How long will it take him to get comfortable with a new catcher?
Deleted that tweet about Cole and Sánchez reading each other’s minds because it’s being interpreted in a negative fashion. Cole said he and Gary worked well together tonight. A pitcher and catcher need time to get to know each other. It’s spring. training. Please. Chill. Out.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) February 25, 2020
Sure didn’t take long for some fans to concern troll about Gary Sánchez and Cole’s rapport! Sheesh. As Lindsey tweeted, if this is you, chill out!
Like any new pitcher-catcher battery, it’s going to take time to learn each other’s tendencies. That’s why Gerrit and Gary are working diligently together to do so. I’m sure the same exact thing is happening with Kyle Higashioka and Cole, though the media isn’t going to make a fuss about Higgy’s relationship with Cole because he’s the backup catcher.
Nonetheless, I’m sure there’ll be more pieces down the line about the Cole-Sánchez combination. Likely after a bad start or two for Cole, which is inevitable. Everyone has a bad day at the ballpark from time to time. I’m sure the fact that Martín Maldonado was Cole’s catcher last year won’t help, either. Remember, the Yankees were connected to him in free agency at one point.
Ultimately, the important thing to understand is that it will take time for Cole to get on the same page with Gary and Higgy. And that’s OK! They have all of spring training to do that. Be patient, everyone. And don’t fall for the various tropes and clickbait about Sánchez, who I assure you is very, very good.
2020 Outlook: What they’re saying
Here is what the projections are saying going into the season:
- PECOTA (200 IP): 13.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 2.52 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 5.3 WARP
- ZiPS (200 IP): 12.6 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 3.10 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 6.4 WAR
- Steamer (202 IP): 12.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.24 HR/9, 3.25 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 6.1 WAR
Beautiful. Just beautiful, especially the PECOTA one. In any event, no one really needs the projections to tell us that Cole is going to be arguably the best pitcher in baseball in 2020. We’ve seen it with our very eyes for the past two years. These forecasts just confirm why the Yankees broke the bank to bring in their white whale.
We’re now just under three weeks out from Cole’s official debut in pinstripes: March 26th at Camden Yards. Since it’s against the lowly Orioles, I expect nothing short of a perfect game with 20 strikeouts.
It’s funny how Cole’s debut will come in Baltimore, similar to CC Sabathia’s back in 2009. That one didn’t go so well if you recall. Sabathia was knocked out of the game in the fifth inning after allowing six runs. Nonetheless, the rest of 2009 worked out pretty well for Sabathia and the Yankees, didn’t it? I sure wouldn’t mind a similar coincidence in 2020. Year one of a big name free agent starting pitcher and a World Series title? Not bad at all. No pressure, Gerrit. Though as he said, pressure is a privilege. It’s going to be a fun season of Cole in pinstripes.