On June 9th, Gerrit Cole tossed six innings of two-run ball against the Twins. He ended the day with a 2.31 ERA through his 13 starts of the season. Whether he knew it was coming or not, it was the last day the Yankees’ ace was able to utilize whatever grip enhancers he had enjoyed since his days with the Astros. In turn, a narrative was born.
Never mind that Cole pitched brilliantly for most of the season post enforcement and before he hurt his hamstring. A few ugly starts, along with a poor Wild Card game performance, left a bad taste in many folks’ mouths. Concern was understandable given his emergence with the apparent aid of sticky stuff, but there was a collective narrow mindedness about it too.
All told, the righty finished the season with a 3.23 ERA in 181.1 innings and was the runner up to Robbie Ray in the AL Cy Young Award voting. By no means was this Cole’s best work — I think he’d admit that — but it was a very good year even with a few bumps in the road.
About the sticky stuff ban
As is well documented by now, Cole is one of the poster boys for spin rate spikes in recent years. Once traded to the Astros (reminder: the Yankees reportedly wouldn’t trade Clint Frazier AND Chance Adams for Cole), Cole’s spin rates skyrocketed.
He wasn’t alone, of course. MLB had a few years to address this issue, but didn’t. They finally decided to enforce a rule already on the books midseason after looking the other way. Umpires began to check pitchers hands, glove, and uniform upon exiting the mound mid inning. And even though enforcement didn’t officially begin until June 21st, Cole’s spin rates started to taper off one start before the checks began.
Interestingly enough, Cole put together two very good starts post-ban. He allowed four runs in 15 innings against the Blue Jays and Royals, though he uncharacteristically struck out just 10 batters. Maybe that was the first sign of something being a bit off. Then, Cole put pitched two duds in a row against the Red Sox and Mets (10 runs in 8.1 innings) which sparked the “Cole can’t pitch without spider tack” narrative.
And then what happened?
Cole had his signature performance of the season against his former ballclub. He was just getting started, too. Including that July 10th outing in Houston through September 1st, the right fanned 80 batters in 50 innings, allowed just three homers, and recorded a 2.34 ERA. The final start of that span was a gem, too:
Some folks conveniently forgot about that dominant stretch for Cole. He was incredible, a true ace, and was building his Cy Young Award case. There wasn’t a peep about the lack of grip enhancers. Yes, things turned south later, which made it much easier to focus on what went wrong after the substance checks rather than to recongize his success in the midst of it.
Hamstrung to the finish
Again, the main reason some ignored the aforementioned brilliant stretch is due to he finished the 2021 season. After his great start against the Angels, September wasn’t very kind to Cole. In his final five starts of the regular season, Cole posted a 6.15 ERA in 26.1 innings. He allowed six homers. That stumble to the finish undoubtedly cost him the Cy Young Award.
Then came the Wild Card game at Fenway Park.
Gasoline, meet fire. Cole couldn’t get out of the third inning and took the loss as the Yankees’ season came to an end. Nothing other than “he stinks without spider tack!!!” satisfied some of the masses. Rage was easier to access that reason, though. And that’s understandable given the high stakes of that game. But reason needs to take the lead at some point here. Cole was compromised, and I’m not talking about sticky stuff. I’m talking about his hamstring.
One September 7th, Cole couldn’t finish four innings at home against Toronto. It was the outing after his 15 K gem vs. the Angels, but this time out, he just wasn’t himself and had to be removed. We later learned that Cole felt some hamstring tightness.
Cole and the team downplayed the significance of the injury, but frankly, it’s the most logical explanation of his poor finish to the season. No, it wasn’t due to a lack of sticky stuff. I’m just not buying that, especially after what he did in the prior two months.
Scott Boras told reporters at the GM Meetings last month that Cole’s hamstring undoubtedly affected him. I understand that Boras is always going to stand up for his clients, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong in this case. Plus, Cole is as fierce of a competitor as it gets, and he’s not the type to concede anything was wrong.
Now, had this injury occurred in April or May, the Yankees probably would have played it safe and placed Cole on the injured list to let this issue fully resolve. The timing of the hammy didn’t afford the pitcher or team that luxury, unfortunately.
How Cole counteracted sticky stuff enforcement
Before we wrap this up, I’d like to briefly point out one more thing about Cole’s season that I found interesting. I’ve already illustrated how Cole remained dominant after the league’s crackdown, but I didn’t explain how. Not that I necessarily need to, of course. Cole still has good spin rates even without without whatever concoction he used. That said, I noticed a very sharp change in his release point right around the time of the start of umpire checks.
After the league’s announcement, Cole’s release point inched closer to the first base side of the rubber. Here’s visual evidence:
Often times, a right-handed pitcher will do this in order to be more effective against left-handed hitters. Perhaps that was part of Cole’s motivation, though he actually had better numbers vs. lefties than righties early in the season.
I wonder if Cole’s location on the rubber actually has something to do with the lack of foreign substance use. Perhaps his pitch movement profile is more effective from that angle with lower spin rates? I’m not sure, but it’s a theory, and he certainly pitched well doing so.
Hopefully, year three in pinstripes will be a bit more normal for Cole. That is, assuming the current lockout doesn’t carry into spring training. Even though Cole’s body of work has been excellent in two seasons in New York, the circumstances have been unusual. The pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign was obviously nothing close to normal. Meanwhile, the midseason sticky stuff enforcement in 2021 threw a wrench into Cole’s plans.
Cole, who turned 31 in September, is still in the midst of his prime and his stuff hasn’t deteriorated yet. Admittedly, his stuff may not be quite as good as it once was sans sticky stuff, but he proved that he can still be an ace without it. The Yankees should have at least 2022, and hopefully a couple more seasons, of Cole as one of the league’s best pitchers. Now they just need to build a championship caliber club around him before it’s too late.