Whenever any player — particularly a pitcher — signs a long-term deal, plenty of worry warts concern themselves about the back-end of said contract. It’ll be an albtatross, they say. They’re paying for his decline, they say. Maybe so! But by the time that’s even a possibility for Gerrit Cole, he may have tallied a few Cy Young awards and led the Yankees to multiple World Series victories.
In any event, there’s always the possibility that Cole won’t be subject to the typical age-related decline most experience. Though he’s bound to regress like everyone else, there’s precedence for sustained greatness even amidst decline among elite pitchers. That lends to optimistic about Cole aging in a similar manner.
In order to get a sense of what Cole could be in for down the road, I decided to look for pitchers over the last 20 years coming off a strong two-year run ending with their age 28 season. To do this, I filtered by pitchers who had a FIP- of 80 or less (i.e. FIP 20% lower than league average) and an average fastball velocity (per PITCHf/x) of at least 93 miles per hour. Here’s who came up, including Cole:
Cole’s age 27 and 28 seasons combined are better than everyone except Clayton Kershaw. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? Ultimately, it’s pretty darn difficult to find comps to Cole just because he’s such a tremendous pitcher. That said, looking at how other hard-throwers fared at 29 and beyond could provide some sense of Cole’s future. Below, I’ve indicated how this group aged by FIP- and velocity in two age periods. First; from 29 through 33 and second; from 34 through 37.
The reason for the two periods is based on Cole’s deal with the Yankees. Gerrit can opt out after his age 33 campaign, but if he doesn’t, he’s in pinstripes through his age 37 season.
In what shouldn’t be a surprise, most of these pitchers declined in terms of performance and velocity. Age related decline gets to everyone at some point, though some sooner than others. You can pretty clearly see how Kershaw, CC Sabathia, and Josh Beckett fell off, though not everyone had such dramatic declines.
Many performed quite similarly from ages 29 through 33 as they did at 27 and 28. Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer weren’t all that different and basically maintained their average fastball speed. Others only declined marginally, like David Price.
Then there are those who found the fountain of youth. Namely, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, though others like Chris Sale got better too. Scherzer just came off a huge age-34 campaign, so we don’t have too much to read into for his latter years yet. However, as we can see with Verlander, he’s now three years into a late career renaissance with the Astros. You know, the same team that helped Cole become the superstar that the Yankees just signed.
So, what’s this all mean? What I’ve done isn’t anything scientific and doesn’t concretely say that Cole will be great as a 37 year-old. Rather, it just points out that Cole wouldn’t be the first to be great late into his career. And really, he may be in better position than others to sustain his dominance, even with some reasonably expected decline.
Keep in mind that Cole has a big margin for error. He comfortably throws harder than everyone else, so losing a tick or two off his fastball over the pre-opt out portion of his contract shouldn’t hurt much. Additionally, aside from Kershaw, Cole has a lot further to fall in terms of FIP- to go from elite to merely great. Now, Kershaw’s fall is a cautionary tale in some sense (50 to 80 FIP-). Again though, he didn’t throw as hard as Cole and fell to a more hittable 91.3 miles per hour.
So, the Yankees got a great one in Cole, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t maintain his super ace status in the near-term. Meanwhile, the long-term really isn’t all that scary. Not only is there precedence for elite pitchers keeping status quo into their late thirties, but Cole has such a leg up on his counterparts. It would take a much more significant and arguably unanticipated decline for him to really fall off and become dead weight by the end of this contract.