Yankees Free Agent Profile: Gerrit Cole

TFW Gio Urshela makes another great play at 3rd base for you.

Gerrit Cole, in case you just woke up from a yearlong nap, is a free agent. The flamethrower is the best starting pitcher to hit the open market in at least a half-decade, and likely even longer than that. All 30 MLB teams should be major players on Cole. Better yet, the Yankees are already in the mix. Here’s what Brian Cashman said the other day at the GM Meetings:

Obviously, “we’re going to talk to Cole” is the bare minimum here, but it does signal interest. It’s step one. Moreover, the Yankees and Cole have been linked for years. Already, that’s going to continue until Cole is signed in a few weeks/months.

We all know that Gerrit Cole is good. Anyway, it’s time for a deep dive into his profile as a picture to determine just how good he is, how he compares to recent superstar starting pitcher free agents, what to expect in his contract negotiations, and if he is a fit for the Yankees.

Background

Cole is a 6-foot-4, 29-year-old right-handed pitcher from Newport Beach, California. He was drafted by the New York Yankees with the 28th pick of the 2008 Amateur Draft. He ultimately did not sign with the team, electing instead to attend UCLA. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him first overall three years later in the 2011 Amateur Draft. He signed with Pittsburgh and made his Major League debut two years later as a 22-year-old at home against the San Francisco Giants, holding them to two runs in 6.1 innings pitched.

In his career, he owns a 3.22 ERA (3.02 FIP, 80 ERA-) in 1195.0 innings pitched. The righty is a three-time All-Star and has finished in the top 5 of the Cy Young voting three times, including a controversial second-place finish this year. Cole’s 2019 ERA was the lowest in baseball. He has pitched in both the National and American Leagues, following a trade to Houston after the 2017 season.

Performance

Obviously, this above background already screams success. Folks, it is true. Gerrit Cole is very, very good. You heard it here first.

Having said that, his career is not the straightforward tale of dominance and success it may initially seem to be: there are two versions of Gerrit Cole. There is Pittsburgh Gerrit Cole and there is Houston Gerrit Cole. I think it’s fair to break down his career performance in those two buckets, so here is a table that shows his cumulative production with both organizations:

IPERAERA-FIPK%BB%GB%bWAR
PIT (13-17)782.13.50903.2722.76.347.411.3
HOU (18-19)412.22.68632.6737.36.938.112.1
Career1195.03.22803.0227.66.544.723.4

There is a narrative swirling on around there about Cole that suggests he was not very good while in Pittsburgh, and that should stop. As is immediately clear, Gerrit Cole has always been good. He has never really struggled in the Major Leagues.

There is some truth there, though. By bWAR, Cole was more valuable in two seasons–and half the IP–in Houston than he was in five full seasons in Pittsburg. Ouch!

To be fair, though, that is not true by fWAR, which valued Cole at 15.5 wins in Pittsburg versus 13.4 in Houston. I included a Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR in the above because it measures actual on-the-field production for pitchers much more than FanGraphs’ version, which is very reliant on FIP, which is a take-it-or-leave-it stat, to me. Even still: Cole’s performance in Houston has been insane. He took it up to another level.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Cole really turned a corner in Houston’s pitching lab. He went from a solidly above-average starter with good peripherals in Pittsburgh to the best pitcher in baseball in Houston. That’s really just more of the same for both organizations, and it really underscores how fortunate Cole was to be traded to Houston of all places prior to hitting free agency.

Anyway, what really jumps out with Cole’s performance in the last two years specifically is his outrageous strikeout rate. Now, strikeouts overall are rising league-wide, which is important context. Even with that caveat, though, Cole shines. Check out his ranking among pitchers in the last two seasons in this category:

  • Gerrit Cole: 37.3%
  • Justin Verlander: 35.1%
  • Max Scherzer: 32.0%
  • Jacob DeGrom: 32.0%
  • Jack Flaherty: 29.8%

Moreover, coupled with his well-below-average walk rates, his 30.3% K-BB rate ranks just 0.1% lower than his former teammate in Justin Verlander for the league rank. When batters do make contact against Cole, which is not often–in 2019, for example, he induced whiffs on over 36% of swings–they do not hit the ball very hard. Less than a third of that contact is considered hard by FanGraphs, ranking him 11th in the league; his average exit velocity in the last two years is just 86 mph.

This is not a trick of rate stats: Cole has thrown more innings than all on this list except DeGrom and Verlander again. His .191 batting average against in that time, again second behind Verlander, is all the more impressive in this context.

And I could go on and on, and then on some more. But I think you get the point. Gerrit Cole is insanely good, and he has the receipts to back it up.

Current Stuff

Cole is a scout’s dream–he brings a four-pitch arsenal to the table, with a fifth pitch he can use for show. He throws a four-seam fastball, curve, slider, and changeup with some frequency; he mixes in a sinker when he feels like it. Here is his usage graph over the past two seasons:

He relies on his fastball to set the tone and plays his offspeed stuff off that. And for good reason. As I noted above, his stuff is overpowering and often unhittable. A big part of that is his velocity. His fastball comes in as fast as any in the game, and his offspeed pitches are a filthy complement. Check out his average velocities:

Add in his max velocity to the cocktail, which often touches 102 mph on his fastball, and you can see why he has had the success he’s had. He even has his curve and slider come in just a tad under 90 mph. Good grief! Still, in the age of the blazing fast fastball, this can feel standard. Cole throws several pitches with high-velocity and spin. So what?

Where Cole really excels and differentiates himself, in my opinion at least, is with his release point. I mean, look at this ridiculous graph:

That shows all of his release points in the 2019 season in one place. As you can see, he releases the ball, despite pitch, in a remarkably consistent place. It must feel impossible to detect what he’s throwing next. That adds to his deception makes all of his already-nasty stuff even better.

It also leads to the phenomenon known as “tunneling”, which is what you see in this insane Pitching Ninja post:

Look at how late those balls diverge! He releases from the same spot, keeps the ball in a consistent plane, and then will either snap off his curveball or blow it by you at 100 mph. Seems pretty good, to me. I’m not sure how anyone even makes contact against this guy, to be honest.

What’s He Going to Cost?

A lot of money. Seriously, Cole is going to demand the largest contract ever awarded to a starting pitcher, and he is going to deserve it. David Price’s seven-year, $217 million contract is the current largest; only Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer have earned more than $200 million as a starter. Greinke’s record $34 million annual average salary will be another threshold Cole will aim to beat.

I felt like comparing these players to one another, so I did a Play Index search of their numbers on Baseball-Reference in their ages-27 and -28 seasons, which is what Cole just finished. Here are the results:

ERABA/OBP/SLGIPK%BB%WHIPWAR
Kershaw1.96.190/.224/.278381.233.03.70.8213.3
Cole2.68.192/.252/.337412.237.36.90.9612.1
Price3.29.245/.276/.377435.024.13.71.087.0
Scherzer3.29.223/.282/.368402.021.97.21.1110.8
Greinke3.63.247/.297/.387384.019.16.31.195.0

So, yeah. Cole absolutely stands up to the pitchers who have commanded the biggest paydays in recent years, and even exceeds them by many measures. Again: the man is going to get paid, and he is going to deserve it. By bWAR–and remember, FanGraphs’ WAR is even more kind to him–Cole has been better than every pitcher on the list in his prime years than all but Kershaw, who is on the short-list of best pitchers in MLB history.

The only concern–and it isn’t a concern, to me, given his lack of injury history–is his workload. A high workload sure didn’t stop CC Sabathia back in 2008, and I don’t think it will stop Cole, either. But it’s worth noting. On the other hand, one could simply point out that Cole is a reliable 200-inning workhorse, which is exactly what I would do were I Scott Boras.

Does He Make Sense for the Yankees?

I mean, I don’t really have to answer this one, do I? Gerrit Cole is the best fit for the Yankees in at least a decade. He’s easily the best match since CC Sabathia. In fact, you can argue that this team needs Cole even more than the 2008 squad needed CC–not only is Cole better, but this is a more complete team. Cole is probably the final piece, and adding him to the Yankees may well be the difference the team needs to get over their playoff hump.

There are CBT considerations here, of course, but we’ve covered those extensively here already. Let’s just think about baseball for a second.

Any honest look at the Yankee roster reveals only one area of deficiency, or even question marks: the starting rotation. Gerrit Cole is the best option to emerge on the open market in years. He’s even a much better option than Stephen Strasburg, who Derek profiled here. The match is obvious. It really is.

The Yankees have loved Cole since 2008–they drafted him and tried to trade for him after 2018–so I expect their pursuit to be real here. He is their white whale.

Furthermore, pitchers like Cole are rare; the chance to sign one when you have a roster as good as New York’s even rarer. The Yankees would be wise to open their checkbooks and build a behemoth. If they don’t, instead choosing to let Cole slip away for financial reasons, it could very well prove to be the biggest mistake the team has made in generations. The Yankees should do whatever they can to bring Gerrit Cole to the Bronx. There’s not a single compelling argument against it. Your move, Brian Cashman.

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2 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    I won’t be annoyed if Cole rejects the Yankees top offer. That is his right. I will be annoyed if the Yankees don’t make the top offer. I suspect if they do, he will sign.

    Last, and minor, was Cole’s second-place finish “controversial?” I can’t remember a more difficult choice. Both were deserving. If a tie could have been arranged, this would have been the year for it.

  2. Some things are a no brainer, this is one of them-back up a Brinks truck to his house, tell him to take as much as he wants, just sign the contract

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