Finally, the Yankees’ front office got its man. The Yankees coveted Gerrit Cole for years: the team drafted him in the first round back in 2008 (but couldn’t sign him away from his commitment to UCLA) and tried to trade for him before the 2018 campaign. The third time, free agency, was the charm. Cole in pinstripes finally came to reality in 2020.
By the numbers, Cole’s debut season with the Yankees was a good one. He went 7-3 in 12 starts and posted a 2.84 ERA in the pandemic-shortened regular season. That was good enough for fourth-place in American League Cy Young voting. Cole also pitched very well in the postseason, as advertised. But when you break it all down, things weren’t smooth all season for the team’s prize acquisition. Let’s take a look.
A slow start
The newly minted ace didn’t necessarily get off to a poor start, but it also wasn’t the beginning that was expected. Cole wasn’t ferociously mowing down opponents like we saw him do over the last two seasons with the Astros in the early going. He struck out just 16 batters in his first three starts (17 2/3 innings), though the Yankees won all three of those games and Cole allowed just five runs (2.55 ERA).
His next start came in Tampa Bay and it sure looked like we were in for the first overpowering performance of Cole’s career in pinstripes. The Yanks gave him a 5-0 lead and Cole had eight strikeouts through four innings before the wheels came off. He was pulled after he gave up three runs and recorded just two outs in the fifth (both strikeouts). For a while, it felt like Cole was off to a 7 or 8 inning performance with 14 or 15 strikeouts. Instead, he couldn’t finish the fifth (though he did punch out 10).
Cole did pitch better in his next two starts (3 runs, 18 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings), but really ran into a rut toward the end of August. Gerrit has had a tendency to give up homers in the past, but the longball really got to him over a brief stretch this year. In a three start span from August 26th through September 5th, Cole went 0-3. He allowed 14 runs (10 earned) and surrendered 6 dingers in 16 innings.
During that poor run, I tried to get to the crux of Cole’s home run problem. It became pretty clear that his inability to throw strikes with non-fastballs had become an issue. Hitters were able to tee off on his heater regardless of its velocity and spin.
So, through September 5th, Cole had a 3.63 ERA and 4.67 FIP in 9 starts. He had allowed a homer in every single start (2.25 per nine innings), which added to the frustration even if his ERA wasn’t all that bad. Definitely not what the Yankees had expected, but Cole is no stranger to slow starts either. He had a 4.11 ERA (3.12 FIP) through 11 starts in 2019, for what it’s worth.
Cole had a personal catcher in Houston: Martín Maldonado. There was some thought that he could follow Cole in free agency last winter, though that didn’t come to fruition. So perhaps we should have anticipated the New York media constantly asking him for his thoughts on Gary Sánchez. I mean, it was inevitable, right? The media already is all over everything Sánchez does, so adding in a $324 million ace who has had a personal catcher before just adds fuel to the fire, especially with Cole’s not so spectacular performance to begin 2020.
That’s where Kyle Higashioka comes in, who caught each of Cole’s last four starts from September 5th through the 22nd. In those four outings, Cole posted a 1.00 ERA (2.19 FIP) in 27 innings, struck out 34 batters, and allowed just two homers. A marked difference in performance compared to the other outings with Gary behind the dish.
Now, there’s no way you can attribute Cole’s success all to pitching to Higashioka instead of Sánchez. Was he more comfortable throwing to Higgy? Probably! I wrote about the different approach (or game calling) with Higashioka behind the plate back in September. But at the same time, Cole’s just too darn good of a pitcher to not have turned things around regardless of who was catching him. Nonethless, the way Gary hit this season, there was really no argument to not let Cole throw to Higashioka.
An October Ace
Higashioka continued to catch Cole in the postseason and the pair had continued success. Cole struck out 30 batters in 3 playoff starts (18 1/3 innings) and recorded a 2.95 ERA. His best start, by far, was his dominance in Game 1 of the Wild Card series against Cleveland:
Cole also picked up a win in Game 1 of the ALDS, though I wouldn’t say he was great in that one. He gave up three runs across six innings, all coming across on homers. Randy Arozarena tagged him for a solo shot in the first inning and Ji-Man Choi launched a two-run homer against him in the fourth.
The Yankees called on Cole one more time: Game 5 of the ALDS on short rest. It was perhaps his best postseason performance this year considering the circumstances. He had never pitched on short rest in his big league career, yet Cole allowed just one hit (a homer) in 5 1/3 innings while striking out nine.
Hopefully we get to see a full season of Cole rather than an abbreviated one. 30-plus starts, 200-plus innings, and a whole bunch of strikeouts would be fun, no? That’s what we were hoping to see this season before COVID-19 hit. Cole’s still just 30 years old, so he’s still in the midst of his prime and should be raring to go come 2021.
ZiPS projects Cole to throw 193 1/3 innings in 32 starts and post a 3.21 ERA (3.14 FIP). It also estimates a 33.4/6.3 percent strikeout/walk rates. All told, that’d be good for a 139 ERA+ and 5.1 WAR. A great projection, no doubt. Though as I wrote a couple of weeks ago when ZiPS was released, I was sort of tempted to bet the over on it.