The Yankees have struggled in the early stages of the 2018 season. It’s been a total team effort, too. The lineup failed to produce consistently while the bullpen took melting down to new levels. The rotation suffered, too, in terms of health, length, and effectiveness.
Brian Cashman did what he could to protect against the first two shortcomings. He stole Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, plus added Brandon Drury and Neil Walker. As for the bullpen, on paper it couldn’t be any better. In theory, the Yankees middle relievers could close for other teams. That leaves the starting rotation, which effectively returned the same staff that finished the 2017 campaign.
There existed opportunities to improve over the winter, too. The team was connected to a bevy of free agent starters and trade targets. While some of these just proved due diligence, one in particular came dangerously close to fruition. That pitcher, of course, is Gerrit Cole.
An endless steam of rumors connected the Yankees and the Pirates. One night around the holidays, it sounded like a deal was imminent. The teams could never reach an agreement, however, and Cole ended up on the Houston Astros. Reports conflict on the players pieced together by the Yankees, but Joel Sherman recently reported that Cashman offered a package led by Clint Frazier and Nick Solak. Pittsburgh ultimately preferred a collection of low-ceiling, high-floor prospects. They chose quantity over quality.
Cole, 27, is off to a blazing start this season. He owns a 0.64 ERA over 14 innings. His peripherals are sterling, too. He has worked a 1.43 FIP and a ridiculous 14.14 K/9 rate. Cole struck out eleven batters in each of his two starts in 2018. He has relied on his breaking pitches more than ever, and as a result, has been among baseball’s best starters in the early going.
Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs took a deeper dive into this earlier in the week:
“As you might expect, Cole has thrown his fastball less often, and his breaking stuff more frequently, as he has enjoyed back-to-back starts with 21 and 19 swinging strikes — the best and second-best marks of his career. Cole’s fastball usage is down from 60.1% last season to 54.9% through two starts. And he’s essentially shelved his two-seam fastball, which ranked as a below-average pitch the last two seasons per linear weights. He’s thrown his slider or curveball on 39.7% of his offerings. Cole rarely leaned on spin this much in his career. He’s thrown his slider on a quarter of his offerings, and the only year when he has thrown it more than 20% of the time was in 2015 when he finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting. And of course it’s not just usage, but location. Cole is consistently getting the ball under swings and burying the slider and curveball on the back feet of lefties as he did in that successful campaign.”
The results suggest that Cole is thriving in an environment where he can utilize his breaking pitches. It’s a small sample size, but he always had potential to be a legitimate ace. It’s possible that the key to unlocking that version of Cole resided in his offspeed stuff.
As it turns out, the Yankees have a reputation for encouraging starters to pitch backwards. Jake Devin recently examined the drastic decline in fastball usage in the Bombers’ rotation. If that truly played a role in his breakthrough, then it stands to reason that his success would translate in the Bronx.
Some fans wanted nothing to do with Cole over the winter. They viewed him as a middle of the rotation arm at best. The results so far suggest otherwise. Some also figured the staff to be full, and adding Cole would block Jordan Montgomery. As it turns out, Sabathia went down with an injury within two turns of the rotation. It’s not like Montgomery would spend the entire year in Triple-A.
Cole is slated to pitch later tonight against the Rangers. After a few more outings, once sample sizes become significant, we’ll have better information on how he has performed. Maybe the Yankees should have tried a little harder to persuade the Pirates. It could have made all the difference.