Gerrit Cole led all American League starters in WAR, xFIP, K/9, and ERA in 2019. In other words, the Yankees are going to have their hands full in Game Three of the ALCS. New York only faced Cole once in 2019, scoring three runs over seven innings back on April 9th in Houston. Given Cole’s dominance, the Yankees would probably sign up for three runs over seven innings, but how are they going to ensure he doesn’t do to them what he did to the Tampa Bays Rays in his first two starts of the postseason?
The right-hander had the best opponent xBA of .181 and xSLG of .305, and his 19.6% opponent soft contact percentage ranked 13th in MLB among qualified starters, showing just how hard it is to generate solid contact against the 29-year-old. For the Yankees, it’s going to be all about making their hard contact count, because it’s nearly impossible to string hits together against Cole’s devastating five-pitch mix.
Even DJ LeMahieu, the Yankees’ best contact hitter, is just 2-for-18 against Cole in his career. Among Yankees hitters, only Gary Sanchez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Cameron Maybin have had success against Cole in their careers. Stanton is 4-for-10 with two doubles, a home run, and two walks against Cole in his career, and Sanchez is 2-for-3 with a double in limited action.
If the Yankees are going to defeat Cole, it could very well come via the long ball. As dominant as Cole has been this season, he posted a career-worst 16.9% home run per fly ball rate, trailing only Detroit’s Matthew Boyd (18.2%) among MLB starters. As a team, the Yankees led MLB with a 19.8% HR/FB rate and were in the top third of MLB with a 37.2% fly-ball rate. The recipe against Cole will be to get the right pitches in the air and hope to leave the yard a couple times, but that’s easier said than done.
In order to make the most of limited opportunities against Cole, the Yankees are going to have to control the zone and limit the amount of swings they take outside of it, swings that almost always result in weak contact. Opponents this season chased 35% of pitches outside the strike zone against Cole (16th among MLB starters), and made contact on an MLB-low 49.1% of those swings.
One way they Yankees can attack Cole is to hunt his curveball, which he throws within the strike zone about 50% of the time, according to Statcast. Cole generates significantly fewer swings and misses with his curveball than he does with his fastball, slider, or changeup.
The problem is that opponents don’t swing at his curveball nearly as much as his other pitches. Opponents swung at 54.1% of Cole’s sliders, but only 35.2% of his curveballs, even though he drops in a higher percentage of curveballs for strikes.
This just goes to show how incredibly difficult it is to recognize Cole’s curveball in contrast to his slider, and how often it buckles hitters who are geared up for the fastball. Cole is capable of leaving a curveball out over the plate, but the Yankees’ hitters will need to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
The Yankees would also benefit from laying off Cole’s changeup, which he throws outside the strike zone at 61.6%, nearly 8% more than any of his other pitches. If the Yankees can do their best to lay off sliders low and away as well as changeups down, they’ll force Cole to throw fastballs over the plate and increase their chances of connecting on a few extra-base hits.
No matter how you slice it, Cole is one of MLB’s most dominant force. The Yankees, though, will take advantage of their advanced scouting and put together an offensive game plan that gives them the best chance to jump on a few mistakes. Then they will further prove that their offense is a force to be reckoned with, regardless of who opposes them on the mound.