The big move the Yankees were looking for has been made, with the team inking Gerrit Cole to a record-breaking free agent deal last week at the Winter Meetings. It was a busy week for baseball as a whole, as the top three free agents all signed during the Meetings, and fallout moves like Madison Bumgarner and Corey Kluber switching teams have changed the baseball landscape.
How has the offseason activity actually moved a team’s chances of winning, though? A few weeks ago we looked at what Steamer thought of the 2020 Yankees, but of course, the team has a shiny new ace that has completely thrown off the projections. Prior to Cole signing, the Yankees were projected for 17.4 fWAR, a tick down from their actual production in 2019, while also being pegged as a fairly high-strikeout team, 9.68 K/9 as a staff.
Enter Gerrit Cole, and that calculus changes dramatically. The strikeouts will come in bunches, and the Yankees are suddenly projected for almost 10.5 K/9, almost a full strikeout per game more. That’s one fewer ball in play causing trouble, but the real shift is in total value, where counting Cole, the Yankees are expected to produce about 23.5 fWAR, a 35% increase just by signing the best pitcher in baseball.
To contextualize that, let’s look at the projections for the teams that finished ahead of the Yankees in pitching WAR in 2019:
The Yankees had the tenth-best staff in baseball last year, and they were projected, before Cole, to be right around that mark in 2020. Adding Cole makes them just about as good as last year’s Astros, and the best-projected pitching staff in the game. Good things happen when you sign the best player available.
Projections aren’t perfect - players will surprise you either positively or negatively. If I had asked you who the third-best pitching staff was in baseball last year, you probably would not have said the Twins, and yet there they were. There will probably be a Yankees pitcher that lets us down in 2020, and there will be someone who drastically overperforms Steamer’s expectations.
Still, if we concede that projections are essentially median expected outcome, there’s effectively a 50% chance the Yankees have a top-3 pitching staff in all of baseball. All of this only incorporates previous statistical performance too - projection systems aren’t great at signaling adjustments or teammate interactions. A good example of this is the team-wide boost bringing someone like JD Martinez to Boston had. A well-known analytics geek like Martinez was widely credited with improving the performance of other players in the lineup, and that’s something Steamer can’t really quantify.
I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that Cole can be a guy like that too. As a top prospect who showed flashes of brilliance before dealing with injury and inconsistency, he’s a natural mentor for a guy like Luis Severino. Cole’s also pretty notorious for wanting as much advanced data as he can get his hands on, and that only furthers the good examples set by guys like James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka within the clubhouse.
We don’t really know what all the off-field impact will be when it comes to Cole - aside from a financial windfall in merchandise and branding the Yankees will now enjoy. On the field, the Yankees have the best in the game, and he might just push the entire staff to that level as a collective as well. Feels good, doesn’t it?