Gerrit Cole does almost everything well. The Yankees’ new ace ranked in the top five among MLB starters last season in total innings, K/9, LOB%, ERA, xFIP, and WAR. In other words, he represented the cream of the crop among starting pitchers at the highest level of the sport.
That said, Cole joins a Yankees team with a brand new pitching coach, and he’s spoken about his desire to always pick up new information that can take his game to another level. The question remains, what does Cole even have left to improve upon?
The first and most glaring weakness last season for Cole came courtesy of the long ball. Nearly 17% of fly balls against Cole left the yard in 2019. That was the second-worst HR/FB rate among all MLB starters. You can probably chalk some of that up to bad luck, but it’s not the first time he’s struggled to keep fly balls in the ballpark. Cole registered the eighth-worst HR/FB rate in MLB (15.9%) in 2017 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, before cutting it down to 10% in his first season in Houston.
Cole surrendered 29 total home runs last season. Seventeen of those homers came off his fastball, eight were off sliders, and four were curveballs. If you consider his pitch mix (52% fastball, 23% slider, 15.5% curveball), he was equally susceptible to the long ball with all three of those pitches. Cole’s propensity for home runs appears to be more a result of missed location, regardless of pitch selection.
Cole served up 20 of the 29 home runs allowed last season directly in the middle of the strike zone. He also had a bit more trouble leaving pitches over the plate to left-handed batters. Left-handed opponents’ xSLG on pitches middle-middle against Cole last season was .772, nearly .300 points higher than any other part of the strike zone. When you’re talking about Cole, the only player worth comparing last season was his teammate in Houston, Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.
When Verlander missed middle-middle to lefties, opponents xSLG was only .336. However, Verlander’s opponent xSLG was higher in nearly every other zone, showing just how dangerous Cole can be if he stays out of the middle of the zone next season. It’s impossible to hit your spot every single time, but Cole’s a perfectionist and there’s no doubt he’s going to try to cut down on those mistakes.
Cole’s fastball, slider, and curveball are all plus pitches, but could he reach another level with more usage of his changeup? Last season, Cole only threw his changeup 7.4% of the time. However, as dominant as Cole’s three primary offerings are, the swing-and-miss rate on his changeup was higher than all of them. In fact, the whiff rate against Cole’s changeup has climbed each of the past four seasons, all the way from 12% in 2015, to 41.2% in 2019. That level of improvement is a testament to the work Cole puts in behind the scenes and his evolution over time. The 83.5 mph average exit velocity against Cole’s changeup last season was also the lowest of any of his pitches.
Cole might not throw 97-100 mph throughout the duration of his nine-year contract with the Yankees, but the continued development of his changeup could give him another weapon in an arsenal that’s already the cream of the crop for MLB pitchers. Believe it or not, Cole is still in search of his first Cy Young award, and there’s no doubt he’ll be working hard with new pitching coach Matt Blake to refine the parts of his game that could take him from a dominant ace to perennial award winner.