Gerrit Cole is slated to start this afternoon against the Detroit Tigers, and he will again pitch for a single inning, as he did in his Yankees debut. With some starters this might be a red flag, but this is regularly scheduled programming for Cole. He prefers to ramp up slowly in the spring, just three outs at a time.
But his brief appearances have gotten me wondering: just how would he perform if he were only a one-inning guy? What if Cole were a closer?
I know, I know—the Yankees have already lost two starters to injury and there are plenty of warm bodies to stock the bullpen. It’s asinine to even consider a universe in which Cole operates as a one-inning pitcher. But silly as it may be, it’s not (completely) without value. Diving into that universe can provide some insight into just how good Cole has been.
Unsurprisingly, Cole seems equally likely to dominate in relief as he does anchoring a rotation. He fanned 326 batters in 212.1 innings last season, and maintained a minuscule 0.895 WHIP. He narrowly, and perhaps wrongly, missed out on winning his first Cy Young Award.
It’s fair to assume the heat he throws now—he touched 98 on the radar gun in his maiden spring start—would only get spicier if he didn’t have to save himself for 100-plus pitches per appearance. He’s been spared from working on short rest, infamously so in Game Seven of last year’s World Series, but given his proven capacity for innings, he’s earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to potentially pitching consecutive days out of the bullpen.
But how would he stack up against some of the best relievers in baseball? Take the Yankees’ real-world closer, Aroldis Chapman. Cole as a starter actually struck out batters at a more frequent clip than Chapman last season, with a 39.9% strikeout rate compared to Chapman’s 36.2%.
And he’s always been less prone to give hitters a free pass. Last year he posted a 5.9% walk rate; Chapman’s was 10.6%, and the gap between those numbers is consistent with their career averages. Assuming he didn’t sacrifice that control, the swing-and-miss dominance Cole discovered in Houston— augmented by the freedom to throw harder—might make him an even deadlier reliever.
What about Josh Hader, perhaps the most dominant reliever in all of baseball over the last two seasons? At first glance Hader succeeds against Cole where Chapman fell just short last year; his 2019 strikeout numbers are bananas—138 of them in 75.2 innings, and a 47.8% strikeout rate. Almost anywhere he threw the ball, batters tended to swing and miss.
But Cole might have an advantage when it comes to variety. He utilizes a four-pitch mix—a four-seamer, a slider, a changeup, and a curve—to devastating effect. Hader is heavily dependent on his fastball, opting for his four-seamer 82.9% of the time last year. Batters knew what was coming; they just couldn’t hit it very often.
On the rare occasions they made contact, the ball often left the bat with the same amount of menace with which it was delivered. Hader conceded an average exit velocity of 90.4 miles per hour last season, in the bottom 4% in baseball.
Cole still gets hit hard when opponents connect, but not nearly as hard as Hader. The variety of his offerings may be inducing slightly weaker contact by leaving hitters guessing. Cole actually throws the four-seamer faster and at a higher spin rate than Hader on average, and his changeup and slider have historically induced even higher swing-and-miss rates than the four-seamer.
Cole’s ability to mix pitches could set him apart. In that sense, John Smoltz’s brief career as a closer might be a better analog to Cole the reliever. Like Cole, Smoltz began as a heavy-innings right handed starter who threw a high-nineties four-seamer, complemented by a slider and a change. When Smoltz moved to the ‘pen, his versatility helped him dominate.
From 2002 to 2004 he compiled 144 saves as a closer, with a sparkling 1.003 WHIP and 243 strikeouts in 226.1 frames. And while his strikeout rate never reached the lofty numbers of these other closers, he was just as effective, and the turn of the 21st century was a bit less strikeout-happy than the modern day game.
But Smoltz transitioned to the bullpen to preserve his health at age 34, and his velocity was declining. If Cole were to step into the role of closer now, he’d be at the height of his pitching powers.
Obviously, that’s the very reason why treating Cole as a one-inning pitcher would be insane. His combination of durability, talent, and craft make him a no-brainer to write in at the top of any rotation. But when he takes the mound today against the Tigers, Yankees fans will get a nice reminder that it only takes three outs to see how good Gerrit Cole can be.