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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: Gerrit Cole

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The right-hander is a Yankee, at last. Now, he will seek what he didn’t achieve with the Houston Astros: a World Series ring

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Very few times has a free agent signing generated as much noise in the Bronx as Gerrit Cole. No, he isn’t a particularly talkative man, but that doesn’t much matter. The Yankees signed an intense competitor to anchor their rotation, a man with so much drive to improve and attain excellence.

The ace had a childhood dream: playing for the New York Yankees. He’s about to fulfill that dream for the next nine years. October baseball in the Bronx has a different flavor, and he will get to taste every moment of it.

2019 Statistics: 212.1 IP, 2.50 ERA, 2.64 FIP, 0.89 WHIP, 13.82 K/9, 2.03 BB/9, 1.23 HR/9, 7.4 fWAR

2020 Fangraphs Depth Chart Projections: 214 IP, 3.18 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 12.54 K/9, 2.39 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 6.7 fWAR

Personally, I can say that the Yankees’ pursuit of Cole was one of the most thrilling storylines of any recent offseason. I won’t ever forget the morning I woke up to the news that the former Astro had agreed to sign in New York. The players’ reactions, the media shock, everything. Cole is, or at least seems to be, the missing piece of the puzzle.

The right-hander had a 2019 to remember. In 33 starts, he pitched 212.1 innings with a 2.50 ERA and a 2.64 FIP. His 7.4 fWAR topped all MLB hurlers, and additionally, he had an insane 13.82 K/9. He won 20 games and lost only five. He spent months - not weeks, months - without dropping a decision.

Despite having a 7.4-to-6.4 fWAR edge over Justin Verlander, Cole lost the Cy Young award to his former teammate in Houston. Both were excellent and clearly above the competition, but Cole probably deserved the recognition.

His postseason stats were awfully impressive as well. He was a monster in the Division Series versus the Tampa Bay Rays, going 2-0 with only one run allowed in 15.2 innings for a 0.57 ERA. He had three walks against 25 punchouts.

He only had one start against the Yankees in the Championship Series: seven scoreless innings. And when you call a 3.86 ERA “disappointing” - that was his mark in the World Series - you know the guy has set some lofty standards.

Similar weapons, different pitcher

You have to give credit to the Astros on this one: they recognized Cole as a high-spin fastball pitcher with excellent secondaries and worked to transform him from a talented, yet underachieving pitcher - he had a 4.26 ERA with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017 - to a workhorse, a strikeout machine. Yes, he had excelled before, but he had so much untapped potential.

The Astros acquired Cole prior to the 2018 season - the Yankees were in the running, too - and he had two amazing seasons with them. He left with no World Series rings, but don’t worry, he will seek them in New York, not in Houston.

In the 2017 season with the Pirates, Cole used a sinker 13.1 percent of the time. Heck, it was as high as 16.4 in 2015. Why on earth would a team waste his high spin fastball (96th percentile in 2019) and fabulous secondaries like that?

The Astros had him pitching up in the zone more often and ditched the sinker (he used it only 2.4 percent of the time last season) while favoring the four-seamer (51.6 percent) and slider (23.2 percent in 2019, compared to 17.4 in 2017.)

Here is a chart of Cole’s pitch % in 2017, by zone:

And here’s one from 2019:

Adding it up, you can see that he threw 26 percent of pitches in the upper part of the zone in 2017. That percentage went up to 41 percent in both 2018 and 2019.

The change in pitch mix and zones resulted in a huge increase in K%. He struck out 23.1 percent of the hitters he faced in 2017, 34.5 percent in 2018, and 39.9 percent last year. Imagine having to face a guy with the strikeout rate of an elite closer, but four times per game. Yikes.

An incredibly valuable piece in a rotation bit by the injury bug

In a moment in which the Yankees’ rotation depth has been crushed by injuries to Luis Severino (out for the season) and James Paxton (out for a few more weeks) and Domingo German domestic violence suspension, the team badly needs sure things in the unit. There is arguably no surer thing than Gerrit Cole.

Manager Aaron Boone can give Cole the ball every fifth day and know that he will, at the very least, keep the team in the game. We can’t say that the Yankees will win every Cole start, but they sure will be competitive.

The best thing about adding Cole is that he will help the Yankees get over the hump that the postseason has represented since 2009. In the last few seasons, most notably 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Bombers have lacked a pitcher with Cole’s combination of stuff, demeanor, consistency and pedigree in the games that matter the most.

Luis Severino barely made it to last season’s playoffs in one piece after a months-long layoff, and the rest of the staff just can’t match Cole’s talent. Masahiro Tanaka has been a postseason god for the Yankees, that’s for sure, but the roster needed to add a bonafide ace.

Now, the Yankees are more prepared to handle the American League’s toughest offenses in the playoffs, should they get there. They won’t have Severino this year, but if everything goes as planned, they can boast a rotation of Cole, Tanaka, Paxton and one of German, Jordan Montgomery and J.A. Happ in October. That’s a top unit, even without Sevy.

Having Gerrit Cole on board is the most exciting thing that has happened to the Yankees since developing their young guys in 2016 and 2017. Fans are in for a treat.