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PSA Plays the Show: Checking in on Gerrit Cole

A quarter of the way through his first season in the Bronx, how is free agency’s crown jewel doing?

Two straight years baseball has robbed Yankee fans of a once-in-a-generation spectacle. Last year, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, possibly the two hitters with the most raw power since integration, missed extended time with injuries in the season where a swinging bunt produced a wall-scraping home run. The 2020 season, of course, has been at best shortened dramatically by COVID-19, and that’s meant we’ve lost out on a potential repeat of Gerrit Cole’s 2019 campaign.

Cole in 2019 wasn’t just the best pitcher in baseball, he was among the most dominant pitchers we’ve ever seen. His K% and K-BB% were the highest ever, and he finished in the top three in all of baseball in ERA, FIP, fWAR and innings pitched. Even while baking in the expectation that he might not be quite so god-like in 2020, Yankee fans were salivating at the chance to have a surefire Cy Young finalist season at the top of the rotation.

We don’t quite know how Cole will do in real life, but at least in our MLB The Show simulation, he’s taken a larger step back than we perhaps anticipated:

He still strikes out a boatload of hitters—second in all of baseball—but his overall run suppression has regressed hard. Prorating his 1.4 WAR over 200 IP would leave him at 5.1, still very good, but a full two wins and change lower than last year, and likely out of serious Cy Young contention. Only two of the last 15 AL finalists have had a WAR that low, and one of them was 2016 Rick Porcello, widely regarded as the biggest awards mistake in some time.

Cole is walking more, surrendering more hits, and crucially, his home-run rate is up as well. You can see his BB/9 on the chart above, but the contact allowed is perhaps even more worrisome—he surrendered about 5.95 hits per nine in 2019, and that mark is up to 8.17 in our sim year. He’s allowing home runs at an increased rate too, 1.50/9 over 1.23 a year ago. More traffic on the basepaths and more balls leaving the park mean poorer performance; it’s not complicated.

About a month ago—maybe, I don’t know how time works anymore—I wrote about how a lost season could affect the long term value of Cole’s record-breaking contract. While a 5.1 WAR season would be much better than no season at all, it does bring about the same kind of questions about long-term sustainability.

All contracts must be evaluated over the full life of the deal—teams justify albatrosses on the back end if they built up significant value on the front end. One reason why contracts like Jacoby Ellsbury’s or Albert Pujols’ are so damaging to a team is there is no significant value on the front end of the deal, meaning there’s no way of balancing out the inevitable decline.

Cole’s three-year ZiPS projections were for 6.4, 6.2 and 5.7 WAR in the next three seasons. At $36 million AAV and $8.5 million market value of a win, that built up about $50 million of surplus value in the years closest to Cole’s peak. That gives the Yankees a lot of breathing room over the life of the deal, hedging against Cole’s decline and making the deal, at the end of the day, hopefully worthwhile.

Read those WARs again. Cole wasn’t supposed to be as bad as his prorated, simulated 2020 for at least four years. Following a standard regression pattern from there robs the deal of a lot of its surplus value, and likely leads to the contract being seen as more of a bust than anything else once Cole is through.

Sims are meaningless, and even if they weren’t, it’s entirely possible Cole does turn it around and go back to being the best pitcher in baseball. As it stands now, I can’t help but think Yankee fans would be just a little let down by Cole’s first year in the Bronx, and for that, we should be glad this is just a simulation.