First impressions are important. You only get one, and a bad one can disproportionately shape your opinion of someone/something for a significant period of time. Knowing this, it’s great that Gerrit Cole’s first impression for Yankees fans has been overwhelmingly positive. He’s 4-0 with a 2.75 ERA, has a microscopic 0.89 WHIP, is averaging well over a strikeout per inning and just one walk per start. He’s flashed no-hit stuff in almost every start, and has been every bit the savior that Yankees fans hoped for.
Except for one tiny thing.
Cole hasn’t run into much trouble with the Yankees, but what little adversity he has dealt with has come thanks to the home run ball. Cole has let up a dinger in each of his six starts this season and seven total on the year, which is tied for the fifth-most of all pitchers. He has the sixth-worst HR/9, averaging 1.75 long balls per nine innings. Although Cole’s home run rate has risen in recent years, it’s never been quite this high.
Is this the first crack in Cole’s armor? While Cole’s home run rate figures to fall somewhat over time, I don’t think it’s ever going to be as low as it was in Houston, and certainly not as low as it was in Pittsburgh. However, thanks to the context in which his rate has risen, it likely will not be a major issue for Cole, who is enjoying another stellar season as one of the top-two pitchers in baseball.
There are a couple of factors here causing the increase in home runs. One of the biggest has to be the fact that Cole now plays half of his games at Yankee Stadium, one of the least pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball. Many a hurler has seen his HR/9 rise with the Yankees, some to the point of becoming problematic (A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes). Others managed to enjoy prosperous careers in pinstripes (Roger Clemens, CC Sabathia). Cole’s last stop, Minute Maid Park in Houston, is also a hitter’s yard, and his HR/9 rose there too. The park doesn’t get all the blame, but it’s a factor for sure.
The bigger reason lies with how Cole has changed the way he pitches over the past few years. While in Pittsburgh, Cole used a lot of sinkers down in the zone, and didn’t rely on his four-seamer as much. This changed when he left the Pirates, and it’s turned Cole from just a good pitcher into arguably the game’s best. When a guy can throw 96-98 mph with the heat, he should use it. In fact, Cole’s four-seam usage is up to its highest level this year, being thrown 56 percent of the time.
As Cole’s fastball usage has increased, so too have the home runs. Over the last three seasons, Cole’s given up 55 home runs. 34 of them have come on the four-seamer (his next highest total is his slider with just 11). It seems like the four-seamer could be a little too homer-prone at first. Yet anyone who has ever watched Cole pitch knows that asking him to dial back his four-seam usage would be a gross misuse of his talents.
Cole’s four-seam fastball is his greatest drawback in that it makes him homer-prone, but it’s also his greatest individual strength as a pitcher. There just aren’t many starters (if any) who have a better fastball than Cole. His velocity and spin rate on the pitch are both in the 90+ percentile. His heat map from this year shows a pitcher who isn’t afraid to throw the gas up and in to righties, a trait that only the best, most fearless pitchers have.
Most importantly, Cole gets outs with his fastball. Opposing batters only hit .193 off the pitch, he’s struck out 19 batters this year on the pitch (his highest for any pitch), and he’s able to throw it for strikes better than any of his other offerings. Hitters know it’s his primary weapon, but they still do very little against it. When they do, they tend to hit it a long way, but that’s a gamble that a power pitcher has to take. Cole’s path to success is living and dying with his gift of a fastball, and he’s turned elite since fully embracing it in 2018.
Now, this would have been problematic if Cole was giving up dingers above his usual rate and other runs, too. But, Cole’s run prevention has otherwise been elite in 2020. His strand rate is an exceptional, if unsustainable, 94.8 percent, a number fueled by lots of strikeouts and a stingy .235 BABIP. His WHIP is well below 1.00, sitting at 0.89 (just like it did in 2019). If Cole was allowing more baserunners and giving up more hits in addition to the home runs, I’d be moderately concerned, but that’s simply not the case. If other teams aren’t hitting dingers off Cole, they’re probably not hitting anything, and that’s a fine trade-off for Cole with the excellent K/BB rate he has.
Gerrit Cole has given up more home runs in 2020. This is a fact. However, this does not mean that Cole has been worse for the Yankees, or that the league is figuring him out. Cole had given up 31, 19 and 29 bombs over the last three seasons before coming to the Yankees; his home run rate hasn’t been particularly low since his early Pittsburgh days when he was pitching to contact at the expense of massive strikeout numbers. If Cole has to give up 30 home runs to strike out 300 batters, I’ll take it. As long as the rest of his stats continue to dazzle, the Yankees have nothing to worry about.