Since the arrival of the Baby Bombers in 2017, the Yankees desperately lacked an ace starter. Luis Severino finished third in the Cy Young voting that year, but he ran out of gas in the postseason, and the wheels fell off in the second half of 2018. Sonny Gray never materialized as the frontline starter in New York, and while James Paxton has flashed brilliance, he has struggled with health and consistency.
The Yankees have been one ace shy of greatness. Not just any ace, either. A super-ace. The kind of pitcher who can go head-to-head with Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom.
Enter Gerrit Cole.
Cole joined the Yankees in December 2019, signing the richest free-agent contract for a pitcher in MLB history, and he took on the lofty expectations that followed. In three regular season starts since suiting up in the pinstripes, Cole has gone 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA (4.28 FIP). The right-hander has logged 17.2 innings, and that number probably skews short, because rain shortened two of his outings.
At the surface level, it’s hard to argue with those results. He’s preventing runs, pitching deep into games, and padding the Yankees’ win column. Check all the boxes and fans should be pretty happy.
But, there’s more to this story, and as longtime readers know, I’m more interested in process than results. As far as process goes, Cole looks less overwhelming than his peers. In fact, he looks mortal, allowing middling average exit velocity and hard-hit rates.
He also hasn’t generated that signature swing-and-miss off his fastball, the elevated heater that batters couldn’t catch up to no matter early they started their swing. Consider the whiff percentage against his fourseamer over the years.
That’s his worst mark since 2016, a mediocre season for Cole, but one under the tutelage of Ray Searage and the Pirates, who extoll the virtue of the groundball against the strikeout. In other words, that deflated rate was by design.
Since 2018, when Cole hooked up with the Astros, he has lived by the high fastball and the swinging-strikeout. That ethos should carry over to the Yankees, but the results haven’t. Yet. Heavy emphasis on the yet.
He hasn’t lost velocity (averaging 96.6 mph on the fourseamer), nor has he experienced diminished spin on the pitch (2499 rpm). He just isn’t retiring batters, as evidenced by a 16.7% put-away rate. As best as I can tell, there are two takeaways from this:
- Cole’s struggles have to do with location. He falls behind hitters early, then has to pitch his way into a favorable count. “We struggled a few times getting ahead, lost some count leverage,” he told Meredith Marakovits after Monday’s game. The more pitches a batter sees, the more favorable the outcome becomes for them. When Cole pounds the zone, when he gets ahead in the count, he puts himself in the position to elevate the fastball for a swinging-strike, or to spin razor-sharp slider that batters swing over. The good news is this is correctable, and the Yankees have the best staff to fix it.
- It’s early. I mean, it’s really early. Three games after an extended shutdown early. It’s not unexpected for a pitcher to come out of the gate slow, to not have the pinpoint command available, to not have a comfortable feel on the fastball. These things happen, and in more good news, they’re correctable. Cole’s as cerebral of a pitcher as they come, so the Yankees have the best pitcher to handle it.
“I think there’s room for improvement still, across the board,” Cole said. “With that said, with what we had every time we’ve gone out, we’ve done a good job. You know, you can do as much work as you can in-between, but whatever you got that day is what you got that day, and you gotta figure it out.”
It’s fun to think that Cole, at his “gotta figure it out” phase, can still put the team in the best position to win. And, even better, the cushion the club has piled up so far gives him time to work on his location, to steal that extra inch and get in better counts, to be the best pitcher in the league.
He’s going to be more than fine, and soon.
Try and tell me that’s not exciting.