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Let’s not push the panic button on Yankees ace Gerrit Cole yet

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The Bombers’ number one starter has been allowing homers at an alarming rate, but we all know he is better than this.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Yankees handed out a nine-year, $324 million contract to free agent Gerrit Cole near the end of last year, they surely didn’t imagine the right-hander — fresh off a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeout season and a stellar playoff run — would have a 3.91 ERA and a 4.83 FIP in 2020.

However, 2020 has been a crazy year. And here we are, eight starts into his Yankees tenure, and not only is Gerrit Cole sporting those numbers when it comes to run prevention: he is also leading the league in home runs allowed, with 12.

The situation has become especially worrisome in his last three turns, as he has given up seven long balls in 16.2 frames. Cole has conceded at least one round-tripper every time he stepped into the mound this season. However, while the situation is starting to get frustrating to some degree, Cole has earned the benefit of the doubt and some time to work on whatever mechanical issue that is preventing him from performing at an All-Star level.

He doesn’t seem to be injured

The one positive takeaway from the circumstances is that Gerrit Cole, at least so far, hasn’t reported an injury. That seems to indicate the issue is mechanical or command-related. His fastball velocity, while slightly down, hasn’t collapsed a la James Paxton: per Baseball Savant, the pitch averaged 97.1 mph last year, and this season, it is at 96.5. Nothing terribly concerning.

The four-seam fastball does appear to have less rise than last year, which is critical to his success, but I believe he will get it sorted out as long as he is not hurt. When it comes to movement, the rest of his offerings seem OK, or only slightly altered:

Gerrit Cole pitch movement chart

Pitch/movement Inches of drop Inches of break
Pitch/movement Inches of drop Inches of break
2020 changeup 24.9 15.3
2019 changeup 22.9 15.3
2020 four-seam 11.8 12.4
2019 four-seam 10.9 11.4
2020 slider 31.3 5.1
2019 slider 31.8 4.9
2020 curveball 51 9.9
2019 curveball 55.6 11.7

Cole himself sounded pretty frustrated after allowing two home runs and 12 baserunners in five innings of work Monday against the Rays. Per NJ Advance Media:

“It’s been back to back starts where it felt really good and thought that had progressed with the stuff in each of the last few outings. To not get rewarded for it and I guess probably underperform relative to the type of stuff and the ability to throw a lot of pitches at a high quality level, it eats at me a little bit. With what we had today, should have pitched better.”

So, what is the issue? What does he need to adjust?

“The adjustment is either to throw a different pitch or move the sights or just be better. We’re trying to throw a fastball away, you miss a couple inches off the plate. By and large, you’ve executed a fastball away. But the bottom line is, you do that four times and a guy is on first base. So there’s got to be an adjustment at some point there. I think mechanically, it was as effortless as it’s been this year so far. That’s part of one of the things Aaron (Boone) said he was so encouraged about it, same with Matt (Blake). Just how easy and fluid the ball was coming out. Just got to command the zone better, command the leverage better.”

The Yankees need him to be better than he has shown so far. But besides his last two starts, his season hasn’t been a disaster. Up until facing the Atlanta Braves on August 26, he hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his starts.

Right now, he has a 11.74 K/9 (yes, he is still striking people out, although not at last year’s rate) and a 2.35 BB/9. His HR/9 stands at 2.35. It’s nearly impossible for him to keep allowing homers at the same rate he is walking people. It will probably be a while, but as long as he isn’t injured, everything will work itself out.

Cole says that the issue, so far, has been command. I tend to believe him. And given his track record of success, it seems likely that he will iron things out relatively soon.