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Did Gerrit Cole live up to expectations?

The white whale of free agency finished the season as good as can be.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Right off the bat, I get the fallacy in the headline. It wasn’t really possible for Gerrit Cole to live up to expectations — in December 2019, when he signed that nine-year, $324 million contract, some Yankee fans thought he would run the table atop the team’s pitching staff, strike out 400 men, then outmatch Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 postseason run, and somehow hit the World Series-winning home run to boot.

That wasn’t ever going to happen, but I think it’s fair to try to be as objective as possible in assessing Cole’s season. That means no panicking about his cold stretch of starts, but also not sneering at a season that did carry some real warts, and just based on aging curves, is likely to be the best Cole puts up in the Bronx.

So let’s start right at the top — Cole finished his regular season with a 2.84 ERA, which is good for the fifteenth-best in baseball, in line with guys like Zack Wheeler and Dustin May. Topline run suppression, you can’t complain about a sub-3 ERA, and if Cole does that over 162 games, that’s worth the contract every year.

There is a real question about whether that ERA would have stayed below three over a longer season, though:

Cole’s fielding independent pitching, a metric that essentially projects ERA over the longer term, and is more predictive than simple ERA, is higher than it’s been since 2017, and the second highest of his career overall.

These are the pitchers that posted the biggest differences between their ERA and FIP — basically, pitchers who pitched better than they maybe should have. Pay attention to that “maybe”, because we’re going to come back to it.

Cole was among the league leaders in outperforming his underlying metrics — based on his home runs, walks and strikeouts, the three things pitchers really have control over, his ERA should have been higher than it was. There are two ways to look at this, though. Either Cole wasn’t as good as he appeared, or he improved those key controllables as the season went on, and his FIP would have decreased proportionally. That’s the “maybe”... maybe Cole was underperforming, or maybe he was able to adjust and his FIP didn’t have time, because of the short season, to compensate.

And that largely seems to be the case. Cole had two objectively bad starts, one at Atlanta and one against Tampa Bay, and you can see how they caused his season ERA and FIP to spike. His strikeout rate and walk rate stayed roughly consistent, with the strikeout numbers actually improving as the season went on. This indicates, to me, that Cole’s season was the victim of a short window — had he made another 15-20 starts, it’s reasonable to conclude that FIP would have dropped based on the controllables being better... well, controlled.

However, the criticism and worry about Cole that is valid is the home run allowance. He tied with Matthew Boyd for the most home runs allowed in baseball, at 14. In fact, he gave up almost as many long balls as he did walks, a 14:17 ratio that was the closest to 1:1 in the American League. His average exit velocity allowed was the third-highest in baseball, so he wasn’t giving up cheapies.

The damage inflicted by home runs are largely a function of how many men are on base — Justin Verlander surrendered the third-most dingers in 2019 and still dominated, winning the Cy Young. The reason Cole’s ERA is still so low is largely because he gave up mostly solo shots. 10 of his 14 surrendered — or 71% of the bombs he gave up — came with no runners on base, where 2019 saw Cole post an 87% “solo shot rate”, and that tracks with Cole just in general allowing more baserunners this year than he did last year. Leaguewide, about 60% of home runs are solo shots.

Taking the season as a whole, 2020 really looks the most like 2018. The ERAs are almost identical, K-BB% is virtually identical, and FIP and xFIP are both closer than 2020 is to 2019. Of course, in 2018, Cole was a six-win pitcher, and if you simply extrapolate fWAR from this season, using the average innings of the last two years, you end up with him worth about 4.24 fWAR. Largely this is due to a much higher FIP, but I think there is compelling evidence that Cole’s FIP would have fallen over another hypothetical 20 or so starts, corresponding to a higher fWAR.

WAR is pretty finicky this season for a number of reasons — defense can’t normalize, larger rosters likely lower the threshold of “replacement player” since players like Alejandro Kirk, who wouldn’t have sniffed the majors in a normal season, are needed to fill roster slots, etc. Simply using WAR has never been enough in analysis, and certainly not this year. The evidence as I see it pegs 2020 as pretty similar to 2018 — Cole isn’t the Very Best Pitcher in Baseball, he’s merely in a collection of the Best Pitchers in Baseball.

In 2018 Cole was one of the top five pitchers in baseball in ERA, FIP, K-BB%. Justin Verlander and Chris Sale, specifically that season, were a little better, but Cole was very much in the next tier of hyper-elite pitching, and I think that’s where he settles for 2020. He didn’t have as good a season as someone like Shane Bieber, but will still finish with a healthy collection of down-ballot Cy Young votes.

This is from the PSA preseason predictions. We were unanimous in our expectations for Cole, at least from an awards standpoint. He’s not going to win the Cy Young this year, so if that was your bar for success, I guess he missed it. He wasn’t as good as he was in 2019, so if that was your bar, he missed it.

But Pedro Martínez was never as good as he was in 1999. That’s one shining, platinum season among a Hall of Fame career. I’m not saying that Gerrit Cole is Pedro Martínez, but it’s possible we never see his 2019 again. Everyone has a peak season, but that doesn’t mean the remaining years aren’t worth anything — hell, Mike Trout has still never been as valuable as he was in 2013. Cole’s still as good a pitcher as you’re going to find in baseball, and if he replicates his performance in 2020 a few more times, will be more than worth the contract signed.