My political beliefs and upbringing make me loath to shield a guy who’s going to earn over $350 million in his career, but here we are. Stop picking on Gerrit Cole!
Or at least, contextualize why we’re picking on Gerrit Cole. The Yankee ace had a good season, even if it maybe fell below the sky-high expectations we set for him. Perhaps more so than his Cy Young finalist results, though, the year will be remembered for his being made the poster boy of the sticky stuff backlash.
On June 21, umpires all across baseball begin their inspection of pitchers. They check the hat, the belt, the glove, all very public and on the field so that Rob Manfred can say See We Are Doing Something. Critics of Gerrit Cole will point out that he had a 4.12 ERA from the 21st to the end of the season. Aha! He must have been cheating! Fifth starter at BEST.
Now, those critics leave out the fact Cole had a 3.39 FIP in that time span, and that gap between ERA and FIP was the largest in the entire American League. ERA-FIP analysis is pretty boilerplate stuff by now, but even that basic indicator should tell us that Cole wasn’t actually pitching like a middling starter, but much more like presumptive Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, who had a 3.30 FIP over that same stretch. If we took a step further and looked at my favorite pitching stat, K-BB%, Cole’s 24.9% did trail Ray from crackdown to end of season, but Robbie only notched a 25.4% rate, nothing that would indicate a real serious disparity between the two.
Of course, Cole did get worse post-crackdown — his pre-21st triple slash of 2.31/2.44/2.61 would have arguably yielded the greatest season by a Yankee pitcher, ever — and, to be fair, his ERA, FIP and xFIP jumps, on a percentage basis, were in the top five largest dropoffs after inspections started. Pretty much every pitcher got worse post-crackdown, but Cole’s relative performance was worse than most. Perfectly fair to ding him for that:
Keep this table in mind, refer back to it in a second; it’s important, because something else happened to Gerrit Cole this year.
On September 7, Cole came out of his start against the Blue Jays in the fourth inning with a left hamstring injury. He skipped a start, but with the Yankees fighting for their playoff lives, the decision was made to not send him to the IL. That decision may have torpedoed Cole’s season, because after getting hurt, months after the spot checks were implemented, Gerrit Cole became just about the worst pitcher in the American League.
His ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash read 6.15/5.14/4.91. He lost more than ten points of K-BB%. He was terrible, and because his injury was to his plant leg, not his drive leg, I think the impact of the injury was a little hidden. If Cole had lost 3mph on his fastball because he didn’t have the strength or stability to push off the rubber with a bad right hamstring, we all would have noticed. Instead, it was Cole’s command that fell off after being hurt. His plant leg provided no stability, robbing him of the ability to put the ball just where he wanted it.
We have pretty good evidence of this too. Look up at that table again, and then let’s look at how Cole did from the time inspections started, right up until the day before he got hurt:
Yes, Gerrit Cole got worse once inspections started. But that “Midpoint” triple slash, all those games from the implementation of spot checks before his leg gave out from under him, stood at 3.31/2.68/2.87. His ERA decline was better than Lance Lynn, and the dropoffs in FIP and xFIP were negligible, rendering a sub-3 figure, still unquestionably Cy Young caliber performance.
On absolute value, that midpoint run of Cole’s was more than enough to justify his standing as the best pitcher in the league. He sported the fourth-best ERA, second-best FIP, and best overall xFIP. His three best starts of the season, against the Astros, Rays and Angels, came in this stretch. Sticky stuff or not, the man was a stud.
So why, then, is he THE NAME when it comes to sticky stuff?
Gerrit Cole on if he ever used Spider Tack while pitching:— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) June 8, 2021
"I don't quite know how to answer that, to be honest...If MLB wants to legislate some more stuff, that's a conversation that we can have" pic.twitter.com/2fR1AUeOQX
Look, that’s not a good answer, and there’s clearly a failure on some level to either prepare Cole for a question we all knew was coming, or on his part to deliver the right answer. The clip went around the world, and played a huge part in Cole getting the reputation he’s worn this year.
Two of his first three starts post-crackdown were objectively bad, allowing nine runs in 8.1 innings against the Red Sox and Mets, which also didn’t help matters. We all suffer from primacy bias — we probably overrate Anthony Rizzo’s offensive contributions because he came up so big in his first series with the Yankees, and we overstate how much worse Cole got from losing tack because of those two bad starts, even though his next three starts, he posted a 1.80 ERA in 20 innings against the Astros and those same Red Sox.
And it wasn’t just Cole that made a stink about the whole crackdown. Tyler Glasnow voiced his own problems, and in fact blamed a lack of proper grip for tearing his elbow ligament in early June. My husky king Lance Lynn lost his mind over a spot check towards the end of the season, and indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that pitchers either found a way around the substance ban, or found a way to adapt and recoup spin.
And then, of course, came the Brett Gardner story.
We’ve all heard about it, I thought it was a nonsense thing to publish, but it does have one pertinent point to it; that Gerrit Cole is exactly as intense in real life as he is on the mound. You remember the way he stayed on the mound in Houston, the way he looked like he might actually sock Aaron Boone in the mouth if the Yankee skipper dared to ask for the ball? Apparently, he’s like that a lot.
And truthfully, I don’t care. Starting pitchers, especially aces, are like this a lot. Roy Halladay built a figurative moat around himself in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse on days he started, refusing to speak to the media or teammates and glowering at anyone laughing just a little too loud at a joke. Roger Clemens’ behavior in the clubhouse could be the source of several books, and in fact, has been. Starting pitchers are intense people.
In fact, part of the reason Cole got so upset at Gardner’s joke could very well have been what I’m talking about here, that he wasn’t that different of a pitcher after the spot checks. His command wasn’t quite what it could or has been, and that probably led to a couple balls being left over the plate, but he was still the best or second-best pitcher in the AL. He knows that, and it’s likely the Yankees as an org knew that, which is why he didn’t really try anything different after June 21.
So I think we can be reasonably confident in Gerrit Cole post-tack. He went from being the best pitcher in the AL to maybe the best, maybe the second best. Hurting his hamstring cost him the AL Cy Young award, and a much more interesting question than “Do Gardy and Cole have beef?” is, should the Yankees have put Cole on the IL?
The Yankees were fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, and Gerrit Cole is their best pitcher. He’s also, as we’ve established, the kind of person that’s going to push back, hard, when he disagrees with a decision. It is therefore really really hard to put him on the IL, especially at a time when Corey Kluber was coming back from injury and Jameson Taillon was clearly running out of gas.
Yet the four starts Cole made after getting hurt, he threw 20 innings of 6.35 ERA ball, giving up five home runs in that period — a 2.00 HR/9. The symptom, I believe, of that bad hammy causing bad command, fastballs and breakers that would have stayed on the edge or shadow creeping back over the plate, and getting hit out of the park.
With hindsight, you have to wonder if the Yankees could have found a collection of guys to start those four games, and pitched better than a 6.35 ERA — on the other hand, the guy moved into the rotation might have been Andrew Heaney, who probably wouldn’t have pitched better than that. But the option to shelve Cole for a few weeks, let his leg heal, and have a healthy, rested Cole going in the Wild Card game could have completely changed the Yankees’ season. If, IF, the guys assembled to replace him for that month could have done better.
The whole crux of this is to say, Gerrit Cole definitely got help from sticky stuff. The otherworldly, among-the-most-dominant-seasons-in-living-memory 2019 version of Cole probably isn’t coming back, but the perennial Cy Young candidate he’s been for the past two years, I don’t see any reason why we can’t expect that in 2022. Cole’s left leg was the turning point of his season, not what he had on his fingers, and we collectively need to get over it.