I think the Yankees were hurt more than almost any other team by the shortened 2020 season, and one way that was borne out was in having to settle for only 73 innings of Gerrit Cole, rather than his customary 200+. The 2021 campaign will be the 30-year old’s first full season in the Bronx, and he comes into spring training as perhaps the club’s most important player.
2020 Stats: 73 IP, 2.84 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 11.59 K/9, 2.10 BB/9, 0.96 WHIP, 2.2 bWAR, 1.5 fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 200 IP, 3.38 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 11.96 K/9, 2.43 BB/9, 1.07 WHIP, 5.5 fWAR
That’s about as gaudy a WAR projection as you’ll see for a pitcher, and indeed Cole is projected to be the best pitcher in the American League. There isn’t much to analyze about his past or predicted performance — we all know how good he is, and after a year of him with the Yankees, we know his repertoire and approach to pitching. What is new for 2021 is just how critical he is to the rotation.
Last season, the hope was that he would be the ace of a rotation that featured reliable starters like Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. His job was to take a high-floor if unsexy rotation into the stratosphere. This year, his job is still to raise the ceiling of the Yankee rotation, but also to provide it a floor.
The moves made by Brian Cashman over the winter have resulted in a rotation loaded with potential, but one with tremendous risks around health and performance. The stat has been repeated many times, but Luis Severino, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and Domingo Germán combined to throw a single inning in 2020, and will be counted on as significant parts of the pitching staff, with Kluber and Taillon especially going to be in the rotation for the entire season, barring injury.
The staff as a whole is projected to be the best in baseball, but likely with significant error bars, and Cole’s largely looked at to shrink them. While it’s likely the Yankees shift guys in and out of the rotation — Deivi García and Germán may be moved to the bullpen and back, and it’s unclear when Luis Severino will return from Tommy John surgery. Cole and Jordan Montgomery, barring injury, will likely be the only two starters asked to throw full seasons with no innings caps.
There has been significant concern among all MLB clubs about those innings caps, as teams struggle with how to ramp up pitching after such a short season last year. This might present a challenge for younger pitchers or guys coming off injury, but not for Cole. He’s thrown 200 innings in three straight seasons from 2017-19, and in perhaps the best preview of what 2021 would look like, came off an injury-shortened 2016 to throw 203 innings a year later.
Gerrit Cole is projected to be the best pitcher in the AL, and it’s hard to argue that, barring injury, he won’t live up to those projections. More than just his expected statistical effectiveness, though, he is going to be called on to anchor an extremely dynamic, floating pitching rotation. The staff is going to look different than what Yankee fans are used to, but every fifth day at least, the team will be sending out quite possibly the game’s best pitcher.