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Is Gerrit Cole going supernova?

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The Yankees’ ace has given fans every reason to dream so far this season.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

I come to you today with a simple question in mind: Is this the season where Gerrit Cole goes supernova?

Yes, the question itself implies that Cole, the man who the Yankees guaranteed $324 million to in December 2019, hasn’t yet gone supernova during his career. That there is more left in the tank, heights he has yet to reach, in spite of a top-four Cy Young finish in each of the past three seasons.

You might ask whether 2019 already represented Cole’s ceiling, and indeed, it’s proper to view his final season in Houston as something of a baseline. 2019 is Cole’s established magnum opus, and anything clearly beyond it must be viewed as some sort of spectacular explosion. That season, Cole just may have been the best pitcher on the planet, striking out 13.8 per nine, running a 2.50 ERA/185 ERA+ in 212.1 innings, and finishing second for the Cy Young only behind his Hall-of-Fame running mate, Justin Verlander.

However, Cole has dominated early in 2021 in a way that few in the game are capable of matching. By fWAR, he’s the top pitcher in baseball not named Jacob deGrom (who is operating in his own otherworldly manner). Cole has run his K/9 figure up to 14.2, with 50 strikeouts against just three walks in his 31.2 innings. He’s allowed hits, home runs, and walks at career-low rates. By any surface measure, Cole is better than ever. In a way, that should make our task here easy. Cole has hit a new level of performance this year; all he has to do is keep it up for the rest of the year, and we have our Gerrit Cole omega season.

Of course, that’s where it gets a little more complicated. We all know that we can’t just take a player’s stats from a hot start and extrapolate them through the rest of the season, praying the regression monster never rears its ugly head. Doing so would put Cole on track for something like 220 innings with 350 strikeouts, 20 walks, and a 1.70 ERA. He’s on pace for about 9 rWAR and over 13 (!!) fWAR. As tempting as it is, we can’t just extend his numbers out indefinitely.

What we can do is examine whether Cole’s skills have actually leveled up. If Cole has brought enough new firepower to the table, then it becomes fair to wonder whether he can keep something close to this level of play up for much of the year.

Let’s start with spin rates and velocity. Cole’s spin rate and speed on his fastball both dipped just a little in 2020, a possibly concerning sign in the first season of a nine-year contract. He’s obliterated such worries in 2021:

Gerrit Cole Velo and Spin Rate by Season

Season FB Velo FB Spin Rate SL Spin Rate CB Spin Rate
Season FB Velo FB Spin Rate SL Spin Rate CB Spin Rate
2018 96.5 2379 2571 2842
2019 97.1 2530 2622 2901
2020 96.7 2505 2580 2803
2021 97.2 2565 2721 2856

This chart alone should provide heaps of optimism that Cole has found a new level, even in a small sample. Sure, Cole has only made five starts, but he’s already thrown over 500 pitches, and with those pitches, he’s generated a career high in fastball velocity, career highs in spin rate on his fastball and slider, and a near-career high in spin on his curve. By each of those metrics, he’s very near top of the league.

And unsurprisingly, Cole’s souped-up offerings have generated superb results across the board. His fastball has been nigh-unhittable, a year after he got dinged for nine home runs with the pitch. Likely thanks to a combo of his newfound spin and speed, and perhaps refined command, Cole’s four-seamer has been hit to the tune of a measly .188 wOBA:

That’s not all, though. Cole is a classic power pitcher, with full access to every bit of fire he’s ever possessed, even at age-30. That hasn’t stopped him from growing his game, and taking pages out of the book of a finesse hurler. He’s ramped up his changeup, nearly tripling its usage rate year-over-year to roughly 15 percent. And this is where things start to look pretty scary.

Cole’s new toy has allowed a .066 wOBA. That’s not a misprint. It’s generated a whiff on nearly half of all swings against it. Cole has used the change as a deadly weapon against lefties, with about two-thirds of his changes coming against lefty-swingers:

What makes Cole’s changeup so terrifying is the way it plays off his other already-tremendous pitches. Opposing hitters know that Cole can attack them with pure power, with a precisely-wielded 100-mph heater, as well as a hard, sweeping slider. Now, they also must keep the offspeed in mind, a pitch that comes out of Cole’s hand much like his fastball, and approaches at the same speed as his slider, but darts in the exact opposite direction.

To get a more concrete sense of the difficulty hitters face with Cole’s arsenal, I sampled Baseball Prospectus’ pitch tunneling metrics. Pitch tunnels are a convoluted concept, and BP’s numbers haven’t been updated since 2019, so I’ll keep this analysis short. Basically, Cole’s fastball and changeup, at the point in time when the hitter must decide whether to swing, are on average about as close together as any other respective heater/change pairing in baseball. His slider and change have a similar kind of interplay, with the two pitches diverging hard right around the time when hitters have to decide to swing.

Rob Friedman best illustrated this concept with one of his patented GIFs on Twitter:

Those two pitches come from a similar release point, and reach the plate at almost the exact same instant, but at complete opposite ends. Hitters without an elite ability to read and react to pitches out of the hand are left with little choice but to step up to the plate and guess. It is a borderline impossible task.

Based on the fundamentals, it’s safe to say that Cole has absolutely flashed another gear in 2021. His pitches look better than ever. He’s reshaped his pitch mix into an even more devastating form. The results speak for themselves. This isn’t to say he’s a lock for some kind of AL MVP season, but those are the kinds of possibilities that arise with a pitcher who is playing this well.

The bar of MVP might be the ultimate goal if Cole keeps this up. Something like 8 WAR usually puts a player in the inner circle of MVP consideration; by fWAR, it’s a bar that’s been cleared by a pitcher just three times in the past decade. The projections, even after only a few weeks, already agree that this kind of season is on the table. Updated with the results of his first five starts, Steamer projects Cole for a 7.5-win 2021. Since 1992, only two pitchers have won MVPs — 2011 Justin Verlander and 2014 Clayton Kershaw — but a WAR of 7.5 would at least put Cole in the discussion.

All this to say, allow yourself to dream with Cole right now. It’s rare to see a player so good seemingly make another leap. That’s what could be happening with the Yankees’ ace. It’s a different kind of leap than we’re used to, unlike the ones made by young players coming into their own and cementing their potential. It’s one that makes you reconsider what’s possible at the top end of athletic performance, of human performance. And in the midst of what’s been a trying season, it is a true thrill to watch.