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Gerrit Cole has changed the narrative

Just eight starts into the season, Gerrit Cole has changed the trajectory of his Yankees tenure.

MLB: New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A couple weeks ago, I argued that Gerrit Cole was going supernova. The short of it: Cole had pitched tremendously, but had done so in a way that suggested the second-best pitcher on the planet had somehow gotten significantly better. The right-hander had managed to improve both his raw stuff and his pitch mix en route to one of finest calendar months of his career.

A few starts later, not much has changed. Cole has struck out 78 batters against three walks, and leads the league in fWAR by a mile, with only Jacob deGrom and Mike Trout in his vicinity. He’s propelled a Yankees pitching staff that has kept the team afloat, while a battered and bruised lineup tries to find itself.

It’s a scintillating experience to watch a superstar level up, and Cole’s astonishing ascension has obvious impacts on the Yankees’ designs for this season. They might have the top pitcher in the game, one who has laid the groundwork thus far for an MVP-type season. No matter the state of the lineup, the Yankees cannot be counted out of any playoff series in which Cole lines up to pitch twice, or even three times.

But Cole’s improvement in 2021 could have far-reaching effects, well beyond whatever happens over the next six months. Indeed, Cole’s eight starts this year may already be enough to change the narrative. In the span of a just few weeks, Cole already looks to have altered the trajectory of his tenure in pinstripes.

Let me explain. Cole had a strong debut campaign with the Yankees, overcoming a home run problem to run a 2.84 ERA in a dozen starts. He struck out 94 batters in 73 innings with 17 walks, and showed up huge in three postseason starts. Cole gave the Yankees pretty much everything they wanted from their $324-million man.

Yet he also looked like a pitcher at the beginning of a decline. A slow, gentle decline perhaps, but a decline nonetheless. All of Cole’s top-line numbers, from ERA+, to FIP, to K/BB ratio, were worse in 2020 compared to his dynamite 2019 season. More importantly, Cole’s underlying skills appeared slightly worse than they did at his Houston peak. He suffered a half-tick drop in fastball velocity. The spin rates on his four-seamer, slider, and curveball all fell. The 14 dingers he surrendered, nine of them via the heater, indicated occasional command troubles with his fastball.

Gerrit Cole turned 30-years-old last September 8th. That he appeared to have begun a physical decline was entirely unsurprising. Whether you sampled an aging curve, or anyone who’s been on this Earth for more than three decades, you’d know it’s not only normal but expected for the human body to lose a little bit of steam 30 years in. It’s possible the shortened season affected Cole’s preparation and stuff in 2020, but data from the whole season showed that fastball velocity was about level across the league despite the pandemic. No, the simplest explanation for Cole’s tiny, but apparent, regression was that Cole had reached the age where nigh everyone’s physical capabilities take at least a small hit.

What Cole has done this year has completely reversed that trajectory. No longer does he look like he’s at the beginning of the back nine of his career. Cole is on the upswing again. He’s hinting at the possibility of a freakish, deGrom-esque progression through his 30s. Even if Cole doesn’t add three mph to his fastball velo in his 30s like deGrom did, leveling up as he ages could have an enormous impact on the shape of his Yankee career.

After 2020, we were forced to be realistic about were Cole was headed. He was still excellent, but most pitchers don’t stop losing velo and stuff once they start. If he lost a half-tick in velocity in year one, well, perhaps that would turn into a full tick in year two or three, and three full ticks by the backend of Cole’s contract. Since Cole would be declining from such a high peak, he surely would have remained very effective for years to come even as he lost stuff. But a progression from ace for the first couple years of his contract, to four-ish WAR pitcher in the middle of the deal, to decent-to-average pitcher at the end looked like a reasonable arc after Cole’s Yankee debut.

Forget that trajectory now. If Cole’s ramped up his velo to career highs, regained all of his lost spin, refined his command and his arsenal, there’s no reason he can’t stave off the decline well into his Yankee tenure. A Max Scherzer-shaped career suddenly seems plausible, a career with multiple talent jumps, one in the late-20s and one in the early-30s, rocketing a starter to Cooperstown.

To get a more concrete sense, in terms of straight WAR totals, of what a true talent jump for Cole could mean long-term, I’ll sample the ZiPS projections I used when writing about Cole’s signing back in December 2019. Those projections map closely to the progression I described two paragraphs ago. Let’s juxtapose that to a hypothetical WAR progression if we assumed Cole suddenly turned into a true talent 7.5-WAR hurler this year, and then started to decline at the same rate implied by ZiPS:

Gerrit Cole’s Shifting Trajectory

Year Initial ZiPS "New" Projection
Year Initial ZiPS "New" Projection
2021 4.7 7.5
2022 4.4 7.0
2023 4.1 6.5
2024 3.8 6.1
2025 3.4 5.4
2026 2.9 4.6
2027 2.5 4.0
2028 2.1 3.4
Total 27.9 44.5

This may be a bit of a clunky methodology, but it serves its purpose; even if Cole declined steadily from here, if he truly is a Cy Young favorite again, it could mean something like 16 extra WAR over the lifespan of his deal. And one could even argue this perspective is conservative, as there’s nothing that says that Cole, after adding improving his skills at age-30, can’t hold this level of performance for a year or two. What if Cole mirrors Scherzer’s or Clayton Kershaw’s finest three-year stretches and puts up 23 WAR from 2021 to 2023?

That kind of run didn’t seem to be on the table just a few months ago. It is now. Sure, the samples may feel small, but we’re not talking about Cole’s ERA or FIP across a handful of starts. Cole has already thrown hundreds of pitches in 2021, and they’ve all suggested he’s a better player now in his early-30s than he ever was before. What he’s done is potentially ground-shifting, putting his arc with the Yankees into a new light. If Cole can keep this up for the rest of 2021, it’d be fair to start dreaming of Cole entering the Hall in a couple decades, with an interlocking NY on his forehead.