At this point, we all know the broad strokes of Gerrit Cole’s 2022 season. He amazed and frustrated in equal measure, setting a franchise record for strikeouts, while also giving up the most home runs of any American League pitcher. Cole often managed to mix brilliance with futility within single starts, giving up multiple homers in one inning before following that frame up with a stretch of excellence.
The overall results left fans disappointed. Cole was among the favorites for the AL Cy Young entering the year, but his gopher-ball problems meant he rarely seemed like a contender for the award. His 112 ERA+ was befitting a good number-two starter, but not an ace. By the end of the season, many fans reasonably questioned whether Nestor Cortes would be a superior option to start the first game of a playoff series.
While Cole did dominate in his pair of ALDS starts, I imagine most observers are still coming out of this season feeling somewhat pessimistic about Cole. By WAR and ERA, 2022 was his worst season since 2017, his final year with the Pirates. On the surface, Cole looks like a player in decline, a former ace who has taken a step back as he works through his 30’s.
The good news, though, is that beyond the surface level numbers, there’s little reason to believe Cole has actually begun a precipitous decline. In fact, Cole’s performance contained a number of silver linings, ones that should leave the Yankees encouraged as they watch their ace age.
I want to start, of all things, with the eye test. This year, it became en vogue to check Statcast and ZiPS at the door and to evaluate players just on whether they Had That Dawg In Them. As Cole worked through a summer where he seemingly couldn’t stop coughing up dingers, some questioned the presence of any Dawg within Cole.
From Cole’s ALDS Game 4 start, this feels like sufficient evidence that Cole still has it in him:
Gerrit Cole. pic.twitter.com/D9UsWuQs6s— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 17, 2022
I want to work backward from this unscientific starting point. No, we can’t prove declare Gerrit Cole isn’t in decline by referencing a couple great pitches from one great playoff start. But Cole’s finish to that start in Cleveland perfectly encapsulates the positive signs we can take from his 2022.
That last fastball that he pumped past Will Brennan was Cole’s 110th pitch of the night, and his 3,485th of the season. It came in a little under 98 mph, almost exactly at Cole’s season average four-seam velocity of 97.8 mph.
That average velo is the highest of Cole’s career, a full tick above both his first season in New York and his two seasons in Houston. His average spin rate on the fastball in 2022 was lower than his 2019 with the Astros, but still far above his tenure with Pittsburgh, and just a tad below his 2021 figures, hinting at a smooth recovery from last year’s sticky stuff crackdown.
That Cole was pumping career-high heat deep into October suggests to me a man who is physically still at the peak of his powers. This is the silver lining to take from his frustrating campaign. While Cole’s results were inconsistent, the process he used to generate those results was stable, strong, and indicative of a player in his prime.
We can see this further reflected in his durability. Cole didn’t miss a turn in the rotation in 2022, making 33 starts and logging 200 innings — one of just three American Leaguers to reach that plateau. He’s hit the IL once as a Yankee, in 2021 with a hamstring injury, a season in which he still managed 30 starts. His 2020 numbers prorated to a full season equate to 32 starts and about 200 frames. You have to go back to 2016 to find a year in which Cole didn’t make the equivalent of 30+ starts.
Cole turned 32 in September, at the end of his most trying regular season in years. Yet from a purely physical standpoint, he looks as good as ever. Cole’s long-ball struggles this season were not accompanied by a velocity drop, by chronic injuries, by a noticeable regression in mechanics and form. Essentially, Cole just looks like an ace still, a player with all the tools to be one of the five or so best starters on the planet.
Why this is particularly encouraging is that most forecasts of Cole’s tenure in the Bronx would have baked in some level of physical degradation by this point. In writing up Cole’s signing with the Yankees three years ago for FanGraphs, Jay Jaffe sampled long-term ZiPS projections for Cole, which pegged Cole to drop below 170 innings and to 4 WAR in 2023.
Cole has given us every reason to take the over on those standards next year. In that writeup, Jaffe also noted Cole’s 2019 fastball velo of 97.4 mph, which was higher than any starter who had garnered a nine-figure free agent deal. Jaffe wrote that Cole’s impressive speed left him “with a greater cushion to lose a tick or two and still maintain above-average heat.” Cole has not even begun to eat into that cushion. Instead, he’s actually added a tiny bit of velocity!
The takeaway here is that at age-32, three years into Cole’s nine-year contract, Cole has beaten physical expectations. The smart money would’ve said that by now, we’d have seen some sort of velo drop, or injury issues, something that stemmed from physical decline. That hasn’t happened. Cole essentially hit pause on his age-29 level of fitness, and carried it into his 30’s.
That’s great news for the Yankees, for obvious reasons. Every year Cole manages to hold onto his late 20’s form is another year they can expect him to perform like an ace. When teams sign stars to long-term free agent contracts, the theory holds that their performance at the front will make worth it the poor years at the back half of the deal. Cole staving off physical decline this far makes it that much more likely the latter years of his New York tenure won’t be ugly like the end of most nine- or ten-year contracts.
If you still feel the sting of frustration from every one of the homers Cole allowed in 2022, I can’t blame you. But Cole is in an excellent position to bounce back, in 2023 and beyond. This last season wasn’t what we wanted from the Yankee ace, but even in his worst campaign in years, Cole has still given us reason to expect greatness in the future.