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Hold off on panicking about Gerrit Cole — for now

He hasn’t been as dominant as advertised in recent memory, but he should still be expected to bounce back.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

To say that Gerrit Cole has performed disappointingly since he walked off the mound at Fenway Park to end his disastrous Wild Card Game start would be an understatement. While fans would have appreciated to see a Cole who began 2022 angry and with something to prove, he’s started the season angry at Billy Crystal and performing the worst of a starting rotation he was expected to lead.

The narrative around Cole, particularly from the mouths of fans of other teams, says that his Cy Young-caliber stuff was the product of pure sticky stuff, and the crackdown turned him into a good but not great pitcher. And while his numbers did dip after the the rule enforcement began on June 21, and his two starts in the immediate aftermath were bad — three runs over 5.0 innings against the Red Sox, 7 ER against the Tampa Bay Rays — he did actually appear to adjust fairly quickly. If not for his early September bout with hamstring tightness, I think the story around him would look quite different, and the handwringing about his 2022 start would be lessened.

After that awful June 29 start against the Rays, and before he left his September 7 start against Toronto with the hamstring problem, Cole was about as dominant as you could expect. In his start against the Angels, his last one before the injury, he struck out 15 batters batters over seven innings; in no start did he give up more than 1 ER. He wasn’t hitting double digit strikeouts with regularity like he was early in 2021, but that Angels start perhaps suggested he was on his way back.

Then the hamstring injury struck, which his agent Scott Boras alleged bothered him for the rest of the season even as he tried to pitch through it. The Yankees presumably would have put him on the injured list if they weren’t hunting for a playoff spot, or if there was time to shut him down and ramp him up again before the playoffs. But he kept pitching, and was undeniably in bad form, including his two-inning Wild Card start.

His hamstring has had an offseason to heal, so Cole should be back to normal, right? Not yet, as his first three starts have been less than uneven at best, with Tuesday’s five-walk game against Detroit a particularly shocking meltdown. Cole shouldn’t be walking in runs against the bottom of the lineup. But while Cole didn’t give it as an excuse, the bitter-cold weather almost certainly had an effect, as it did for Tigers starter Tyler Alexander.

Through the admittedly small sample size of this season so far, Cole’s xFIP is 4.60 compared to his 6.35 ERA. It’s obviously not what you’d expect from him, but if his ERA matched that lower figure, I think most fans would feel a lot calmer than they are now.

Cole also did not start as strong as expected in the 2020 season, another campaign that kicked off strangely with an unusual spring Training. He had games with relatively diminished strikeout totals, and in the month of August — the first full month of the season — he had a 4.19 ERA, with a 1.25 WHIP.

And while Cole’s unusual inability to get swings and misses using his fastball during Opening Day against the Red Sox raised some eyebrows, his Whiff% on that pitch through three starts is basically identical to his rate from 2020, when his hands were presumably still very sticky. Furthermore, while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. obviously took his lunch during Cole’s start, the rest of the formidable Toronto lineup was held to one hit and six strikeouts.

The odds are still in favor of a Cole rebound. The longer his struggles persist, however, the bigger the drain on New York’s playoff odds. The team is still pretty fresh off the start of the season, and expanded rosters have left the club with an abundance of arms, but in the dog days of summer, will the bullpen be able to put up 7.1 scoreless innings to pick him up? It seems a lot less likely. His numbers will likely even out with time — but time is something this team does not want to burn much of, with a tight season-long AL East race on the docket.