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Gerrit Cole and the risk of road pizza

Cole is the best pitcher in the American League ... except for those odd moments when he’s not.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Right out of university, I worked in investment banking. Most of it was analysis — discounting projected future cash flows, financial models around possible market changes, and things of that sort. My favorite part was getting to profile key executives in the firms we were working with; whether the CEO was the “ideas” guy and any detail questions that had to go to the CFO, what a succession plan looked like, etc.

One of the intangibles we had to dig into was what we jokingly called the risk of road pizza — namely, the risk on any one day that a key executive would be crushed by a bus, and how the firm would respond. Executives who did activities like whitewater rafting had a higher risk than folks who ran treadmills and had dinner at home with their family.

Enter Gerrit Cole, one of the best true talent pitchers in baseball, who has been crushed by a bus on the mound 4 or 5 times in his 23 starts. The cutoff for “blown up” is somewhat arbitrary, but let’s look up any game with a FanGraphs GameScore2.0 of less than 40 — 50 is an average start, and blowing up is worse than a plain old bad start. Everyone has bad starts, but I don’t know of an ace of Cole’s caliber who gives up six runs in the first inning.

This is how you pitch yourself out of a Cy Young season. In four starts, Cole has surrendered a full third of his walks on the year, 38 percent of his earned runs, and 48 percent of his home runs. In all other starts, he has a 2.32 ERA and 2.39 FIP, virtually identical run suppression to Justin Verlander, Shane McClanahan and Alek Manoah, the AL’s three best pitchers this year. But those four starts count really happened; we don’t get to ignore them. As I said, this is how you pitch yourself out of a Cy Young season.

This is Gerrit Cole’s risk of road pizza. What are the odds that on any given start — say, the first game of the ALDS — that he’ll give up four home runs in the first two innings? Some of those great starts, those 19 starts, came against potential playoff opponents: Seattle, Houston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, those blowups have sometimes come against playoff opponents too, Seattle and Minnesota.

Cole’s ceiling is higher than anyone else’s in this rotation, and I think he’s more likely than anyone else to absolutely dominate with 8 innings and 12 strikeouts against Toronto in the ALDS or something like that. But that probability is undercut by the blowup potential, which we’ve seen at least four times now this season. Pitching yourself out of major award contention is one thing, but it’s quite another to become the reason your team is scrambling to pull itself out of a deficit in a playoff series, or potentially blowing up in a series-deciding game.

Risk is the product of downside and probability. What are all the bad outcomes from a decision or action, and how likely are those outcomes? Cole has 4 terrible starts out of 23 — in other words, a roughly one-in-six chance, so far this season, that he’ll be crushed by a bus. Whether those odds remain the same going forward is a different question. He’s shown the ability to bounce back from bad outings. In fact, six days after his terrible start against Seattle, he went seven shutout innings against the same team. However, his blowups have also come out of nowhere, as he had allowed just a single earned run in 13 innings before Minnesota jumped all over him in June.

So what do you do if you’re the Yankees and you’re focusing your effort and energy on a postseason run? Cy Young honors don’t really matter at this point, Cole is only going to get older, you don’t know whether Aaron Judge is part of your long-term future, and you have to win now or the way we view this team’s post-2017 window is going to be pretty bleak. Do you trust Cole to shove in the postseason, to take on Houston in a potential ALCS matchup? Or are you watching through your fingers in the event that he blows up? It’s happened often enough that it has to be a real fear.

If there’s any solace to be gained, it’s that we’ll know pretty quickly that Cole doesn’t have it. Six runs in the first inning against the Mariners, three home runs in the first against the Twins, no control at all in two innings against the Tigers … it feels like if Cole can get through a lineup once without a scratch, he becomes the best in baseball again. But if he can’t, the Yankees are in a hole.

I can’t imagine that the Yankees would have a tandem guy ready to go if Cole is crushed by a bus in the first inning of a playoff game, but that might be the strategy to take.

Come October, that might be might be the job of Jameson Taillon, Clarke Schmidt, or Domingo Germán (or maybe Luis Severino if he can’t stretch out in time upon his September return): if Cole is blown up, you take him out early and trust your long man to stop the bleeding, not dissimilar from what happened in the 2017 and 2018 Wild Card games. If Cole is the Cole we all hope he is, then the long man stays seated and the Yankees have a really good chance of winning.

I can’t think of a season like this. When Cole is Cole, he’s been as good or better than any other pitcher in the game. When he’s blown up, he’s been unplayable. How the Yankees balance that risk, Cole’s own risk of road pizza, will go a long way to determining how far this team goes come October.