A lot of these report cards are rather stinky, and more than a few of the 2023 Yankees’ parents would have received phone calls or invitations to come in for a personal meeting with faculty. In contrast, Gerrit Cole would have been Dean’s List, valedictorian, and prom queen all wrapped into one, as the ace of the staff stood above the entire AL pitching field and will likely take home his first Cy Young award.
2023 Statistics: 33 games, 209.0 IP, 2.63 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, 9.56 K/9, 2.07 BB/9, 5.2 fWAR
2024 Contract Status: Under contract until 2028, opt-out after 2024, club can void opt-out by adding 2029 option year.
There are so many ways to look at Cole’s season — I wrote a couple weeks ago how he didn’t really stand out compared to his own lofty standards, and simply was very, very, very good at a lot of different things this year. The more I think about it though, the central theme of the campaign was addressing his weakness.
Like a lot of guys that fill the zone with fastballs, Cole’s always had a bit of a home run problem. Last year it nearly got out of hand, as he led the league in long balls given up and that vulnerability was the driving cause behind what ended up being a pretty disappointing season.
And then he kinda just decided not to do that anymore. More than any given statistical accomplishment this year — the AL ERA title, another 200 inning season — that kind of adjustment is the most outstanding to me.
Now we know that fastball’s don’t actually “rise”; the spin imparted on a quality four-seam is more gravity-resistant, so the ball drops less than the hitter’s brain predicts. For Cole, he actually took some “rise” off in 2023, pitching less like Randy Johnson and more contact-focused. This led to a spike in both YoY line drive and pop fly rates, and a drop in fly ball rate. For a pitcher with a home run vulnerability, in a park that gives up a lot of home runs, that kind of approach is going to keep the ball in the yard even if guys do make contact.
Cole actually gave up the most hits in a season since 2017, although only three more than last year so there’s a question of statistical vs. material significance. He struck out fewer batters than last year while giving up pretty much the same number of hits, but that added drop to his fastball meant his hits yielded one or two bases, not four.
I wrote after Gerrit’s final start, a dazzling, complete game shutout on the road against the Blue Jays that so much of his season reminded me of Roy Halladay in his Toronto heyday. The strikeout numbers popped off the chart because of the volume of innings thrown, and indeed, this was the first season since leaving the Pirates that Cole struck out less than 30 percent of batters faced.
Despite that, and like when Doc was at his best, it wasn’t as though Cole was scared of the strike zone. His walk rate was below his career average and in line with his now-legendary 2019 season, he just changed the way he owned the strike zone in the hopes of inducing less-dangerous contact.
He can opt out after next season, although it’s unthinkable the Yankees would actually let him walk. They can void the option by tacking on a tenth year at $36 million to his deal, which I’m sure they will do. After seeing the way Cole was able to adjust, and knowing the impact a baseball intellect like his can have on pitchers like Michael King and Clarke Schmidt, we should all expect the ace of the staff to age gracefully, and be the best part of every fifth Yankee game.