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Yankees 2023 Season Preview: Gerrit Cole

The nominal ace of the staff looks to keep the ball in the yard.

New York Yankees Gerrit Cole throws a bullpen session during spring training Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Gerrit Cole had the second best K-BB% in baseball last year, in my opinion the single most valuable pitching stat. Only five pitchers, one in the AL, threw more innings than Cole, combining per-inning effectiveness with a 200-inning workload. If it weren’t for those damn home runs, Cole would likely have found himself a Cy Young finalist once again, after finishing fourth and second in his first two seasons in the Bronx.

Instead, those home runs count. Gerrit gave up 33 of them, the most in the game — 15 or 45 percent of them coming with men on. Cole’s often had a bit of a home run problem, in his 2019 World God season he allowed 29, but only four (14 percent) were of the non-solo variety. Those extra runs pile up, and Cole just wasn’t as good as we thought he would be.

2022 Yankees Statistics: 200.2 IP, 3.50 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, 11.53 K/9, 2.24 BB/9, 1.48 HR/9, 3.3 fWAR

2023 ZiPS Projections: 177.7 IP, 3.09 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 1.04 WHIP, 11.35 K/9, 2.23 BB/9, 1.11HR/9, 4.4 fWAR

The silver lining to a season like Cole’s is when you have one thing go terribly wrong, it makes it easy to identify what needs fixing.

Now obviously most home runs are hit on mistakes by the pitcher, but I think this chart is illustrative of the problem that mostly plagued Cole: command of the secondary stuff. Cole is a classic fastball-slider kind of guy, and losing his feel of the changeup and curveball, both of which were worse pitches than in 2021, as well as a less-than-effective cutter, forced him to come back into the zone with more fastballs.

ZiPS seems to be mostly optimistic about Cole’s 2023, that he’ll cut down on that home run rate and have a better year. The quibble I take with that projection is the innings pitched — projection systems are never great at playing time concerns, but 177 seems awful low to me. In his last six seasons, he’s averaged 178 innings a season, and that’s counting the 73 innings in 2020 dragging down your total. Taking out 2020, he averages 199 innings over those five years. I’m going to chalk that inning total up to ZiPS being weird about the pandemic.

If everyone’s healthy, the Yankees will have the best or near the best rotation in baseball, even with the loss of Frankie Montas. It’s hard to imagine a better 1-2 than Cole and Carlos Rodón if they both pitch to their talent levels. For Cole, getting to that talent level is about rediscovering command of those secondary offerings. Being able to work the change and curve along the edges of the zone opens up more effectiveness on the fastball — it’s not going to be over the plate the same way, and it shouldn’t get banged the same way.

I’m expecting Cole to be back to that top five or seven starters in the game that he’s been since he was dealt out of Pittsburgh. How much impact funky baseballs had on Cole’s power problems is yet to be decided, but as long as he’s been able to rediscover some of his command, he should get back to that five-win level that we know he’s capable of.