Hey kids, don’t procrastinate. I’ve been meaning to write this article about Gerrit Cole since last year and now it’s way, so far behind the curve that I had to use the terrible pun you see up top rather than the equally as bad “The Stove Is Cole” that I previously had in the draft. But whatever, it’s 2018 and Cole is a Houston Astro. And I’m actually pretty OK with that, really.
The Cole, Hard Facts
I’m a Yankees fan, so it’s very easy to dismiss a mixed-to-negative commentary as sour grapes, but this is stuff I was thinking about even when the “Cole is a Yankee, it’s just a matter of time” rumors where at their peak the other week. We all got to see what Cole is capable of in 2015, when he put together a 19-8, 2.60 ERA season in 32 starts and 208 IP, good for a 149 ERA+. That’s a hard mark to hit more than one season in a row (unless you’re Clayton Kershaw, of course) but the last two years have not trended in the right direction.
In 2016, Cole had an injury-shortened year, throwing 116 innings over 21 starts, and ended up with a 3.88 ERA, or a 107 ERA+. That’s still more than serviceable, but hardly an ace. In 2017 he ended the year with a 4.26 ERA, pitching 203 innings in a career-high 33 starts. Even that seemingly poor ERA was good for a 101 ERA+ in this high-offense environment. In 2017: Year Of The Juiced Ball, Cole was pretty much perfectly average.
To the shock of nobody, Cole’s biggest problem in 2017 was the long ball. His HR/9 more than doubled, from a career 0.6 through 2016 to a 1.37 mark in 2017. From 2013-2016, Cole’s HR/FB averaged out to 7.6%. In 2017 it was 15.9%. Cole is hardly the only pitcher to see their HR-related stats rise precipitously last season. Previously written about Yankee Masahiro Tanaka was one of them. Tanaka’s HR/FB ratio shot up to 21.2% last season, from a previous career average of 14.1%.
And Therein, As The Bard Would Tell Us, Lies The Rub
The thing that concerns me about the HR/9 and HR/FB numbers for Cole vs Tanaka or say, Lance Lynn, is that while everybody saw their numbers elevated in 2017, Cole seems to have depended very heavily on HR prevention to stop runs from scoring overall. Lynn’s HR/FB ratio went from 7.7% in 2015 (He missed 2016 due to TJS) to 14.2% in 2017, but his ERA only went from 3.03 to 3.43. Tanaka’s season-long ERA rose a lot in line with his HR numbers, but his first/second half split in 2017 was pretty stark, going from 5.47 to 3.77. Cole went from 4.43 to 4.06.
On top of the inflated HR numbers in 2017, Cole will be moving to a smaller park in a better-hitting league. None of it particularly bodes very well, even if Cole has been more than serviceable in interleague play historically:
Gerrit Cole has pitched 17 times against an AL opponent. He has a 3.35 ERA and 96 Ks vs 19 BBs pic.twitter.com/3UcNNZAROR
— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) January 10, 2018
But That’s Not The Cole Story
It would be convenient to say Cole is on the decline and the Astros can have him and just walk away (especially since Giancarlo Stanton is a career .300/.417/.800 hitter against him,) but there are reasons that trade rumors have surrounded Cole all offseason. The first is that you can pencil Cole in for 200 innings per year. Even if he’s the platonic ideal of league average overall, that’s very valuable, especially these days. Especially when you factor in the rather low price the Astros paid.
On top of that, there are reasons to believe that he can get those run numbers down in 2018, even if the ball stays juiced. The first one ties back to what ailed Tanaka in the first half of 2017: pitch selection. Cole threw a lot of fastballs in 2017…
…but it wasn’t his most effective pitch when it came to missing bats…
Now, what I’m about to say here is the same case I made for Cole as a Yankee: If he throws his fastball less, he’ll probably see better outcomes. And when it comes to getting their starting pitchers to throw less fastballs, the Yankees and Astros are the two teams to talk to. Cole has five pitches, it wouldn’t hurt to throw a little more like it.
Given that the original rumors had names like Gleyber Torres and Kyle Tucker in them, it looks like the Astros snagged Cole for a bargain. I’m not exactly mad at the Yankees for not getting a deal done, but even if the Astros end up with a pitcher whose stats look more like 2017 than 2015 Cole, it’s hard to not lament the missed opportunity a bit.