Gerrit Cole is Living up to the Hype in 2021

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After a 2019 season, in which Gerrit Cole struck out 326 batters in 212 1/3 innings while posting a 2.50 ERA, it was realistic to think that could not be replicated. After all, albeit still great, Cole’s 2020 season did not come close to his 2019 performance. In 12 starts, he posted a 2.84 ERA and 3.89 FIP, allowed harder contact, and struck out fewer batters. He struggled with command at times and had trouble putting hitters away like in 2019. Moving to a more hitter-friendly ballpark, Cole struggled with the long ball as well in 2020. This amounted to a 12-start season in which he was inconsistent yet still the best starter on the Yankees.

Gerrit Cole has made five starts thus far in 2021. Despite the New York Yankees suffering losses in two of his five starts, he has been fantastic. Cole is showing the 2019 form that many Yankees fans expected to see when the club shelled out $324 million for his services. Even though it has only been five starts, it is possible for Cole to continue this run of excellence.

In 31 2/3 innings, he has posted a 1.71 ERA, 50 SO, 14.2 K/9, 232 ERA+, 16.67 K/BB, 0.73 FIP, and 0.726 WHIP. Those latter two figures lead the American League. Cole’s 1.9 fWAR is already higher than the 1.5 he put up in 2020. Besides throwing really hard and striking out tons of batters, Cole is putting up some mind-boggling numbers. Let’s dive into the numbers and how he has been so good.

Four-Pitch Mix

Without going into the advanced metrics, there is one noticeable difference between Cole’s pitch usage in 2020 and 2021. Since 2018, Cole primarily threw a four-seam fastball, slider, and knuckle-curve. These three pitches made up over 90% of his pitch usage from 2018-2020.

However, in 2021, Gerrit Cole is throwing his changeup more now than ever. In the last three seasons, the changeup usage was 4.5% in 2018, 7.4% in 2019, and 5.6% in 2020. In 2021, he has thrown that pitch 14.8% of the time. Not only is he throwing it more, but it has been arguably his best pitch in the early going. Hitters have batted .053 with a .109 slugging percentage (SLG) and .122 Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) against the pitch. Cole has gotten a 44.2% whiff rate, 35.7% put-away rate, and 52.6% strikeout rate on the changeup. That put-away rate and strikeout rate rank Cole 4th and 5th in baseball, respectively, while the whiff rate ranks 11th. This just goes to show how much of an impact the changeup has had on Cole’s start to the season.

Gerrit Cole increased his changeup usage while decreasing his fastball usage from 52.8% to 47.1%. He also decreased his slider usage from 24.4% to 21.9%. His changeup has become a weapon against left-handed hitters as it darts down and away, getting many lefties to swing over that pitch.

Per Fangraphs, Cole has put up 4.2 changeup runs above average (wCH) which is tied for first in all of baseball, with Julio Urias. Not only are the results on his changeup fantastic, but his process metrics are also right in line with the results. Perfecting his changeup has given Cole a dangerous fourth weapon in his arsenal.

The Long Ball

Gerrit Cole has not given up a home run in his last 26 1/3 innings. In simpler terms, he has not allowed a long ball in his last four outings. In 2020, Cole allowed a homer in 10 of his 12 starts. His HR/FB rate is at 3.1%, a rate that is entirely unsustainable yet is still promising when compared to his 2020 campaign. Cole is throwing a little harder than he did in 2020, 96.7 mph to 97.2 mph and has a higher spin rate on his slider, 2,505 RPM to 2,721 RPM. So perhaps that is contributing to fewer home runs.

However, there are a few differences in his batted ball profile that might contribute to this. Cole’s barrel rate went from 9.1% in 2020 to 6.2% in 2021, from the 25th percentile to the 66th. Cole’s hard-hit rate has never been elite and so despite that aspect remaining similar, finding the barrel of the bat less has led to fewer homers allowed and better results by Cole.

Additionally, Cole’s fly ball, line drive, and pop-up rates have all changed for the better. With the line drive rate decreasing from 26.3% to 21.5%, fly ball rate increasing from 29.1% to 32.3%, and the pop-up rate going up from 6.9% to 12.3%, Cole’s batted ball profile is a result of more ideal contact, despite a 92.2 mph average exit velocity. Simply put, a 3.1% FB/HR rate is not sustainable, but it is the result of batters producing fewer barrels and more ideal contact off Cole.

Walks and Strikeouts

Per Katie Sharp on Twitter, Gerrit Cole has already done something remarkable this season. What Cole is doing right now has never been done before in club history. The Yankees have had their fair share of aces, but none have pitched the way Cole is pitching right now. He has exactly 50 strikeouts to only three walks on the season. That amounts to a ridiculous 16.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio which is the best in the league.

While that rate is unlikely to continue, he put up 326 SO to only 48 BB in 2019, which is a 6.79 K/BB ratio. His 2.5% walk rate and 0.9 BB/9 are the lowest figures of his career. Fewer free bases have also led to a career-low 0.726 WHIP, which would be one of the best full-season rates in history. It remains to be seen if he can keep this up, but it has been an otherwordly start to the season for Gerrit Cole.

Final Thoughts

Cole’s excellence on and under the surface has been remarkable. It is unlikely his ERA remains as low as it is now all season. However, the changes Cole has made to his pitch mix are something that can hold up over the course of a full season. They have led to more strikeouts, while leading to fewer walks and home runs.

Of all the pitchers who started 2021 on a great note, Gerrit Cole is the one who most figures to be in the Cy Young race by the season’s end and is the clear favorite to win the award. After a good yet inconsistent 2020 season, Yankees fans are certainly pleased to see this type of performance from their ace.

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Players Mentioned: Gerrit Cole, Julio Urias