SSTN Mailbag: Cole's Homers and Off-Season Planning!
We can all breathe a little easier now. The Yankees clinched the AL East title and Judge finally (mercifully?) tied Maris. Even with a newborn at home, I've carved out time during every game to watch, and I really like what I see. The Yankees are playing an exciting, fundamentally sound form of baseball that reminds me of the type of ball I watched them play in the first half. Sevy's stuff looks as good as I've seen it all year, Nestor is Nestor, Taillon looks strong, and the offense is no longer anemic and continues to get a boost from the kids. Not sure I should say this out loud, but I feel really good about the Yankee team that's heading into the playoffs. I see a rotation that can go toe-to-toe with anyone, a defense that is among the best in baseball, and a lineup that might just be peaking at the right time. It's hard not to consider the Dodgers and the Astros the favorites this year, but I think the Yankees are right there with them when you look at the matchups. The Yankees should be focused on the ALDS first, but I still believe this team could be special.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll examine Cole's struggles with the long ball and take a dive into a multitude of off-season roster planning decisions! Let's get at it:
Cary asks: I have a question for next week. As you mentioned, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. It certainly appears that Judge will be paid handsomely and get at least a 10-year deal at this point.
How do you see Cashman handling this? Also, besides a trade needing to be made, the Yankees and Rizzo seem to be a perfect match. Rizzo has been an excellent value this season, will he opt out and if so, will the Yankees renegotiate for a longer-term deal with him? --or...would DJ LeMahieu simply slot in at first base? I know we were thinking he'd be at third base next season, but minus Rizzo, would the Yankees be comfortable playing DJ in his stead?
I think the better first question is: how will Cashman be allowed to handle this? If you gave Cashman truth serum, I think he'd give Aaron Judge whatever it would take to keep him in New York, because the alternative is fairly ghastly. Aaron Judge is the centerpiece of the Yankee lineup, and if he leaves, even with some exciting prospects on the way, the Yankees are surely looking at a period of re-tooling or (gasp!) rebuilding. The Steinbrenner family has the money, and there is no reason for them to continue operating like a team that has among the strongest financial situations in the league. More to the point, they should operate in accordance with reality: that they are the most valuable franchise in American sports, with the highest cashflow in baseball.
And let's not make this an argument about Judge's future. Sure, at some point, Judge will regress, but I don't think he's due to see significant regression through the next 2-3 seasons. His injury history is frequently offered as a reason to be wary of a long-term deal, but the devil is in the details; Judge's injury history is riddled with fluky injuries that don't indicate any wear and tear. Judge has a large body, but he keeps himself in fantastic shape, and has been durable over each of the last two seasons under the watchful eye of the new training staff.
I don't think there are any good comps for Judge, and comparing his stats to previous large ballplayers is a fool's errand, as conditioning was completely different in those eras, and Judge's rate stats far surpass any of those guys. According to Baseball-Reference, Aaron Judge is worth 8.2 bWAR/162 games as an average throughout his career. That includes his worst seasons, for what it's worth. Despite his age, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Judge is the best free agent to hit the market in a very long time. Judge bet on his ability to have a great year, and he won in spades. I think Cashman knows he needs Judge the way this lineup is constructed.
The Yankees are more valuable with Judge around, just as Judge is more valuable to a variety of marketing firms if he stays with the Yankees. Both sides understand this fact. Quite simply: the Yankees need to pay the man. With that in mind, let's assume Judge is coming back, because a whole host of strange dominos fall if he doesn't return.
The Yankees and Anthony Rizzo are a perfect match, but with the shift going away next year, I wonder if the calculus changes for Rizzo on his player opt-out. Rizzo has been quite good this year, producing an above-average year (2.5 bWAR) while showing pop, an ability to get on-base, with solid defense at first base. Because Rizzo very much shifted to a three-true-outcomes approach as a Yankee, I think the elimination of the shift could have a large impact on Rizzo's future prospects. If Rizzo gets an extra single or two every week, we're talking about a .245-.260 hitter with a .375ish OBP instead of a sub-.225 hitter who is useful, but not the center of a lineup. I truthfully think it's a toss-up whether he opts out for a long-term deal. Given his injury history, that scares me (chronic back injuries don't tend to heal themselves, just ask Donnie Baseball), but I also don't think I see better options at the moment, unless the Yankees think that Austin Wells is capable of hitting at a near Rizzo level sometime late next year (for reference, I maintain that Wells is not a catcher).
DJ LeMahieu is a good ballplayer who had a nice bounce-back year, and I think he could be a stopgap at first base, but not much more for a couple of reasons. For one, he is at an age where nagging injuries pile up, as we've seen over the last two years, so you'd need a first base backup plan if DJLM is your first string. Secondly, I'm just not sure how valuable he is when you take into account the positional adjustment hit he'd take playing first base every day. I had a post years ago illustrating this fact (ironically comparing him to Luke Voit and Anthony Rizzo, who at that time was a Cub), but with the site changeover I can't find it. DJLM had a 125 OPS+ in the first half, which is good enough at first base, but I'm just not sure we can expect that performance over a full season. DJLM can be a stopgap solution at first base, but not much more. Besides, I think good roster construction next year dictates that he's playing 2B or 3B everyday.
Brian asks: What is going on with Gerrit Cole? He seems to be throwing hard and his stuff looks good, but he keeps giving up homers. Is it lack of focus?
This is possibly the most important question facing the Yankees right now. Gerrit Cole was quite good in the first half of this season, even if he was a bit homer prone, but the homer bug has made him strangely unreliable in the second half this season. Even a cursory look at the numbers proves this. MLB average home run rate in 2022 is 2.9%; Cole stands at 4.1% (all stats listed are prior to his most recent start against the Blue Jays). That shows a problem, but we need to get more granular to really see the problem. I took a look at Cole's stats from prior to July 1st and compared them to what I see after July 1st. Pitch-by-pitch, things look relatively normal until we look at his fastball. Here are the stats when Cole throws his fastball pre-July 1st and post-July 1st:
He threw his fastball less post-July 1st, Batting Average on Balls In Play went through the roof, but I don't think that truly indicates bad luck given the fact that hitters' ISO against the pitch went up by 85 points, and hitters basically turned into All-Stars when they hit against Cole's fastball, this despite the fact that Cole's velocity went up by a little over 1 MPH, proving that velocity isn't everything.
Let's get even a bit more granular. Prior to July 1st, Cole allowed 8 homers on 864 fastballs, which means that 0.925% of all fastballs Cole threw prior to July 1st resulted in a home run. After July 1st, Cole has allowed 12 homers on 967 fastballs, which means that 1.241% of Cole's fastballs have landed over the fence. That's a huge uptick and is particularly stark when we compare it to someone else on the Yankee staff. Nestor Cortes Jr. has a slightly above-average homer rate of 2.7% in 2022. Nestor Cortes Jr.'s homer rate on all fastballs in 2022? 0.660%, and Nasty Nestor throws some form of fastball 76.7% of the time! Cole's fastball has always been a bit homer prone, but the problem is significantly more pronounced in the 2nd half, and it is the root of his homer problem.
Fastball command is to blame. Here's Cole's fastball heatmap prior to July 1st:
Here's Cole's fastball heatmap after July 1st:
After July 1st, we can see that the hot spot sits much lower in the strike zone, almost over the middle of the plate, and Cole rarely is able to get the fastball up in the zone (which is where his high-spin fastball plays best). Additionally, we see an uptick in the size of the blue area surrounding the strike zone, indicating that Cole has thrown a higher percentage of non-competitive fastballs. In short, hitters have been able to sit dead-red on middle-middle fastballs, and are just waiting for their pitch.
Now, for Cole's command to change, that usually indicates that a mechanical issue is to blame. Anecdotally, I think I've seen something on broadcasts, but I don't have video from the proper angle to show it here. Cole has a tendency to overthrow his fastball, which hurts his command. If I had a side-angle view of Cole's delivery, you would see that Cole's shoulders occasionally line up past his drive foot at release, leading to all kinds of compensations to get the ball near the plate. When Cole stays within himself, he can locate the fastball.
Anecdotally, I saw a mix of the Cole that overthrows his fastball and the one that stays within himself in his last start against the Jays. He largely kept his 4-seam fastball out of the middle of the plate and hit the corners with it. I saw significant progress, which tells me that Cole is working out the kinks. That he did it against an offense as potent as Toronto is doubly encouraging. I think he's on the way to solving his homer problems, but I think fastball command is something to watch for from Cole as the Yankees embark on their playoff run.