What to Make of Gerrit Cole after 3 Years
By Chris O’Connor
December 7, 2022
In December 2019, the Yankees shook up the offseason with a marquee move that used to be their trademark: they landed 29-year old Gerrit Cole on a 9 year, $324 million dollar contract. Cole had just come off a dominant two-year run with the Astros where he ranked third among all pitchers with 13.4 fWAR and was supposed to be the final piece in getting the Yankees back to the World Series. While it was the offense that let the team down in the 2019 ALCS, scoring just fourteen runs over the final five games, the starting pitching was so thin that the team was forced to turn to a bullpen game in the season-ending game 6 loss. Enter Cole. Since then, however, the Yankees have managed to fall short of expectations in the playoffs: they lost in the ALDS in 2020, the Wild Card game in 2021, and the ALCS in 2022. While Cole’s reputation among Yankee fans appears to be middling, I think that underrated his performance even relative to his contract. Barring an unlikely exercising of a fifth-year opt out, Cole is a third of the way through his 9-year deal. I think now is a good time to check in on how that deal looks now.
While Cole’s $324 million guarantee remains the highest for a pitcher in MLB history, rising salaries around the league makes it look like more of a value in retrospect. After Justin Verlander’s signs his next deal, where his AAV will likely come in the ~$40 million range, Cole’s $36 million AAV will rank fourth among pitchers behind Max Scherzer ($43.3), Verlander, and Jacob deGrom ($37.5). Scherzer is 38 and has appeared to have broken down at the end of each of the last two seasons; Verlander will turn 40 in February and is coming off his first full season since undergoing Tommy John Surgery; and while deGrom is just 34, he has pitched a total of 156.1 innings over the past two seasons due to a variety of concerning arm injuries. I am not arguing that Cole is better than those pitchers, and there are certainly valid reasons for why they are so highly paid; Verlander just won the Cy Young, deGrom is virtually untouchable when healthy, and Scherzer ranks 6th among all pitchers in fWAR since the start of 2021. What I am saying is that the top of the starting pitching market is only going up and if deGrom can get 5 years and $187.5 million, then a 32 year-old, rubber-armed Gerrit Cole with 6 years and $216 million is not as bad as many think. This is particularly true when it comes to who ranks below Cole on the AAV scale heading into 2023. Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer, and, if you exclude Shohei Ohtani (who is still under team control and obviously provides value as a hitter), Chris Sale. In 2023, that is not an exciting group, to put it lightly. Thus, even if Cole is not quite in that top tier of starting pitchers, Cole’s contract looks better relative to other big money starter deals.
Still, while the standard of “better than Trevor Bauer’s contract” is hardly a high bar to clear, I think Cole’s own performance since signing the deal has been better than his reputation suggests. Since the start of 2020, he ranks 9th among all qualified starting pitchers in fWAR, 4th in innings pitched, and 2nd in strikeout rate and K-BB rate. His yearly AL Cy Young finishes are as follows: 4th, 2nd, and 9th. Even if he has never consistently been the dominant force that he was in Houston, Cole has been a top-10 pitcher in the regular season since he signed the big deal and has always been around to take the mound every fifth day. In an era where that is less common than ever, that is something that should not be underappreciated. Still, when Cole signed that contract three years ago, I think most fans would have happily accepted his regular-season performance thus far if he had been lights out in the playoffs. There is no need to analyze that 2021 Wild Card game. That was a full-blown meltdown and completely inexcusable with the season on the line against a hated rival. If that, combined with his propensity for giving up home runs, makes Yankee fans leery of Cole starting in big games, I do not think that it is unfounded; in fact, I have the same reservations when I watch Cole in the playoffs. He seems to get too amped up and struggles in the early innings. The numbers, however, suggest that Cole pitches as well in the playoffs as he does in the regular season. Taking away his 2021 Wild Card game start, Cole has a 2.98 ERA in 6 starts and 36.2 innings with the Yankees. Cole has not quite been the missing piece for the Yankees, and he did play a large role in their early playoff exit in 2021, but I think that the Yankees problems run much deeper than Gerrit Cole (namely, an offense that consistently shows up listless in the playoffs).
Is Gerrit Cole an ace? That depends on how you think of an ace. On one hand, Cole may not even be the best starting pitcher on his team; Nestor Cortes was objectively better than him in 2022. He has, however, been a top-10 pitcher in the regular season since signing his mega-deal. And while I understand how many fans will never get over his meltdown in 2021, I think his otherwise sterling playoff performance is more indicative of how he will be moving forward. Six years and $216 million remaining on a contract for a 32 year-old Gerrit Cole may sound expensive, but that is the going rate for a rubber-armed starting pitcher with consistent Cy Young-caliber performance over the past five years. Has Cole put the Yankees over the top with a Bumgarner-2014, Verlander-2017, or Strasburg-2019 postseason run? No. But I do believe that he has held up his end of the bargain and, if the Yankees can fix their many issues moving forward, he still has the capability to do so.