Signing a massive free agency deal with the Yankees can scare away some in drafts due to a change in scenery along with the volatility tied to pitching. However, Gerrit Cole stayed the course winning seven of his 10 decisions during his first season in New York making 12 starts with a 94:17 K:BB, 2.84 ERA, 3.21 SIERA and 0.96 WHIP over 73 innings. His strikeout percentage fell by over seven points compared to his career year total in 2019 but Cole remained one of the elite starting pitchers in baseball.

In fact, his strong finish in September fueled his overall results coinciding with Kyle Higashioka taking over as his primary catcher. Cole went 3-1 his last four starts prior to the playoffs with a 1.00 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and robust 34:5 K:BB resulting in the second lowest ERA for the month among qualified starting pitchers. Within this sample, Cole's strikeout percentage rose to 34 with a minuscule five percent walk rate for an enticing 29 strikeout minus walks percentage. Cole's last three starts yielded at least seven innings pitched while ceding one run or fewer in each.

For comparison, Cole owned a 3.91 ERA with Gary Sánchez catching in his previous eight starts eliciting a 31.9 strikeout percentage with a 6.4 walk rate for a much less alluring 25.5 strikeout minus walks percent. Perhaps it took Cole some time to ramp up his arsenal but manager Aaron Boone also noticed his star pitcher performing better with Higashioka than with Sanchez prompting Higashioka to start with Cole in the postseason.

As a whole, Cole finished 2020 with two complete games along with logging eight starts giving up two earned runs or fewer. He also notched at least seven strikeouts in each of his last nine starts of the season. Dating back to the start of 2019, Cole owns the most games with double digit strikeouts (10 or more) with 24 outings. Next in line, Max Scherzer with 16.

On Fangraphs, Cole's numbers yielded a 32.6 strikeout percentage, 5.9 walk rate and 26.7 strikeouts minus walks percent which aligns with two of his last three seasons. Cole also notched a 15.3 swinging strike percentage, 69.1 contact rate allowed, a 79.6 Z-Contact (in the strike zone) percent and 35.2 O-Swing (outside the strike zone) rate.

Shifting to Statcast, Cole allowed 175 batted ball events with 16 barrels (9.1 percent), an average exit velocity of 90.4 MPH and a career high 44.6 hard hit rate. Noting he allowed 12 of his 14 home runs prior to September, much of this occurred over his first eight outings. Diving into his expected numbers, Cole owned an expected ERA (xERA) of 3.09 with a .199 expected batting average (xBA), .382 expected slugging (xSLG) and a .262 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) which sits 13 points below his actual number.

No major changes in Cole's arsenal usage patterns when viewing his percentages occurred, but here's a visual representation of his swinging strikes from 2020 courtesy of Statcast:

Cole carried over his elevated fastballs to generate swings and misses at or above the top of the strike zone unlocking his slider plus his curve which often dive out of the zone. Here's his arsenal in terms of expected numbers and his whiff rates:

  • Four-seam fastball - .230 xBA, .305 xwOBA, 25.9 whiff percentage, 19.9 put away percent
  • Slider - .147 xBA, .218 xwOBA, 43.4 whiff percentage, 22.8 put away percent
  • Curve - .174 xBA, .248 xwOBA, 48.6 whiff percentage, 31.5 put away percent
  • Change-up - .217 xBA, .249 xwOBA, 36.7 whiff percentage, 26.3 put away percent

Although Cole's slider and curve whiff rates rose in 2020, his overall swing percentage remained stable while his whiff percent fell by 3.1 percentage points. He also produced fewer ground balls and pop-ups while giving up more fly balls along with line drives (both up near three percent). He mitigated all of this with his ability to generate strikeouts when needed and saved his season with the strong September.

In an effort to discern how each pitch performed in swinging strike percentage, Brooks Baseball provides a total count of each pitch with raw whiffs to formulate this statistic. While mining these numbers, the ground ball rate for each offering may shed some light on how Cole gets his results:

  • Four-seam fastball - 740 total pitches, 110 raw whiffs, 14.8 SwStr%, 25.6 GB%
  • Slider - 315 total pitches, 82 raw whiffs, 26 SwStr%, 59 GB%
  • Curve - 261 total pitches, 45 raw whiffs, 17.2 SwStr%, 54.8 GB%
  • Change-up - 92 total pitches, 16 raw whiffs, 17.4 SwStr%, 62.5 GB%

For those curious, Cole increased his curve and change-up usage during his time with Higashioka behind the dish propelling his success in September and the play-offs. A slight tweak spiked Cole's K-BB percentage and upped his strikeout totals. Important notes for his upcoming 2021 season.

Since the shortened season provides limited samples, expanding his outcomes allows for one to figure out how to project players going forward. First, here's Cole's numbers from the second half of 2019 through the end of last season:

  • Cole 2H 2019-through-2020: 18-3, 26 games started, 168.2 IP, 250:35 K:BB, 2.24 ERA, 2.62 SIERA, 0.84 WHIP, 38.9 K%, 5.5 BB%, 33.5 K-BB%, 16.8 SwStr%

This includes his amazing second half of 2019 which may not be replicated but during this time frame, Cole ranks first in wins, strikeouts, SIERA, WHIP and K-BB percentage among all qualified pitchers. He's second in swinging strike percentage and third in ERA. Pretty, pretty good.

Taking it one step further, here's his results from the last three years:

  • Cole Last 3 Seasons: 42-14, 78 games started, 491 IP, 703:130 K:BB, 2.73 ERA, 2.82 SIERA, 0.97 WHIP, 36.5 K%, 6.7 BB%, 29.8 K-BB%, 15.3 SwStr%

Because Cole remains of the most stable skill sets in fantasy baseball, he remains a top pitching target in 2021. Personally, he's the second in my rankings. As for his projections in the upcoming season, here's how two different sites forecast him:

  • Cole 2021 Steamer projection: 15-8, 32 games started, 201 IP, 267:57 K:BB, 3.58 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 32.6 K%, 7 BB%
  • Cole 2021 ZiPS projection: 16-8, 32 games started, 193.1 IP, 260:49 K:BB, 3.21 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 33.4 K%, 6.3 BB%

Due to his xERA and SIERA from last year providing a sliding scale of 3.09 to 3.21, the ERA in the ZiPS along with the strikeouts to walks percentage more in line with his last three years, this would be how to value Cole correctly. Exactly who the Yankees place behind the plate may matter more than his move to the hitter-friendly park. In fact, if Cole uses his curve and change-up more in 2021, it may be the adjustment needed to put Cole back atop the fantasy pitching landscape.

Suffice it to say, there's much to love about Cole and how he performed in New York in the truncated 2020 campaign. Health and the right pitch-mix keeps him on this pathway to success, especially if Cole pitches near to his number one ZiPS comparison, Greg Maddux. High praise indeed.


Statistical Credits:

ZiPS courtesy of Dan Szymborski