Last week, the New York Yankees agreed to terms with right-handed starter Gerrit Cole on a nine-year deal worth $324 million -- the richest contract ever inked by a pitcher. The Yankees formally introduced Cole on Wednesday via press conference, with his well-shaved face and childhood sign taking center stage. Now, the long wait for Cole's debut begins. The Yankees will open their season in 98 days: March 26, on the road, against the Baltimore Orioles. Cole will, presumably, be on the mound that day, for the first time in his Yankees career.
To help pass the time until Opening Day (and hopefully sate appetites), we intend to spend the rest of the winter profiling the offseason's biggest additions and figuring out what makes them so effective. That process begins here with Cole, who boasts a high probability of serving as the next great Yankees ace. Here are four aspects of Cole's game that make him one of the best pitchers on the planet:
1. New-school and old-school numbers love Cole
Perhaps the easiest way to describe Cole's game is that he's good at almost everything. The percentile gauges on his Baseball Savant page are, with rare exception, nearly all in the deep red portion of the scale. That means he throws hard; that means he imparts good spin (on his fastball and curveball); that means he strikes out a lot of hitters; and that means his "expected" batting line against numbers, informed by exit velocity and launch angle, are quite good.
You don't need advanced metrics to appreciate Cole, of course. This is someone who struck out 40 percent of the batters he faced last season across a career-high 212 innings. He did that while allowing less than a baserunner per frame. He didn't win the Cy Young Award in 2019, but he could have -- and he probably will at some point in the future.
2. Simple delivery
Someone who did win a Cy Young Award during his career was R.A. Dickey. Dickey used to talk about how he wanted his delivery to be so compact as to be able to perform it within a phonebooth. Cole's delivery isn't that tight, but it is simple and without frills. He pivots his front foot to begin the process, enabling him to shift weight onto his back leg before going into his leg kick. His top and lower halves appear synced up, with his hands and leg both coming up and then going down concurrently. By the time Cole's foot strikes the ground, his arm is up and the ball is behind his head, ready for his hips to open up and create separation. All that's left is for his shoulders to follow suit, with his arm coming along for the ride.
Again, it isn't the most entertaining delivery to watch, and there aren't any tics that kids can emulate in the backyard, the way they might with Clayton Kershaw's leg lift. It is a simple, powerful delivery, however, and one that permits Cole velocity without sacrificing control.
Gerrit Cole, Mechanics (forward/stop gif) pic.twitter.com/NMk2BoKSZu— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2019
3. Elite heat
And, what of that velocity? Cole's fastball averaged 97 mph last season, setting a new career-high in the process and ranking second among hurlers with 2,000-plus pitches, behind Noah Syndergaard. Cole also set a new career-high in spin rate, finishing fourth in that category while insuring that he has the most extreme combination of velocity and spin of any starting pitcher. (How, exactly, he's been able to improve upon his spin year after year is up for debate.)
Predictably, Cole leverages those attributes by pitching up in the zone with his fastball, where he can overpower opponents. He ranked 24th in the league last season in average fastball height, and he had one of the game's highest swing-and-miss rates on heaters. By nearly any measure -- velocity, liveliness, results -- Cole's fastball is one of the best going.
4. Deep arsenal
Unfortunately for hitters, Cole's arsenal doesn't end there. Oftentimes, pitchers throw a slider or a curveball, but not both out of fear that the pitchers will blend together. Cole is an exception, throwing an upper-80s slider and a low-80s curveball. Each pitch is a capable bat-misser, with the slider evading lumber on nearly 40 percent of the swings taken against it last season.
Gerrit Cole, 2019 Highlights.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 4, 2019
The Most Dominant Pitcher on the Planet. pic.twitter.com/3RKKj0Gyhy
One of the accepted explanations for Cole's Houston emergence is his deployment of those breaking balls. Whereas he threw at least 60 percent fastballs in all of his Pittsburgh seasons (including more than 65 percent on two occasions), he threw just 53.9 percent heaters in 2019. Add in Cole's changeup against left-handers, and batters have a lot to contend with during an at-bat. He can throw basically all of his pitches within the zone; he can work up and/or down; he has two pitches that move armside and two that move glove side; and, though he doesn't have the widest velocity band overall, he can effectively change speeds.
When we noted in the introduction that Cole is good at almost everything, this is what we meant. So much of hitting is timing and guessing, and batting against him doesn't provide much help in either regard. He can overpower or outwit; whatever he wants, whenever he wants. The only potential non-health risk here is that he has to adjust to pitching in a more homer-friendly ballpark -- Yankee Stadium has consistently ranked at the top of FanGraphs' home-run park factors -- but his stuff and aptitude should allow him to make any necessary tweaks.
Cole's total package, then, is fantastic: a frontline workhorse with an elite fastball, a pair of swing-and-miss secondaries, and sufficient command and intelligence to maximize their utility. You can understand why the Yankees were willing to make such an investment -- and why he's likely to remain in the Cy Young Award conversation.