The Yankees are a franchise of sluggers, the “Bronx Bombers” moniker both an alliterative statement of purpose and a historical marker of the greatest reason for the team’s championship legacy. The franchise’s top seven players in career WAR were all position players, and just four of its 22 retired numbers belong to pitchers—there are almost as many managers (three) with that honor.
The Yankees’ century-long period of unmatched success on the diamond began with the arrival of Babe Ruth and his conversion from two-way player to full-time slugger. (Ruth pitched in just five games across 15 seasons with New York.) That positional change is just as important as a historiographical symbol, demonstrating the club’s bent toward the bat.
Yet in 2020, the most interesting Yankee, and the most eagerly anticipated new Yankee, is a starting pitcher. Gerrit Cole is the one that got away, a former first-round pick for the Yankees who went to college instead of the pros and a former trade target who landed in Houston rather than the Bronx. But after signing a record-shattering nine-year, $324 million deal in December, the 29-year-old hurler is ready to shine in pinstripes.
Cole was well worth the largest pitcher contract in history, coming off a season in which he set an MLB record by striking out 39.9 percent of opposing hitters. In two seasons in Houston, the former no. 1 overall pick (for the Pirates, after his college years) ditched an ineffective sinker, embraced data, and—with apologies to Jacob deGrom—rounded into the best pitcher in baseball.
Dating back a full calendar year now, to mid-July 2019, Cole’s team is 17-1 in the 18 games he started (playoffs included), during which time he personally amassed a 15-1 mark with a 1.57 ERA. Down the stretch in the regular season, he set yet another record with nine consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts—and then he went and struck out 25 combined hitters in his first two playoff games as the Astros sneaked past the pesky Rays.
The most overpowering situation in baseball comes when a pitcher rears back and throws his best fastball and the batter can’t connect. Cole is thus the sport’s most overpowering pitcher, with a 97-mile-per-hour heater that features elite spin and induces more whiffs than any other starting pitcher’s fastball. This graph shows four-seam fastball success over the last two seasons for pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in both campaigns, using FanGraphs’ pitch value calculations. Cole’s is the blue dot all alone in the upper-right corner.
That fastball still works in 2020: Cole sparkled in an intrasquad start Sunday, striking out nine of his fellow Yankees across 5 2/3 scoreless innings. Despite the afternoon’s frustrations, those teammates are surely happy he’s now sharing their clubhouse, as he joins a Yankees team in need of a starting pitching boost. For the 2020 season, the club will be without Luis Severino, who underwent Tommy John surgery in February, and Domingo Germán, who is suspended for 63 more games under the league’s domestic violence policy. New York also would have been without James Paxton for the first two months of the season because of a back injury, but the season’s delay allowed him to recover without missing any games.
And New York’s starting pitching plight isn’t a new factor for a team in top shape elsewhere on the roster. The Yankees ranked just 17th in starting pitcher WAR last season (by both FanGraphs’ and Baseball-Reference’s calculations), with Severino injured for all but three starts and only offseason trade acquisition Paxton pitching notably better than average. For much of the season, Chad Green served as an opener for Nestor Cortes Jr., a crafty southpaw who hadn’t been able to stick with the Orioles in 2018.
That middling performance fit a longer pattern. Over the last decade of regular-season play, according to FanGraphs, the Yankees rank first in reliever WAR by a massive margin (the second-place Athletics are closer to 28th place than they are to the Yankees) and second in position player WAR, coming within a single win of the Red Sox. But they’re only eighth in starter WAR. The breakdown is the same zooming in on the last three seasons, their most recent competitive cycle: first in reliever WAR, third for position players, eighth for starters.
That’s still an enviable rank, but it demonstrates a relative weakness—and that weakness has ruptured in the playoffs, as New York notably didn’t reach a single World Series in the 2010s. Over the last decade, 20 teams have played double-digit playoff games, and the Yankees rank in the bottom half of that group in every relevant starter statistic.
- ERA: 12th out of 20
- Strikeout rate: 16th
- Walk rate: 19th
- Home run rate: 13th
- Average game score: 12th
- Win-loss record: 14th (tie)
These measures are somewhat crude without adjustments for ballpark or quality of opponent. But the overall impression is clear, at both the macro level and when looking at key individual games. In the last three postseasons, the Yankees were eliminated in two games started by CC Sabathia—a fine Yankee, but a full decade past his peak at that point—and one game started by Green in an opener role when they ran out of reliable starters. (The other option on the roster was J.A. Happ, who ranked 61st out of 66 starters in regular-season ERA that season and 65th out of 66 in FIP, and had allowed a walk-off homer in his only prior appearance that series.)
With Cole, the Yankees addressed this limitation head-on, and did so in the most typically bombastic way possible, with the best pitcher signed to the largest contract. To be fair, the Yankees haven’t completely eschewed starting pitcher investment in recent seasons, with trades for Paxton, Happ, and Sonny Gray, but Cole’s nine-figure deal is a different manner of investment. Between Masahiro Tanaka—signed out of Japan before the 2014 season—and Cole, the Yankees went more than half a decade without signing a single new starter in free agency. (During that time, they retained Sabathia and Happ, who had already been Yankees when they entered free agency.)
Now, the Yankees lead the league in starting pitcher spending, according to Spotrac, and their allocation dwarfs the league average: Cole’s salary alone is larger than the median team’s spending on all its starters combined, and the Yankees’ total starter expenditure is three times as large as the median team’s.
That lead isn’t merely a result of the Yankees’ generally splurging nature. Over the past decade, the Yankees invested an average of 26 percent of their annual payroll to starting pitchers, according to Spotrac, never climbing above 33 percent. With Cole this season, they’re nudging 40 percent.
Add in relief pitching—a perennial team strength even after Mariano Rivera’s retirement—and New York will dedicate nearly 60 percent of its payroll to pitching this season. Only the Nationals, with their trio of World Series–winning starters, and Blue Jays, with all their young and inexpensive hitters, are higher.
New York has a number of relatively inexpensive players, too, as its player development system churns out starter-caliber youngsters around the diamond, which makes the Cole commitment all the more resonant. Starting pitching is the only position, in fact, in which New York leads the league in raw 2020 spending.
Yankees’ Positional Spending Rank in 2020
What does all that investment mean for 2020? Well, FanGraphs places the Yankees in first place for projected starter WAR in this abbreviated season, in a virtual tie with the Nationals and Rays. They would not rank in first place without Cole, who gives them a head start ahead of all other starters in the sport.
Best 2020 Pitcher Projections per FanGraphs
Perhaps most vitally, Cole’s presence gives the Yankees balance across each discipline of the roster. They also hold the top spot in projected reliever WAR (the Rays are in a virtual tie here, too) and rank fifth for position players. That’s right: The Yankees led the majors in runs scored last season, return nearly every important player from that high-scoring group—and now look stronger at the mound than the plate.
Of course, in any 60-game stretch, any orientation of the standings is possible, and the potential ripple effects of COVID-19 create even more uncertainty around this season. Analyst Dan Szymborski calculated that no team’s playoff odds fell more due to the adjusted schedule than New York’s, as the best teams have fewer games to exert their talent advantage over the rest of the league.
And Cole himself isn’t guaranteed to succeed in the Bronx, if their semirecent history of famed starter acquisitions is any indication. Pitching legends Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson both sputtered in New York despite arriving as the best pitchers in baseball. (While Clemens won a Cy Young in New York, on the whole, his worst seasons came with the Yankees.)
But unlike the then-36-year-old Clemens and then-41-year-old Johnson, Cole is still near his prime age. Sabathia provides a better parallel, as he helped the Yankees win the 2009 title and made three All-Star teams with the club—but even he was never really in the argument for best in baseball after his herculean effort for the 2008 Brewers. His numbers cratered after 2012, just four seasons into an ultimately 11-year Yankees tenure, before he reinvented himself as a back-end starter with a penchant for soft contact.
For now, the Yankees can only hope that Cole’s dominance extends longer than four seasons, which represent less than half of his contract duration. He’s suffered no major injuries, and he enters his Yankees career at a loftier perch than just about any other pitcher in MLB history. Fittingly, the team’s season—and the entire MLB season—is scheduled to begin with Cole taking the mound, opposite a recent “best pitcher in baseball” title holder, Washington’s Max Scherzer.
Scherzer most recently started in Game 7 of the World Series, helping deliver the Nationals a championship. Cole infamously wasn’t summoned to throw for Houston in that game despite wanting to do so. If he can pitch like the Yankees expect, though, he could get another chance soon.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the type of pitch that Cole discontinued using while in Houston; he stopped using a sinker, not a slider.