We probably don’t need to re-litigate the trade that sent Gerrit Cole from the Pirates to the Astros two years ahead of free agency. This post isn’t about what the Astros did to transform Cole or what the Pirates failed to do. This post is, to a certain extent, about who Gerrit Cole was, and who he is now, but it is less about how he’s changed and more about how he’s the same.
Every pitcher makes adjustments to try and get better and be more effective at getting hitters out. Some work better than others. Pitchers make these changes while staying in the same organization or while jumping to a different team. Injuries can sometimes derail development, as can trying strategies that just don’t work out. We know Cole wasn’t great with the Pirates in 2016 and 2017, and he’s been great with the Astros in 2018 and 2019. Hopefully this post serves as a reminder of how great Cole was in 2015 and how what he’s doing now is meeting incredibly lofty expectations his performance set for himself five seasons ago.
In 2015, Cole put up a 2.66 FIP, a 2.60 ERA, and 5.1 WAR, ranked 10th among all pitchers and first among pitchers 25 years old and younger, beating out Madison Bumgarner, Sonny Gray, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez. Cole was just 24 years old at the time. To find some age-based comparisons, I looked at 24-year-old starters since 1990 within half a win of Cole.
The pitchers above performed at a very similar level at the same age. Over the next few years, the numbers diverged a bit and Cole’s 5.9 WAR in his age-25 and age-26 seasons rank in the bottom third of this group. But what if we pretend we don’t know how those two seasons went for Cole? What if we just looked at his breakout season and tried to predict what he’d do in 2018 and 2019? Here’s how his comps performed.
Cole’s performance the past two years has been great, above the average and median, but his WAR total ranks fourth and he’s about as close to the average as he is to second place. There are some bummers in the group, with Thompson’s shoulder trouble preventing him from pitching in the majors effectively after 1999. Peavy was great in the two years not shown above, and he settled in as an innings-eater thereafter. Benes put up a five-win season at age-29. The group in the middle essentially put up consecutive five-win seasons with Appier, Sale, and Maddux pitching like aces and Martinez putting together what’s probably the greatest two-year stretch of pitching in baseball history.
These past couple years of excellence from Cole were far from guaranteed, but this level isn’t too far off from what should have been expected after his breakout 2015 campaign. His route to returning to an ace level of performance was unorthodox and marked by changing to a team more capable of getting the most out of his abilities, but those abilities had already shown to be very good at the highest level. Since the start of 2015, Cole’s 23.7 WAR ranks seventh among all pitchers behind only Max Scherzer, Sale, Jacob deGrom, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber. He might pass Kluber by the end of the season and he’s less than two wins from passing Verlander and Kershaw. Cole looked like he was going to be an ace for a long time after that 2015 season. It took a few years, but it is great to see him meeting the very high expectations his performance set for him five years ago.