The top tier of starting pitchers in 2021 is obvious. You can make an argument for any combo of Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, or Shane Bieber to be the first pitcher off the board in drafts. Based on NFBC ADP, Cole is currently the first off the board with an average pick of 6.93, while Bieber and deGrom have identical ADP’s of 8.75.
So, if you plan to take a pitcher in the first round, who is your guy? Like I mentioned, you likely won’t go wrong with any of the three. But today, I will focus on why Gerrit Cole should be your SP1 for 2021.
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Gerrit Cole, Your 2021 SP1
The upside of Gerrit Cole has long been known since his days at UCLA. His impressive college performance led the Pirates to select Cole first overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. Cole was good in five seasons with Pittsburgh but never elite. But like many starting pitchers that the Pirates traded, Cole really blossomed after leaving the Pirates organization.
During the 2018 offseason, Cole was traded to Houston for Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and Jason Martin. The rest is history. His first spring training workout with the Astros changed everything. Cole was quoted saying: “There were charts, video, matching charts, and it was all new to me.” The one-hour presentation changed the way Cole pitched, and the Astros transformed him into arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He increased his four-seam and curveball usage, attacked the top of the zone more, and increased his spin rates. All of this helped Cole become what he is today, SP1 for Fantasy Baseball.
Gerrit Cole’s dominance in Houston led the Yankees to give him a nine-year, 324 million dollar contract before the 2020 season. What did Cole do in his first season with the Yankees to make him worth the high draft pick? Let’s dive into his profile!
Gerrit Cole’s 2020 Performance
After coming off an elite season with the Astros in 2019, Cole moved to the Bronx in 2020. All eyes were on him, and Yankees fans expected big things. It would have been nearly impossible to follow up on his 20-win performance of 2019, but Cole posted a 2.50 ERA, a 0.89 WHIP, with a 39.9 percent strikeout rate over 212.1 innings.
Cole’s season was everything Yankee fans hoped it would be without the hype of being elite. In the CY Young voting, Cole finished fourth thanks to some even better performances from Shane Bieber, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun Jin Ryu.
Regardless, Cole still posted 7 wins, a 2.84 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP, and a 32.6 percent strikeout rate. In a 60-game season where Cole could only make 12 starts, two bad starts likely kept Cole from pushing Bieber for the CY Young.
On August 26 and 31, in back-to-back starts, Cole struggled. Against Atlanta on the 26, Cole allowed five earned runs over five innings. He followed that up by allowing four earned runs over five innings against the Rays.
It is nitpicking, but in his 10 other starts, Cole posted a 1.99 ERA over 63 innings. That goes to show how small samples were easily skewed in a short season. Still, Cole had a great first season in the Bronx and should build on it in 2021.
Batted Ball Data
One of the biggest issues in Gerrit Cole’s profile is his high fly ball percentage, which produces a high home run-to-fly ball rate. The move from Houston to New York was a concern for this reason. Many thought he would see an increase in home runs allowed, which he did. Cole gave up the second-most home runs in baseball, just one behind Matthew Boyd’s 15. His home run-per-nine innings jumped from 1.23 in 2019 to 1.73 in 2020.
I mentioned Cole’s fly-ball rate, which among qualified pitchers in 2020 was second highest. Nothing in his profile concerns me outside of the 43 percent fly-ball rate. When the ball does get in the air, it left the park nearly 19 percent of the time in 2020.
It is also interesting to see Cole’s ground ball-to-fly ball rate dwindle over the years. At the start of his career, he averaged nearly two ground balls for every fly ball. Now, Cole’s fly ball percentage is consistently higher. This is an interesting trend to monitor.
While the bata ball data might concern you, Cole still has plenty of things going for him, and the fly ball rate has been an issue the last several years while he has still been dominant.
Swing and Miss Stuff
Since his transformation with the Astros, Gerrit Cole has been a strikeout machine. 2020 was his worst strikeout rate since 2018, and he still posted a 32.6 percent rate. Between the three seasons(2018-2020), Cole has a 36.6 percent strikeout rate and a 29.8 percent K-BB percentage. Those numbers rank Cole second in strikeout percentage and third in K-BB percentage.
How does he get these swings and misses? Cole does not have one pitch that is more dominant than the rest. All four of his pitches in 2020 had a 25.9 percent whiff rate or higher. In 2019, excluding his sinker(which he stopped using in 2020), all four pitches had a 31.9 percent whiff rate or higher.
In 2020, His curveball and slider were a deadly combo when he went to them thanks to a 48.6 and a 43.3 percent whiff rate, respectively. Cole gets hitters to swing on pitches out of the zone at a high rate on these pitches. When he got swings out of the zone, hitters made contact just 53.4 percent of the time in 2020(up from 49 percent in 2019). The league average O-Contact rate is 61.4 percent, meaning Cole missed many bats out of the zone.
Knowing what you know now, you probably are not surprised to hear that Cole posted a 15.3 percent swinging-strike rate. Swinging-strike rate is the percentage of pitches that result in a swing and a miss. This is a beneficial stat when projecting a pitcher’s strikeout rate. Cole ranks fourth among starting pitchers over the last three seasons, with a 15.4 percent rate during that time span.
To sum all of this up, Gerrit Cole has elite swing and miss stuff in his arsenal and should continue to strike batters out at a higher rate.
Gerrit Cole’s Pitch Mix
We have discussed a little about Cole’s pitch mix and how he is effective with several pitches. He made changes in 2020 to refine his pitch mix by getting rid of his sinker completely. With that, he increased his four-seam, slider, and curveball usage. Let’s look into his pitch mix a little deeper.
Cole has always relied heavily on his four-seamer, which has consistently been his most used pitch. In 2020, Cole used is at a career-high rate of 52.8 percent. He has elite fastball velocity and averaged 96.7 miles-per-hour on that pitch in 2020. His whiff rate was down 12 percentage points on that pitch from 2019 to 2020, but it was still effective.
You can see in the heat map that Cole locates his four-seam pretty well in the upper corner of the plate. But when he does miss, it can be over the heart of the plate, which costs him. In 2019, Cole allowed 17 home runs on his four-seam, and in 2020, he allowed nine. Outside of the home run problems, Cole makes great use of his fastball, and it is the pitch he is most comfortable throwing.
Of his secondary offerings, Cole’s slider is his best pitch and the one he often goes to. He loves getting hitters to chase it down and away, and it is his go-to strikeout pitch. The slider produced a 43.3 percent whiff rate and had just a .132 batting average against. It is the most effective against right-handed batters, as Cole does a great job getting batters to chase it out of the zone.
In addition to his slider, Gerrit Cole has an impressive curveball that made strides in 2020. He increased his usage in 2020 up to 17.2 percent. If you thought the whiff rate on Cole’s slider was high, his curveball produced a higher one. 48.6 percent of the time a hitter swung at Cole’s curve, they missed. The increased use of his curveball keeps batters on their toes.
With all that being said, what should you expect from Gerrit Cole in 2021? Steamer projects a 3.58 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. Before you panic, projections are always conservative, especially with pitchers. Over the last three seasons, Cole has a 2.71 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP. I would comfortably project him with an ERA under three and a WHIP under one.
Steamer also projects a 32.6 percent strikeout rate, which is right in line with his 2020 numbers. His three-year average is 36.6 percent. So, anything above 32 percent would not surprise me out of Cole. Pitching for the Yankees will also enable a chance at plenty of wins for Cole if you play in a standard 5×5 league.
I would expect Cole to vastly outperform his projection and be the best pitcher in baseball in 2021. It is hard to go wrong with any of Cole, deGrom, or Bieber as your SP1, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that Cole can be the best among them. If you want to own one of them in a Fantasy Baseball league this year, be prepared to pay a first-round price tag.
Media Credits: Baseball Savant, Fangraphs
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