Inside the numbers: Was Gerrit Cole's 2016 an anomaly or his baseline?
April 3, 2017 12:00 AM
By Zack Tanner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gerrit Cole had a down year in 2016. Between a delayed Spring Training due to rib inflammation and three trips to the disabled list, injuries may have contributed to Cole’s 2016 slide.
What do the numbers tell us, though? Was Cole’s 2015 season, where he was named an All-Star and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, a sign of what should be consistently expected, or is 2016’s slide going to be his baseline?
Breaking down Cole
Let’s start by taking a look at Cole’s year by year breakdowns, starting with his rookie year in 2013.
Cole debuted with the Pirates in June 2013 and impressed. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) average sat 2.91, with an ERA of 3.22. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which accounts for balls that were hit into play that weren’t home runs, sat at .308, near the league average (typically around .300).
2014 saw a bit of a backslide for the Pirates starter, who hit the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, which may have caused this backwards move.
Cole’s BABIP, WHIP, ERA, and FIP all rose compared to his rookie numbers. However, his strikeouts per nine innings (SO/9) rose over a full strikeout from 7.67 SO/9 to 9.0, a strikeout an inning average, while his hits per nine innings (H/9) shrunk, both good trends.
In 2015, Gerrit Cole saw all of his work come together for his strongest numbers season yet. Other than his SO/9, which slightly slipped to 8.74 SO/9, Cole improved upon his career best numbers across the board.
His 2.66 FIP was third in the league behind only Clayton Kershaw (1.99) and Jake Arrieta (2.35). Cole’s adjusted ERA+, which adjusts for each pitcher’s unique ballpark and is a “higher is better” stat, sat at 149, good for 5th in the NL.
So what happened in 2016?
With his spring training delayed by rib inflammation, Cole’s training schedule was delayed. He made his 2016 season debut in the fifth game of the season, giving up three runs on five hits and three walks in 4.2 innings pitched, which led to the Pirates’ first loss of the early season.
Cole seemed to settle in from there, but his stat lines all rose from even his 2014 campaign.
Prior to heading to the disabled list for the first time in June, Cole’s BABIP had risen to .325. BABIP can be a measure of a few things, luck and defense behind the pitcher, for example. He was also allowing more hits and walks, while striking out less batters.
Another downward trend, in the 12 games prior to his first trip to the disabled list, Cole only pitched out of the sixth inning four times, for a 33% rate. Compare that to his 32 starts in 2015 when he pitched out of the sixth inning 21 times, a 66% rate.
After returning from the DL in July, the stat line continued to climb upwards. Even with his first career complete game factored in, where Cole went the distance giving up one run on three hits and one walk against the Mariners on July 27, the numbers tell a tough tale.
Cole’s BABIP jumped all the way to .383, his WHIP rose to 1.63, and he was allowing 11.63 H/9.
After being shut down again in August, Cole returned to make just one start in September.
All told, his 2016 stat line produced a high BABIP, .345, but a FIP, 3.33, lower than his 3.88 ERA, which could be a sign of bad luck and/or poor defense behind him.
Sizing up the competition
Can Gerrit Cole become the elite pitcher the Pirates need him to be? Cole’s fourth place finish in the 2015 Cy Young voting says maybe, but how does he compare to other high-level National League pitching?
When compared to some of his NL peers, Cole’s average doesn’t always stack up, but there are signs that he’s capable of rising to the top. Let’s start by taking a look at some basic pitching averages, earned run average, walks plus hits per inning pitched, innings pitched, and strikeouts per nine innings.
Over his first four seasons, Cole sits at a respectable 3.23 ERA, with an average WHIP of 1.205 over 144.8 innings pitched per season. That includes career best marks in 2015 of a 2.60 ERA, 1.091 WHIP over 208 IP. 2016, however, marked career lows in all those marks, coming in at 3.88 and 1.440, with just 116 IP in his injury derailed season.
When pulling those same numbers for NL pitchers’ first four seasons with at least 100 IP, we can see that Cole sits behind Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Adam Wainwright.
Johnny Cueto, who, like Cole, debuted at age 22, sat well behind Cole in these categories. Cueto represents a pitcher in this group who didn’t put up elite numbers early in his career, before having a breakout fifth season, where he finished fourth in Cy Young voting.
After an injury plagued sixth season, Cueto posted his best year to date in his seventh season, finishing second in Cy Young voting and leading the NL in strikeouts.
Could Cole follow a similar path? The advanced numbers again show Cole sitting behind this group, but show signs of promise.
ERA+ shows Cole sitting well behind Kershaw and Wainwright, breaking even with Bumgarner, and again besting Cueto.
Does BABIP show that Cole is more unlucky than this group, or a victim of more balls in play? Combined with FIP, it could be luck and defense that sit Cole higher other categories, as his FIP line actually leads the group, sitting at a career average of 2.98.
Even that doesn’t change the wins above replacement (WAR) average for these pitchers, though. While Kershaw and Wainwright’s average added wins to their teams hovered around 4.5, Cole’s sat at just 2.15, with a career high coming in 2015 at 4.5.
Where does Cole trend from here?
Even coming off a down 2016, there’s no reason to think a healthy Gerrit Cole can’t repeat his successes from the 2015 season.
When comparing his season lines, even his 2014, which saw a drop in his stat-lines, didn’t regress much from 2013, and he saw his best numbers yet in 2015.
Does Cole stack up against his NL pitching competition? That’s another question. Comparing their first four seasons in the league, Cole’s numbers a below others in a lot of categories. However, entering his age 26 season, there is plenty of room to grow.
Given the health issues that plagued him throughout 2016, Pirates fans should feel comfortable in their opening day starter.
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