New York Yankees: Projecting Gerrit Cole through his contract

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros reacts against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning in Game Five of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Houston Astros reacts against the Washington Nationals during the seventh inning in Game Five of the 2019 World Series at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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What the New York Yankees can expect Gerrit Cole to give them through the life of his new deal

So the New York Yankees have landed Gerrit Cole, for nine years and $223 million.

What have they bought?

Cole’s stat line to date speaks to that question: a 94-52 record and 3.22 career ERA through seven seasons. That’s highlighted by his 20-5, 2.50 2019 when Cole pitched Houston to the brink of the World S0eries championship and pitched himself to the brink of a Cy Young Award.

But the Yankees aren’t buying Cole’s past, they’re betting on his future. And futures, particularly concerning pitchers, are a lot harder to quantify.

The best method of projecting future performance is the Similarity Score system developed some years back by Bill James.  In a nutshell, Similarity Score is a method of speculating on a player’s future performance by comparing his career arc at a particular age to other players with very similar career arcs to that same point.

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In James’s system, he rates similarities abased on a maximum of 1,000 points, deducting points for the extent of statistical differences. For pitchers, the yardsticks include wins, losses, winning percentage, ERA, games pitched, starts,  complete games, innings, hits allowed, strikeouts, walks, shutouts and saves

Through Cole’s age 28 season – 2019 – 10 pitchers have similarity scores higher than 940, making them very solid comps.  The ten, many of whom will be familiar to even casual fans, are: Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Johan Santana, Jered Weaver, Roy Oswalt, Jake Peavy, Cole Hamels, Johnny CuetoTim Hudson, and Justin Verlander.

When they buy Cole, the Yankees are – approximately, anyway – buying the post-age 28 performances of the average of those 10 players.

What is that average?

Strasburg’s post-28 future, of course, can only be partly projected. He was 30 in 2019. Price’s, Hamels’ and Verlander’s records, too, are partial; Price was 33, Hamels 35 and Verlander 36 in 2019.

Two of the other Cole comps – Cueto and Santana – were through by their age 34 seasons, year six in Cole’s deal. A third, Weaver, retired following that season. Oswalt and Peavy lasted through age 35 before hanging it up.

Hudson continued to pitch following his age 39 season.

How did those 10 comparable perform following their age 28 seasons? Here’s their average season-by-season line. The averages are calculated based on five statistics considered most pertinent today: earned run average, innings pitched, strikeouts, wins above average and ERA+:

 ERA                             IP                              K                        WAR                         ERA+

Age 29                  3.24                        180.74                   157.00                   4.54                        131.60

Age 30                  3.57                        194.13                   175.60                   3.85                        121.00

Age 31                  3.72                        186.14                   151.44                   3.31                        112.44

Age 32                  3.53                        152.30                   127.13                   2.63                        119.25

Age 33                  4.17                        130.90                   110.56                   2.11                        103.33

Age 34                  4.47                        139.68                   117.67                   2.54                        105.00

Age 35                  4.74                        132.80                   145.40                   2.06                        105.00

Age 36                  3.10                        158.00                   201.00                   4.60                        144.50

Age 37                  3.97                        131.00                     95.00                   0.80                         94.00

A preliminary word about the age 36 and age 37 data. Those numbers represent only the performances of Hudson and Verlander, since none of the other comparables were still active during their age 36 and 37 seasons…although Hamels, Price and/or Strasburg might yet get there.

Depending on which particular number you happen to like, the averages show that the Yankees can expect Cole to continue to perform at a premium level for the next two seasons, then to begin a general period of decline from great toward average, although remaining generally above average.

New York Yankees
New York Yankees /

New York Yankees

To the extent there is a synoptic number, it’s probably ERA+, which is earned run average measured against league and ballpark norms, with 100 representing an average performance.  Cole projects to pitch in the 120 to 130 range for those first two seasons, making him 20 to 30 percent better than the average pitcher. For comparison purposes, his ERA+ this past season was 185.

The other synoptic number is WAR: Cole’s 2019 WAR was 6.9. The age 29 average of his similars was 4.54, gradually declining to2.06 by age 35.

Almost without exception, Cole’s comparables suffered through at least one injury-marred season post age 28. That explains the decline in their average workload from 181 innings at age 29 to 152 by age 32, and to 132 by age 35.

What, then, have the Yankees purchased? Based on Cole’s comparables, the first lesson is that they have not purchased his peak performance. None of the comparables generated post-age 28 seasons that were close to Cole’s 2019 season. They can, however, expect  to get at least two – and possibly as many as four — very strong seasons, followed by a steady decline.

New York’s best hope is that Cole’s career track approximates his former teammate, Verlander’s.   With the exception of Verlander’s very average age 31 season, he has consistently generated high ERA+ ratings, capped by  164 and 179 at age 35 and 36.

So if you’re the New York Yankees, you can at least construct a rationale for expecting Cole to perform at a very high level throughout the length of his contract.

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But Verlander is the exception. Statistically, the stronger comp is Price. At age 33, he has maintained a solid ERA+ in the range of 115 to 130. Price also illustrates the inherent danger in signing any pitcher to a long-term deal; his age 29 and age 31 seasons were both shortened by injuries.