Fantasy baseball writers and analysts play in a lot of leagues. Take it from any mind on this site, it’s very hard to say no to leagues with great competition. After multiple years of keeping my ‘portfolio’ compact, this was the year my theoretical box started it’s adventure down a slippery slope.
In deciding after draft season to seriously focus on about five of my 11 leagues of which I found most near and dear to my heart… and wallet… I noticed one player I had stumbled onto more shares of than I ever envisioned (minus James Paxton).
You can imagine after his first two starts, which produced eight earned runs over 11 innings, I wasn’t too happy with my investments. So what did I do? In what I will defend as a ‘diversification of assets’ and not a panic move, I traded Cole for Dylan Bundy, in a swap with CBS Sport’s fantasy guru Chris Towers. It was a small sample of two starts for Cole, and an even smaller sample of one start from Bundy. But this is a points league where SP/RPs matter, and my pitching depth is second to none, making the gamble for some elite youth still questionable to, but not to me. Since I already went over why I love Bundy so much after the emergence of his slider, let’s discuss the swirling emotions around a particular right arm in Pittsburgh.
Cole throws gas. Among qualified pitchers this season, Fangraphs’ places Cole third in average fastball velocity. Behind only Noah Syndergaard (97.8mph) and Luis Severino (96.7mph), Cole’s 96.5 four seam fastball is a pitch that aesthetically looks unhittable, yet through his first three starts, hasn’t been the dominant pitch we generally associate with that level of velocity (currently a -3.2 pitch value on Fangraphs). When you compare the strikeout upside of other pitchers with four seam fastballs averaging 95mph+ in 2017, Cole’s early swinging strike rate of 7.6% may suggest a deviation from the conventional strikeout upside we’d expect to follow with that velocity; Stephen Strasburg (11.15 K/9 in 2016) and Jon Gray (9.91 K/9 in 2016) both with 95+ four seam velocities come to mind.
It’s early in the season, and his swinging strike rate may not be the most stable statistic yet, but there is merit in realizing his approach towards hitters this early in the year and the results he has gotten.
As seen in the table below (via BrooksBaseball), Cole’s usage hasn’t followed too much of a trend. Two mediocre starts seemed to lead him towards reliance on a two seam fastball/sinker for his tough matchup in Wrigley, mixed with even usage of his off speed. After one start of heavy four seam reliance (at BOS), and another where he moved away from his fastball after it got hit hard (vs ATL), we have a very blurry picture of which pitches Cole trusts moving forward. Two things are certain, his fastball is hard and his slider is a really good pitch when used (7.6 pitch value via Fangraphs in 2015). Whether both those points are a consistent theme that leads him to some post-hype success in 2017 remains to be seen.
Gerrit Cole, % Pitch Usage 2017
One of the reasons I didn’t offload every share was first because I’m not that crazy, and second because his slider returned six total swinging strikes against the Braves after generating a goose egg returned in Fenway. Five more swinging strikes came from the slider in Chicago, as Cole seems to be developing a rhythm, but questions still linger about where his repertoire is leading him peripherally.
What do we make of these three starts? Well as you can tell from my trade above, offloading a share for an upside arm makes me think Cole’s upside may be limited overall. While I acknowledge that he is a control pitcher with good fastball velocity, that hasn’t translated to rampant success in the last two years after struggling through some injuries. Even though it could be a “feel” issue this early in the season, his lack of trust in his slider early makes me wonder how far off the 2015 flashes of greatness are. My mistake in drafting him may have been the expectation that this ‘2015 Gerrit Cole’ profile is precisely that. Further off than I initially thought. It may be a long road to find out my fate, and it’s one I’m willing to ride with slightly less exposure.
Grey had him pegged preseason for a 3.45 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP and 188 Ks over 193 innings. While I agree that the WHIP will stay lower than most, I don’t really see the path to a 3.5 ERA at the moment. That’s where the upside is with Cole, in the 2015 arm we all loved. I’m hoping for something more in the 3.65 ERA area with 175 Ks over 195 innings, as I’m conservative with the fact that his last outing in Chicago will extrapolate out to the rest of the season.
What about the other arms Cole was drafted around?
With Quintana doing his best April Corey Kluber impression, I’m retrospectively taking Cole over Quintana at the moment. Even if it seems the consistency in the White Sox’s southpaw is second to none, something is off with Quintana this year. Just about everything is trending in the opposite direction you want it to, and after a blow up in Minnesota, the Astros don’t look like they’re missing out much on the piece many thought they needed to make late October run.
Julio Teheran brings with him a compelling case to fit squarely above Cole in rankings, but I think it’s a bit closer of a call than you would think. The sub 1.00 ERA is great, but the Teheran’s control is a little bit off at the moment and his strikeouts are down slightly. You can look at this two ways, with both having the qualification of small sample size. First is to think that Teheran is having this success with an 84% strand rate and some wonky peripherals, therefore if this is his early season ‘dry-spell’ with swinging strikes and control, we’re in for a stellar 2017 if the results are still this good. Second is to think that these slightly off peripherals are a better indicator of his actual skill, meaning we may see some early Teheran success followed by a classic model for a sell high candidate. Cole and Teheran may be closer in value than many think moving forward. In the ‘do no harm’ philosophy of trading, if I was offered this trade on either end, I may actually sit tight and observe a few more starts. Hooray for indecisiveness!
Cole gets the struggling Cardinals on Wednesday. I’ll be watching closely, as he should be able to take advantage of a team that can’t seem to find its way, in literally any aspect of the game. Most interesting will be which version of Cole we get from a pitch usage standpoint.
Follow Lance on Twitter if you prefer to chat baseball at any given point in your day, he’s always open for questions and comments.