With the regular season postponed eight weeks, Spring Training suspended and no definitive date set for Opening Day, the spread of the novel coronavirus has thrown a wrench in Gerrit Cole's first spring with the Yankees.
The right-hander was less than one month away from toeing the rubber in a Yankees uniform during the club's regular season opener on March 26. Now, he and his teammates are left in an unprecedented state of uncertainty, tentatively working out at the Yankees' spring complex while the number of Minor League players that have tested positive for COVID-19 has climbed to two.
Predicting how Cole would have fared early on this season is futile. Games could be delayed until June, perhaps later. Besides, replicating the type of season he put together in 2019 is a tall order, virus aside.
Last year, the right-hander was dominant. Cole won 20 games, leading the Majors in strikeouts (with a whopping 326) while finishing just a handful of votes behind his teammate Justin Verlander in the race for the American League Cy Young Award. In 33 starts with the Astros, Cole solidified his reputation as one of – if not the – best starting pitcher in all of baseball.
If the 2020 regular season ends up being truncated – as appears to be the league's most logical option based on this season's trajectory – Cole by default has the odds stacked against him. Less games means fewer opportunities to take the mound.
What we can do, however, is break down Cole's track record and how his performance this spring – albeit a small sample size – stack up with his stellar campaign a year ago. Even with COVID-19 delaying the season, here's proof that Cole can still be the ace New York needs him to be.
One of the best at responding to adversity
Remember when Cole gave up two identical sets of back-to-back home runs against the Detroit Tigers earlier this spring? Yup, it feels like an eternity ago.
At the time, those four homers and six earned runs ballooned the right-hander's Spring Training ERA to 9.53 – one of the worst among all hurlers at Yankees' camp.
That one rough outing, however, isn't of concern. As Yankees' veterans like Masahiro Tanaka have proven, Spring Training stats inevitably have mixed correlations to how a player will perform once games begin to count. The impactful takeaway here is how Cole responded.
Five days later, as scheduled, Cole made his fourth (and final) appearance of the spring and returned to dominance. In 3 1/3 innings pitched against the visiting Blue Jays, Cole allowed just one run to score – a seeing-eye single from phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. drove in Randal Grichuk, who reached on what could have been scored an error on shortstop Gleyber Torres but was ruled a base hit.
“I think we're moving in the right direction, just getting a little bit better every start,” Cole told reporters after wrapping up his final appearance of the spring. “This was a good bounce back from the last start. We were able to take some positives from the last start, even though it was a bit rough, and improve on some of those and clean up some of the mistakes that we made. The mix is getting more true, more game-like.”
So, if his pitch count and usage of all the weapons in his arsenal were in his mind "game-like," then it's fair to compare to in-game appearances last season, right?
In 2019, Cole gave up four runs or more only five times. Even the best starters aren't immune to an occasional shaky outing. Each time, however, Cole bounced back emphatically. In those next five starts, the right-hander had a collective 1.97 ERA and allowed two runs or less in each game.
If he's already equipped with the mindset to bounce back this early, he's poised to keep it rolling into the regular season (whenever that may be).
Strikeouts, strikeouts and more strikeouts
Speaking of a resilience after facing adversity, Cole proved in 2019 that he's one of the game's best at striking batters out – after all, he did lead the league in punch outs.
In those five aforementioned games, after he allowed four or more runs, Cole struck out at least 10 batters in each performance. That doesn't seem as impressive when you're reminded that Cole had double-digit strikeouts in 21 of his 33 starts.
That trend carried into this spring as well. Cole struck out six Blue Jays in his final Grapefruit League appearance, catching hitters looking with his offspeed pitches while touching triple digits with his fastball.
“I thought we attacked the zone well,” Cole explained to media. “We made a lot of competitive pitches, kept the ball out of the heart of the plate for the most part and [were] able to put some good runs together – two, three, four good pitches in a row. Last start, I felt like it was a little bit hit-and-miss trying to string some of those together, so it was nice to put a few sequences together today.”
Cole threw 55 pitches in that start last Tuesday – 36 were for strikes. Being able to pound the zone while increasing the volume of his pitch count is a tremendous sign.
When the right-hander was roughed up by Detroit, he spelled out the fact that he was working on his fastball, throwing it in situations where he might turn to a different pitch. Judging by his performance in his first opportunity to use every pitch, he already appeared to be in midseason form.
Attention to detail in a period of uncertainty
On MLB Network Radio Monday afternoon, Yankees' manager Aaron Boone explained arguably the biggest downside of a premature suspension of Spring Training.
Even if adding weeks to the offseason gives players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and James Paxton an opportunity to recover and be ready to play once the season begins, it halts momentum for those that had been ramping up their preparations for Opening Day.
"We were two weeks from go time," the skipper said. "There’s so much that goes into that point of Spring Training. All of a sudden, to have to throttle back from a baseball standpoint is rough."
This applies to everyone – veterans who need to properly conserve their bodies and youngsters who may struggle without Spring Training's annual structure. If anyone can get through this delay, it's Cole.
Entering his eighth big-league season, it's fair to say Cole knows how his arm works and what it needs. His meticulous mentality and attention to detail will be even more important over the next two-plus months as he attempts to rest while still keeping his body ready.
Cole threw a career-high 212 1/3 innings in 2019 – his third-consecutive season with 200-plus innings. This $324 million arm knows how to take care of himself. The question is, how long until the Yankees can resume normalcy and get back to the chase for 28?
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