Home / Sport / Yankees’ interest in Gerrit Cole likely stems from analytics

Yankees’ interest in Gerrit Cole likely stems from analytics

So why are the Yankees so high on Gerrit Cole? That’s a question I’m hearing a lot from fans who don’t want to give up Clint Frazier, among other prospects, and perhaps this will offer some insight:

I have a feeling their analytics are telling them they can put a plan in place, should they acquire him from the Pirates, that would help him reach the ace-like potential he has flashed at times during his career.

In short: get him to use his off-speed stuff more often.

Consider, for example, that Cole gave up 31 home runs last season for the Pirates, by far a career-high number that essentially made him a mediocre starter. Scouts I talked to on Monday believe it was largely because he relied too heavily on his fastball and became too predictable in fastball counts.

To some degree the numbers back that up: he gave up 18 of those home runs on his heater — 12 on the four-seamer, six on the two-seam sinker, both of which he threw at an average of 96 mph, according to Brooks Baseball statistics.

Furthermore, his fastball accounted for slightly more than 60 percent of his pitches, which means he threw his slider, curve, and change-up a significant percentage, but perhaps not enough. And surely not as much as the Yankees would have him throw those secondary pitches.

It would seem, anyway.

Gerrit Cole had a down year, but the Yankees obviously believe they can turn him back into an ace.

(John Minchillo/AP)

After all, no pitching staff in baseball threw a higher percentage of off-speed pitches than that of the Yankees — 49.6 percent.

It’s an intriguing statistic, to be sure, and some of it can be attributed to individual repertoires — most notably Masahiro Tanaka, who relies so heavily on his splitter and slider.

That’s pretty much how Brian Cashman explained it when I asked him on Tuesday about the stat, saying, “we’re trying to maximize the ability of our individual pitchers and their pitch packages. It’s a collection of individual assessments.”

In other words, he indicated it’s not a blanket philosophy, though he acknowledged it is driven at least partly by analytics.

“No question,” he said. “Because you’re working off the information about how the league is responding to pitches thrown by your pitchers.”

Cashman wouldn’t address how any of this would apply to Cole. As always, in fact, he wouldn’t address speculation about the Yankees’ desire to acquire the Pirates’ righthander or any other pitcher, other than to say, “We’re always looking at anything that will make us better.”

Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees' pitching staff threw the highest percentage of off-speed pitches last season.

Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees’ pitching staff threw the highest percentage of off-speed pitches last season.

(Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

But at least a couple of the scouts and execs I polled on Monday about the ongoing Cole speculation mentioned the likelihood that the Yankees believe their analytics are helping convince them the Pirates’ righthander is worth giving top prospects such as Frazier and Chance Adams in a trade.

“There’s no question he has shown the ability to pitch like a No. 1 (starter),” one scout said. “I have to believe the Yankees think their deep bullpen could shorten his starts and make him more effective that way, and that better pitch selection could make him more dominant too.”

The same scout recalled the Yankees’ acquisition of Brandon McCarthy from the Diamondbacks in 2014, when he went from a 5.01 ERA in 18 starts for Arizona to a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts in the Bronx that year.

“They were convinced that he if he started throwing his cutter again he’d have more success,” the scout recalled, “and they were right.”

It’s not always that simple, obviously, and by now all teams use analytics to some degree, but I do believe the Yankees see huge upside with Cole, who turns 28 in September, that they think they can coax out of him.

And while it remains to be seen just how much Cashman is willing to give up, if the trade ever happens, he wouldn’t be pursuing such a deal otherwise.

Brian Cashman is confident Chance Adams is ready to contribute at the big-league level.

Brian Cashman is confident Chance Adams is ready to contribute at the big-league level.

(USA TODAY Network/USA TODAY Network)

As it is, the Yankees are very solid for now with their starting pitching, and they have some good young starters on the way.

On Tuesday Cashman said he remains high on Adams, and said he would have been promoted from Triple-A last September had there been a need. Cashman cited a crowded 40-man roster as a factor as well, noting he would have had to add Adams to promote him.

“Was he deserving? Of course,” Cashman said. “He’s done everything he needs to do. It’s just a matter of when an opportunity becomes available.”

Cashman said lefty Justus Sheffield, who scouts raved about in the Arizona Fall League, needs time in Triple-A, but said “he has so much athleticism that he could move fast. He’s an easy guy to dream on.”

And it’s worth noting the GM had high praise for Albert Abreu, the 21-year-old righthander who finished the year in Class A Tampa and also had an outstanding Fall League, saying, comparing him to Luis Severino.

“He’s more advanced than Severino was at the same stage,” Cashman said. “It doesn’t mean he’ll be as good, but he’s an exciting talent.”

So Cashman isn’t desperate for pitching, by any means, but for a team with World Series expectations, Cole is more of a sure thing than any of the kids at the moment.

Especially with a few analytically-driven tweaks here and there.

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