3 reasons the Yankees' pitching staff has succeeded in Gerrit Cole's absence

Here's how the slack has been picked up.
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

Before a 5-3 Yankees win at the Stadium on Friday, Gerrit Cole threw his first bullpen since undergoing an MRI on his throwing elbow during apring training. This session served as the latest in a string of positive news about Cole's path back to an MLB mound, yet no matter how well his recovery has gone, the Yankee ace has been hesitant to tell reporters when he'll be ready to make his season debut.

Luckily for Cole, there's been little need to press on that issue. The Yankees pitching staff has more than held their weight in his absence, posting the second-best ERA in MLB (3.10) and allowing the sixth-fewest hits (302) through May 13.

What's been the key to their success?

The emergence of Luis Gil for Yankees

When Luis Gil broke onto the scene for a scuffling 2021 Yankees team, he seemed like a godsend. The team was having trouble filling innings outside of Cole, and Gil immediately came up and delivered three straight scoreless starts to begin his career.

But just when the Yankees looked like they might have something special in the young Gil, with his blazing fastball and wipeout slider both proving to be weapons early on, disaster struck. He left his first and only start of the 2022 season with an apparent injury, and underwent Tommy John surgery that kept him out of action for the next 15 months.

Gil entered spring training in 2024 fully healthy for the first time in years, but it was unclear what his role would be. But when Cole went down and the Yankees needed a fifth starter, Gil entered the conversation. Over five spring appearances, Gil struck out 23 batters in 15.2 innings en route to a 2.87 ERA, earning a spot in the rotation out of camp over the veteran Luke Weaver and fellow prospect Clayton Beeter.

He may have entered the season as the Yankees' fifth starter, but through May 13, his production has been front-of-the-rotation caliber. His 2.51 ERA through eight starts leads the Yankees' rotation, as does his 3.70 FIP and 27.4% strikeout rate.

Where Tommy John surgery can often sap pitchers of a couple of ticks on their fastball, Gil has picked up right where he left off velocity-wise, averaging 96 MPH on his four-seamer. He has been able to dot his slider as well, with a 35% whiff rate on the pitch measuring up to his 2021 level.

Gil's problem has always been control, and even in that arena he's managed to up his game. Walks have often prevented him from going deep into games, and much of his poor results through the years can be attributed to contact given up after filling the bases with walked batters. His 14.9% walk rate on the season is still objectively terrible; through May 13, it's the highest of any pitcher who has thrown at least 30 innings. But through his last three starts, he has walked just six of the 69 batters he's faced, good for an 8.7% walk rate.

But Gil's biggest development, the one that makes the rest of his accomplishments sustainable, is his emerging changeup as a third pitch. In fact, it has actually surpassed his slider in usage, jumping from 7% in 2021 to 26% in 2024, and that jump in usage is for a good reason. Gil can throw it to both righties and lefties, and it has been his best pitch results-wise, holding batters to a .136 expected batting average and a .167 expected slugging percentage. Out of changeups that have been thrown at least 100 times this year, those marks both put Gil in first place.

Of course, there is speculation that the Yankees could try to limit Gil's innings down the road, considering his lack of history with an extended workload, but based on his existing stuff and improvements he's made, Gil will likely continue to give the Yankees quality in whatever innings he's given.

The evolution of Clarke Schmidt and Nestor Cortes for Yankees

Clarke Schmidt and Nestor Cortes, both projected to be at the back of the Yankees' rotation at the start of spring training, were coming off two very different 2023 campaigns. Schmidt was coming off his first full starter's workload, throwing more innings than every Yankee besides Gerrit Cole. Cortes had an extremely disappointing 2023, posting a 4.97 ERA in a limited 63.1 innings while battling shoulder issues, which ultimately ended his season.

Despite filling innings that the Yankees desperately needed in 2023, Schmidt still had work to do concerning the quality of those innings, as he posted a 4.64 ERA and struggled mightily against left-handed hitters.

But sure enough, Schmidt has made some adjustments that have led him to much better results early on in 2024. Through eight starts, Schmidt has posted a 2.95 ERA and has raised his strikeout rate by almost six percentage points from last season, trailing only Gil in strikeout rate in the Yankees rotation.

A lot of his newfound success has come from a willingness to lean on his fastball and attack the zone more. He has upped his sinker usage in general, making it his second-most used behind his cutter. He's also been throwing both of his fastballs more against lefties instead of trying to make them whiff on his breaking stuff. As a result, Schmidt has lowered his hard-hit rate and his home run rate this season, allowing him to eat through innings with higher quality.

While Schmidt mostly has the better raw numbers, Cortes' performance thus far might be the more impressive feat. He seems to have solved his command issues from last season, lowering his barrel rate back in line with his 2022 peak, and upping his ground ball rate to an improved 29.7% (four points higher than last year). As the command has come back, it seems like the shoulder issues Nestor was dealing with have been put behind him.

With those improvements, Cortes has had much more success in the strike zone. Through May 13, his walk rate has been reduced to 5.1%, which ranks 21st out of 79 qualified pitchers. That's because he's throwing more pitches in the zone than he ever has, is getting batters to swing at them more than ever, and is either inducing soft contact or getting hitters to chase out of the zone.

Schmidt and Cortes have gone from back-end guys in 2023 to true anchors of the staff in 2024, just when the Yankees have needed them the most.

The rejuvenation of the Yankees' bullpen depth

Clay Holmes has been as dominant as ever. Ian Hamilton has more or less been a solid setup option. Caleb Ferguson and Victor González have had their moments. But it's been the more unproven guys for the Yankees — the under-the-radar pickups and minor leaguers — who have arguably impressed the most outside of Holmes.

Nick Burdi, who was picked up on a minor-league deal and was the talk of spring training, got off to an incredible 6 1/3 scoreless inning start before going down with an injury in mid-April. But even the guys who have filled in for him in the middle relief roles have been incredible.

Luke Weaver initially came to the Yankees as a waiver claim last September, serving as a starter and occasional long man before hitting free agency. The Yankees picked him back up on a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason, and for a time it seemed like he could be the fifth starter when the season began.

Instead, Weaver was moved to the bullpen, and he has shined in multiple roles. Through 26 innings, he has been used as not only a long relief option, but also as a "fireman" when necessary. In those appearances, he has posted a dazzling 2.86 ERA while throwing the hardest fastball of his career, touching 97 on the radar gun at times.

A look under the hood reveals some more stark changes. Weaver has essentially whittled his pitch mix down to just a four-seamer, cutter, and changeup, with the cutter being added to his repertoire late last year. While the four-seamer has generated it's fair share of whiffs, the changeup has really become Weaver's bread and butter, causing batters to whiff almost 25% of the time he throws it. He has also gotten a lot more comfortable going outside the strike zone, throwing outside six percentage points more and generating many more whiffs.

Weaver can't do it all by himself, though. Minor league signee Dennis Santana has come through ever since Jonathan Loáisiga went down with a season-ending injury, being worked in more and more high-leverage situations as Aaron Boone's trust in him grows.

Santana has experimented with a cutter since joining the Yankees, and it has yielded excellent results thus far. Along with his sinker, it has allowed him to induce ground balls at a 41.2% clip, which is about 15 percentage points higher than his 2023 mark. His cutter and slider have become excellent put-away pitches, as he's been able to use them more late in counts, getting hitters to whiff or locking them up as he paints the black.

Between Weaver, Santana, Ron Marinaccio, and whoever else happens to be up from Scranton that day, the job has gotten done, and the Yankees aren't left leaning on Holmes and Hamilton as much as they might otherwise have to be. They've been the unsung heroes of a bullpen that has the best ERA in the majors, and are a testament to the Yankees' pitching staff's ability to step up so far this season.