Gerrit Cole's improved quality of contact, command propel him to early Cy Young contention

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Gerrit Cole took a deep breath and locked eyes with a familiar foe, Carlos Correa. With 11 seconds left on the pitch clock, Cole fired his 109th pitch of the day, a 98 mph fastball.

Correa drove the ball to deep right field, but Oswaldo Cabrera made the catch on the warning track, wrapping up a 2-0 Yankees win and a dominant outing from Cole. Cole was in the driver’s seat from start to finish, finishing his complete game shutout with 10 strikeouts, one walk and two hits allowed.

After having his worst season since 2017 last year, Cole has bounced back tremendously to start 2023. In 28.1 innings pitched, Cole has a 0.95 ERA and his 1.3 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) leads all starting pitchers.

While Cole has long been elite at generating swings and misses while having good command, his ERA ballooned to 3.53 in 2022 because of how much hard contact he gave up. 

Last season, Cole’s barrel% (15th percentile), average exit velocity allowed (25th percentile) and hard hit% allowed (29th percentile) were all well below average. As a result of the quality of contact they were making, opposing hitters hit for power against Cole in 2022.

Cole’s 1.48 HR/9 was the highest of his career (excluding the 2020 COVID season) and was the fifth highest among qualified starters. Fielding Independent Pitcher (FIP), an ERA estimator that removes the results of balls hit in the field of play to account only for what a pitcher controls – strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs – estimated that Cole’s ERA should’ve been 3.47, just off from his actual ERA.

Cole was elite at striking out batters (92nd percentile) and good at avoiding walks (75th percentile), but his FIP skyrocketed because of how many home runs he gave up.

Now, let’s consider Cole’s expected FIP (xFIP), an ERA estimator calculated in the same way as FIP, except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage.

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Cole’s HR/FB% was 16.8%, whereas the 2022 league average was 11.4%. By substituting an 11.4 HR/FB% in for Cole’s actual 16.8 HR/FB%, Cole’s xFIP last season was 2.77 – a representation that Cole’s bad HR/FB% luck resulted in a season in which Cole was unlucky, as his ERA was 0.76 points higher than his xFIP.

In 2023, Cole has done a tremendous job of avoiding the quality of contact he gave up last season. Through his four starts, Cole’s hard hit% against (51st percentile), average exit velocity against (61st percentile) and barrel% (71st percentile) are all significantly improved compared to 2022.

Thus far, Cole has yet to give up a home run, his kryptonite from 2022. Cole’s weaker quality of contact allowed, which stems from improved command, is an essential reason why.

If Cole continues generating swings and misses at an elite rate and keeps the ball in the yard, he will be well on his way to winning his first career Cy Young.