Gerrit Cole hears boos vs. Mets after shortest outing with Yankees

New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole faced the Mets in the first game of Sunday’s interleague doubleheader (NYM-NYY GameTracker). For Cole it was not a vintage outing: 

As well, Cole spotted just 49 of his 80 pitches for strikes, which comes to a strike percentage of 61.3. Coming into Sunday, his strike percentage for 2021 was 67.7. That makes for his shortest start since he signed a $324 million contract with the Yankees prior to the 2020 season, and it’s just the third time in his career — a span of 221 starts — that he’s failed to work at least four innings. 

Needless to say, if you’re Yankee and you get less than vintage results against the Queenslanders in the Bronx, then you’re probably going to hear about it: 

Perhaps that’s harsh stuff for a pitcher who still owns a sub-3.00 ERA for the season, but it’s a reflection of Cole’s very recent struggles: 

Against the Red Sox on June 27, Cole allowed six runs (five earned) in five innings. If you look at Game Score, a quick-and-dirty Bill James metric that measures a pitcher’s dominance or lack thereof in a given start (50 is average and anything 90 or higher is an absolute gem), then Cole in his last two starts has put up figures of 35 and 33, respectively. Those are the two worst Game Scores he’s authored as a Yankee. 

Normally, this would constitute an overreaction. Pitchers, even very good ones, can struggle across a small sample of two starts. What’s concerning in this instance, however, is that Cole’s recent struggles that stretch back to early June roughly coincide with MLB’s crackdown on the use of grip-enhancing substances by pitchers. Pitchers use sticky substances that go beyond rosin, which is allowed, to improve their grip on the baseball and by extension increase their spin rates. Increased spin rates tend to make pitches more effective, and Cole in recent years has put up some elite spin rates: 

None of this is definitive proof that Cole, who saw his spin rates jump not long after being traded to the Astros prior to the 2018 season, owes his mid-career dominance to the use of sticky substances, and none of this is proof that he can’t be a Cy Young contender in the post-crackdown environment. The recent decline in performance, however, does mean that Cole’s outputs moving forward are especially noteworthy. That’s especially the case given how much the Yankees have invested in him and how much their success in 2021 depends upon him. 

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