The only criteria for a player to make it into this series is that I consistently draft him in mock drafts. The FantasyPros Draft Wizard offers a great early look at how players may be valued as we near draft season. The Wizard is based on expert consensus rankings, and since experts help drive ADPs I think it is a valuable resource. It is also quick and easy to use, so I get to do plenty of mocks from different draft positions.
I kicked this thing off with a look at Maikel Franco, who I love on the cheap this season. But today we are scoping out our first starting pitcher. My basic strategy for redraft leagues is to find the right balance of floor, upside, and cost before diving into the pitching waters. I am not the guy drafting Clayton Kershaw in the first round, but I am the guy currently looking at Gerrit Cole as a rotation anchor that I can draft a full eight rounds later.
Gerrit Cole turns 27 years old this September and is expected to be the ace of the Pittsburgh rotation. He was the first pick in the 2011 amateur draft and made his MLB debut on June 11, 2013. Cole won 10 of his first 19 starts and posted a 3.22 ERA with 100 strikeouts 117.1 innings that season. His output increased steadily over the next two years, culminating in a 19-win, 202 strikeout season in 2015. Heading into 2016, Cole was widely regarded as an ace, ranking somewhere inside the top 12 to 15 pitchers in all of baseball.
Alas, he sustained a rib cage injury prior to spring training and suffered from elbow inflammation in August. The injuries limited him and he only pitched 116 innings last season. He set career-worst marks in ERA (3.88), WHIP (1.44), and K/9 (7.60). He allowed career-worst marks in AVG (.289), OBP (.345), SLG (.410), and OPS (.754). For a guy who finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 2015, his 2016 season was extremely disappointing.
The silver lining is Cole had a 2.94 ERA as late as August 7th of last season. After that, his last four starts were horrific and drove his ERA up almost a full run to 3.88. I am inclined to chalk the poor performance up to injury given Cole’s track record and the knowledge that he was shut down due to elbow inflammation.
I also know Cole allowed four home runs over his final three starts (13.2 innings) of 2016, which is the same number he allowed in the 102 innings prior. That helps me to believe the end-of-season struggles were injury-related—especially for a guy who has shown a three-year trend of ace-type growth and production.
Cole began a normal throwing program in December of 2016. Cole had no ligament damage in his elbow last season and was prescribed rest instead of surgery. And while most early reports at this time of year will be exceedingly cheerful, it is a good thing that Cole is on track to be healthy for Spring Training.
Strikeouts, Walks, and the Longball
Cole’s K/9 mark dipped to a career-low 7.60 last season, which is right around league average. In the two years prior to 2016, Cole was not average in this department, posting marks of 9.00 (2014) and 8.74 (2015). So, did Cole alter his approach or did he just get worse? We’ll (hopefully) answer that question later.
Cole walked more batters in 2016 than ever before, as his BB/9 spiked to 2.79, which is also right around league average. I would like to point out that in Cole’s worst season he was still average with regard to strikeouts and walks. That is encouraging to me when considering his range of outcomes. Despite the down year he seems to carry a pretty safe floor at his ADP.
Cole rarely allowed home runs last year, as his HR/FB mark of 6.8% was very good for the second straight year. 2016 was the third season in a row where Cole’s HR/FB mark was below the league average rate of about 10 percent. More good news was Cole’s 71.1% strand rate, which is consistent with the 72% league average.
Do You Feel Lucky?
Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is where things get interesting. Cole’s four years in the MLB: .308, .311, .304, .345. The .345 mark from 2016 is very different from Cole’s career norms, which leads me to believe he suffered from some bad luck in 2016.
According to NFBC ADP, Cole is going around pick 118 as the 28th starting pitcher off the board. That is an affordable price given that Cole finished as the ninth-best pitcher in all of fantasy baseball just one year ago. The experts over at FantasyPros are more bullish, as Cole’s expert consensus ranking (ECR) is SP22. I currently have Cole as the SP20, one spot ahead of Carlos Martinez. I anticipate Cole’s draft cost to become steeper the longer he stays healthy and the closer we get to the start of 2017.
Various and Sundry
Cole changed his approach somewhat last season, opting to throw his slider less than the year before (when it was his secondary pitch). He threw more curveballs and changeups instead of the slider in 2016. His average fastball velocity held relatively steady at 95.2mph, down a tad from 95.6mph in 2015. From what I could unearth, the slider was ineffective at times in 2016 and contributed to Cole’s poor splits against left-handed hitters. In 2015 Cole held lefties to a .266 wOBA and .310 SLG—but in 2016 that increased to a very poor .371 wOBA and .488 SLG. If Cole experiences some positive regression towards career norms we can all make some profit off of his current draft position. The loss of the slider makes sense when considering his struggles against lefties and his career-low performance in strikeouts. If Cole rebounds in this department I would expect the K/9 mark to be closer to his career average.
Steamer says: 12W, 31G, 189IP, 8.25 K/9, 2.42 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9, .307 BABIP, 71.0% LOB, 3.61 ERA, 3.45 FIP. The basic projection looks like: 3.61 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 173 Ks. That would have placed him among the Top 30 starters in the fake game last year, which is right around where Cole is being drafted heading into this year. That seems like a “floor” projection to me, with the potential for a top 10 season.
My primary contention with Steamer is the 0.82 HR/9 mark, as Cole has posted marks of 0.54, 0.72, 0.48, and 0.54 over his four big league seasons. Even though 2016 was his worst year by far, he still managed to keep the ball in the yard. I see no reason why a hearty and hale 27 year-old would all of a sudden lose this valuable skill.
I am currently buying Cole at his ADP...how about you?