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Gerrit Cole To Yankees - Fantasy Impact

Cue up the Star Wars music, the Evil Empire landed their man. The biggest free agent of the MLB offseason is officially off the board, as first reported by Jon Heyman of MLB Network. Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees are in agreement on a nine-year $324 million contract.

Cole's contract is the largest for a starting pitcher in MLB history, blowing away the seven-year $245 million contract Stephen Strasburg signed Monday to keep him in Washington. The deal is the fourth-largest in the Majors in terms of the total dollar amount, but Cole's $36 million AAV is the largest in baseball, narrowly edging out the $35.5 million per season Mike Trout earns with the Angels.

So, we know Christmas morning will be epic in the Cole household, but what can we expect from the ace in the Big Apple and what impact will it have on our fantasy teams?

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Cole Mining

Two years ago, the notion that Cole would be the highest-paid pitcher in baseball was laughable. Not that Cole was a total scrub with the Pirates; he had a couple of 200 inning seasons and posted a 2.60 ERA in 2015 while making the All-Star team. He didn't get an All-Star nod the next two seasons, posting ERAs of 3.88 and 4.26 and striking out fewer than one batter per inning. He was a solid mid-rotation arm at that point but he wasn't living up to the hype that is associated with being the number one overall pick in the MLB Draft.

Houston saw something they liked in Cole and acquired the right-hander ahead of the 2018 season. Cole's career trajectory (and bank account) would never be the same as the Astros worked their magic on Cole, transforming him from a frustrating starter with upside into a legitimate ace and Cy Young contender.

Cole was spectacular in two seasons with the Astros, pitching over 200 innings each season with a sub-3 ERA and over 600 strikeouts total. 2019, in particular, was a historically dominant season where Cole won 20 games and pitched to a 2.50 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and an insane 326 strikeouts in 212.1 innings, all career bests. He finished second in AL Cy Young voting to (now former) teammate Justin Verlander and was the second-most valuable player in fantasy according to aggregate rankings in traditional 5x5 rotisserie leagues. He wasn't done there, adding 36.1 innings of postseason baseball where he posted an impressive 1.72 ERA with a 0.87 WHIP and 47 more strikeouts.

Cole backed up those strong surface numbers with equally-impressive advanced stats. His 2.48 xFIP was the best in baseball, a full 0.4 runs lower than second-place Max Scherzer. His 2.62 SIERA was also best in the bigs and shows his ERA was right where it should be based on his skill.

The main thing Houston changed with Cole was relying more on his four-seam fastball and cutter while abandoning his sinker. Cole threw his four-seamer over 53 percent of the time in both seasons with Houston after using it just 42 percent of the time in 2017 with Pittsburgh. He also abandoned his sinker in favor of throwing his slider and cutter more often and the results speak for themselves.

Cole went from a pitcher with a 23-24 percent strikeout rate guy in Pittsburgh to the most dominant strikeout pitcher in baseball. Cole put up an elite 34.5 K% in 2018 before blowing that number out of the water with an obscene 39.9 percent mark in 2019. Cole's 13.82 K/9 was the best in baseball by a country mile and he did it with a walk rate below six percent.

When batters did make contact, it was often weak as Cole's 33.9 percent hard contact allowed was 12th best among qualified starters with his 87.3 percent average exit velocity being well above MLB average. Any way you slice it, Cole was elite over the past two seasons and now the Yankees are hoping it wasn't just "Astros Magic" that morphed him into a true ace.


2020 Outlook

So what can we expect from Cole in his new home besides more time spent in traffic?

To expect better, or even the same, results from the season Cole just put up is probably unrealistic and unfair, even for the standard Yankee fans hold for their big free-agent signings. Cole's BABIP and strand rate were both better than his career marks and while some of that can be explained by Cole simply being better than he'd been most of his career, they also could regress to the mean a little in 2020.

The good news for Cole is he could regress back to even his 2018 season and still be among the best starting pitchers in the game. He'll continue to post a strikeout rate well above 30 percent and should win plenty of games backed by a strong Yankees lineup. The gains he made in his pitching repertoire should carry over to New York so there's no reason to think he'll suddenly morph back into the pre-Houston version of himself. At age 29 with just under 2000 career innings pitched, he should have plenty of gas left in the tank. Cole is one of only a handful of starters we can project to have an ERA below three and a WHIP below one across 200 innings.

Yankee Stadium is a harder park to pitch in than Minute Maid Park, especially for right-handed pitchers. According to ESPN's park factors, Yankee Stadium has a 1.265 rating on home runs allowed, the second-highest behind only Coors Field in Denver. Houston is more of a neutral park with a deeper right field than Yankee Stadium's famous short porch that Cole will now have to contend with. While another ball or two may leave the yard pitching in Yankee Stadium, that's no reason to shy away from Cole.

Overall, there's no reason to suspect Cole won't be among the best starters in the game. He offers more strikeout upside than any other pitcher and we've already seen him be among the most valuable pitchers in fantasy, twice. The case can be made for Cole to be drafted as early as sixth overall in drafts this spring and those that want his services will have to spend a first-round pick to do so.

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