The Houston Astros have emerged from the trade deadline with the best trio of starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. Its first order of business is guiding the team to its second World Series championship in three years.
Regardless of how that pans out, it'll soon be time for one of their trio's members to earn a contract worthy of the other two.
For starters, Houston's threesome of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and the newly acquired Zack Greinke is indeed as good as it gets. According to Baseball Reference wins above replacement, all three are among the top 10 pitchers of 2019. Verlander and Greinke also lead active pitchers in career rWAR.
Apropos of the latter point, the 36-year-old Verlander and 35-year-old Greinke don't need to worry about getting paid fairly for their work. Per Spotrac (see here and here), both have already earned over $200 million. In the long run, they'll have combined to make over $600 million.
Cole, meanwhile, has made a mere $34.9 million. But at the rate he's going, he shouldn't have any trouble leveraging a proper payday out of his first foray into free agency this winter.
After dominating with a 2.88 ERA and 276 strikeouts in his first season with the Astros in 2018, the 28-year-old started slow with a 4.11 ERA through his first 11 outings 2019. Over his last 13 assignments, however, he's corrected his course with a 1.91 ERA, 116 strikeouts and only 22 walks over 85 innings.
Unsurprisingly, Cole just won his second straight American League Pitcher of the Month award:
Cole now leads all pitchers with 216 strikeouts. What's more, his rate of 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings ranks just behind a certain Hall of Famer for the best mark ever for a right-hander in a single season:
- 1. Pedro Martinez, 1999: 13.2
- 2. Gerrit Cole, 2019: 12.9
Perhaps Cole finding himself in a position like this one was inevitable as soon as the Pittsburgh Pirates chose him No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft. After all, it was obvious even then that his triple-digit fastball formed the backbone of rare talent.
The radar gun is one area where the Cole of today still resembles the Cole of yesteryear. He ranks second to Noah Syndergaard in average fastball velocity at 97.0 mph and first among starters in total 100 mph fastballs. Included within is the fastest pitch (101.1 mph) thrown by any starter this season.
However, that's pretty much where the similarities between Cole as a Pirate and Cole as an Astro end.
Cole was hardly bad during his five seasons in Pittsburgh, yet he was an All-Star and Cy Young Award contender in only one of them. He put up a 2.60 ERA over 208 innings in 2015. Remove that season from the equation, and he otherwise averaged a vaguely disappointing 3.83 ERA as a Pirate.
The 4.12 ERA that Cole posted across 2016 and 2017 definitely raised a question of whether 2015 was an unrepeatable outlier. Factor in how his salary had been boosted to $3.8 million in 2017 with two more trips through arbitration still to go, and the Pirates had their reasons to shop him on the trade market.
Enter the Astros, who readied their defense of their first-ever World Series title by landing Cole with a four-player package in January 2018. As told by Travis Sawchik in his book, The MVP Machine, what the Astros did next blew the righty's mind:
In case anyone's having trouble reading all this, the short version is that Houston's brain trust sat Cole down for a "personalized pitching pitch" in which they emphasized that his sinker was overused and his curveball was underused.
That had the desired effect on Cole's pitch mix in 2018, which featured fewer sinkers and more curveballs alongside roughly normal usage of his four-seamer and slider.
Given how well last season went, it's no wonder that Cole hasn't really changed anything in 2019:
Yet despite his par-for-the-course pitch mix, Cole's dominance has escalated this season. It shows most in his contact rate. After knocking it down to a career-low 71.5 percent in 2018, he's knocked it down yet again to an AL-low 69.1 percent this season.
A related story is how, in contrast to his pitch selection, Cole's spin rate revolution is still ongoing:
Ask, say, fellow ace Trevor Bauer, and he might suggest there's something nefarious behind Cole's sudden spin rate improvements.
Alternatively, the Astros might simply know something about how to manipulate spin rate that other teams don't. It would otherwise be difficult for the same team to lead MLB in average spin rate in three consecutive seasons.
"They do have methods here where they try to increase spin rates," then-Astros starter Charlie Morton told Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post in October 2018, "but I don’t really want to talk about that."
Whatever the case, it's more instructive to focus on the effect of Cole's spin rate. Whereas spin variations oftentimes have no tangible impact on other pitchers' offerings, Cole's four-seamer and curveball have gained vertical action while his slider has gained horizontal action.
In other words, there's a correlation between his ever-improving spin and his ever-increasing nastiness. And as Rob Friedman has often demonstrated, it all sure does look pretty:
Granted, not all the stars are aligning for Cole to land a massive contract in free agency.
If nothing else, there's the reality that free agency is not what it once was. Teams don't just want good players anymore. They more so want good values. Whether it's through sheer risk-aversion or something more sinister, this has led to a pattern of delayed and smaller-than-expected payouts to players of all shapes, sizes and abilities.
Still, Cole will be no ordinary free agent when he hits the market.
He'll represent a chance for teams to land a guy who's been at worst one of baseball's 10 best (per rWAR) and at best one of its top five (per FanGraphs WAR) pitchers since the start of 2018. And after him, the best starters will be Madison Bumgarner, who's past his prime, and Zack Wheeler, who's never really had a prime.
Throw in Cole's youth, and there are enough reasons to expect he'll walk the same path that Greinke, Max Scherzer and David Price took to $200 million contracts on the open market.
Of course, a World Series ring wouldn't hurt either. On that front, the Astros will be tough to beat if Cole, Verlander and Greinke live up to their billing.