The Yankees Rotation Has Stepped Up in Gerrit Cole’s Absence

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — On Tuesday afternoon, Gerrit Cole donned the pinstripes and took the mound at Yankee Stadium, not for his long-awaited season debut, but for a key milestone in his rehab: his first live batting practice session since a bout of nerve inflammation in his right elbow sidelined him in mid-March. The reigning AL Cy Young winner is still at least a few weeks away from returning, but in his absence — and in the face of considerable uncertainty given last year’s performances — his fellow starters have stepped up to help the Yankees into the AL East lead and the American League’s best record.

In front of an empty ballpark but an audience of teammates, coaches, and media, Cole — who eschewed his batting practice jersey in favor of the real thing “because I miss it” — faced teammates Jahmai Jones (a righty) and Oswaldo Cabrera (a switch-hitter batting lefty) from behind an L-screen. He threw 22 pitches, working through his full five-pitch arsenal, and by his own admission, the adrenaline from the setting led him to push his velocity to 96 mph, a point where pitching coach Matt Blake told him to back off. “Matt yelled at me, so I had to throw it like 90 a few times to even it back out,” he quipped afterwards.

“To me, he looked very much in control, with easy velocity,” said manager Aaron Boone of Cole’s session. The ace is eligible to come off the 60-day injured list later this month, but his rehab isn’t far enough for that to be realistic. As for a return in June, Boone indicated that it was a possibility, “but I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.” Assuming Cole’s recovery from the session goes as planned, he’ll probably throw a couple more BP sessions before heading out on a rehab assignment, which given the math of building up a pitch count points to a late June return.

With the Yankees rebounding from a disappointing 82-80 season to go 33-17 thus far, Cole’s teammates have bought him some time. Aaron Judge has shaken himself out of an early-season slump — he’s hitting .352/.487/.791 since I wrote this on April 24 — and now ranks second in the AL with a 174 wRC+, with teammate Juan Soto third, at 171, and five other regulars producing a 109 wRC+ or better. The team’s 121 wRC+ leads the league, while its 4.84 runs per game ranks second. 

As for the rotation, the loss of Cole left the Yankees in a precarious spot given so much uncertainty beyond free agent addition Marcus Stroman. Last year, neither Carlos Rodón nor Nestor Cortes showed anything close to their previous All-Star form, as early-season injuries cascaded, leading to dismal performances and multiple trips to the injured list. In the first year of his six-year, $162 million deal, Rodón threw just 64.1 innings due to chronic lower back woes and forearm and left hamstring strains, finishing with a 6.85 ERA and 5.79 FIP. Cortes threw just 63.1 innings after straining his right hamstring during spring training, then made two additional trips to the IL with a left rotator cuff strain; he turned in a 4.97 ERA and 4.49 FIP. Clarke Schmidt was at least durable, throwing a career-high 159 innings in his first full season as a starter, albeit with a 4.64 ERA and 4.42 FIP.

With Cole down and the other four starters moving up in the pecking order, the question was who would fill the fifth spot, particularly with so much depth cleared out by the free agent departures of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán as well as the Soto blockbuster, which sent away Michael KingJhony Brito, and Randy Vásquez; together those pitchers accounted for 64 starts last year. 

The answer has turned out to be the brightest spot in the rotation thus far, someone few outside the Yankees organization saw coming — not Chase Hampton or Will Warren, the team’s two top pitching prospects, nor the more well-known Clayton Beeter, but Luis Gil. The 25-year-old righty made six starts for the Yankees in 2021 and one in ’22 before undergoing Tommy John surgery; he threw just four minor league innings in his return last September. Thanks to his big fastball-slider combination and apparent lack of a reliable third pitch, he appeared likely to wind up in the bullpen.

Together the quintet of Stroman, Rodón, Cortes, Schmidt, and Gil has combined to start 48 of the Yankees’ 49 games, posting the league’s second-best ERA (2.96), third-highest innings total (282.1), seventh-best WAR (4.0) and eighth-best FIP (3.88). (The only Yankees game this season that wasn’t started by a member of the quintet came in the night cap of an April 13 doubleheader against the Guardians, when Cody Poteet went six innings and allowed one run in an 8-2 New York win; he was rewarded promptly with a trip back to the minors.) That’s solid enough given the circumstances, but what’s been particularly remarkable is Gil’s Cole-like performance. Check out this comparison to the first nine starts of Cole’s Cy Young-winning season: 

Gil Filling Cole’s Shoes

Cole 2023* 9 56.2 27.4% 8.0% 0.64 .264 2.22 3.04 1.5
Gil 2024 9 49.0 31.2% 13.6% 0.55 .217 2.39 3.13 1.2

* = first nine starts (through May 12)

Not too shabby, right? Among AL pitchers with at least 40 innings (he’s one inning below the qualifying threshold), Gil ranks fourth in strikeout rate, eighth in ERA, 12th in FIP, and tied for 15th (and the team lead) in WAR. He’s missing bats and stifling hitters with all three of his offerings. Batters have hit just .167 and slugged .271 against his four-seam fastball, which averages a crisp 96.4 mph and has generated a 30.6% whiff rate. Against his slider they’ve hit .161 and slugged .355 with a 32.3% whiff rate, but the real breakthrough has been his changeup, which received a 30 grade from Eric Longenhagen this past spring. He’d thrown the pitch just 6.3% of the time in his limited major league experience, with an average separation of just 3.8 mph from his fastball. That gap is now up to 5.4 mph, which still isn’t much, but the pitch has become his favorite secondary offering and his most frequent putaway pitch. He’s throwing it 26.4% of the time, compared to 17.1% for the slider. Batters have hit just .122, slugged .146, and whiffed on 30.4% of their swings against the changeup. While setting the franchise rookie record for strikeouts in a start (14) against the White Sox on Saturday, he netted six whiffs with the changeup, five outside the zone and the other right on the edge.

Meanwhile, Rodón and Cortes have both been healthy and effective. Though Rodón has had trouble keeping the ball in the park lately, allowing seven homers over his last 28.1 innings and 1.47 per nine overall, his 3.27 ERA is a lot closer to what the Yankees hoped for when they signed him, even if his 4.47 FIP is a bit gaudy. Cortes has pitched to a 3.56 ERA and 3.41 FIP across a staff-high 60.2 innings. Stroman has overcome elevated walk and homer rates (11% and 1.29 per nine, respectively) to post a 3.05 ERA, though his 4.79 FIP is the rotation’s highest.

Schmidt has been the rotation’s other pleasant surprise thus far, delivering a 2.59 ERA (10th in the league at the 40-inning cutoff) and 3.45 FIP in 55.2 innings. The 28-year-old righty entered Tuesday night’s start against the Mariners riding a scoreless streak of 15.2 innings dating back to the final frame of his May 4 start against the Tigers. On May 10 at Tropicana Field, he threw 6.2 scoreless innings against the Rays — matching the longest outing of his major league career to that point — allowing five hits and two walks while striking out six; then on May 16 at Target Field he surpassed that by spinning eight shutout innings against the Twins, yielding just three hits without a walk and striking out eight.

Colleague Michael Baumann recently dug into Schmidt’s evolution, pointing to his increased in-zone whiff rates on his cutter, sinker, and sweeper, and his improved ability to change a batter’s eye level with a higher concentration of fastballs in the upper four inches of the strike zone and higher, and breaking balls in the lower four inches of the zone and lower.

Asked before Tuesday’s game what he saw as driving Schmidt’s year-to-year improvement, Boone cited his improved command and the emergence of his cutter:

I think it’s just a total grasp of his arsenal now, the command of his arsenal. You go back to a few years ago, he wasn’t a great strike thrower. You always saw the stuff and that’s gotten incrementally better, each and every year to the point where he has command now.

We saw the cutter became a very important pitch for him last year… Not only is it a very good pitch that profiles well, but he commands it well now. So he’s just got more weapons and better command and control and the experience of navigating different hitters that maybe in the past had given him problems. 

The numbers back up Boone’s assertion. Schmidt ditched his four-seamer and introduced his cutter last year, throwing it 27.9% of the time; batters hit .280 and slugged .457 against it, while whiffing on 22.2% of their swings. This year, Schmidt has added an extra mile per hour in velocity (from 91.3 to 92.3), and batters have hit .264 and slugged .347 while whiffing on 30.5% of their swings. That adds up to a 46-point drop in wOBA (from .338 to .292) alongside substantial improvements with his knuckle curve (from .260 to .224) and sweeper (from .372 to .275). His overall whiff rate has improved from 22.6% (25th percentile) to 29.9% (80th percentile), and there’s a lot more red — high-percentile rankings — in his Statcast profile.

For all of that, Schmidt labored on Tuesday night, overcoming intermittent struggles with the command of his cutter and exiting after five innings. He threw 100 pitches, allowing four hits and two walks while holding the Mariners to two runs, both via a second-inning home run that Dylan Moore ripped on a full-count cutter that was a couple inches off the plate. Afterward, Schmidt said he and the Yankees believed that the runner on second (Josh Rojas) had relayed signs to Moore because he was tipping certain pitches, which he called “fair game, 100 percent… They’re looking for specific things, and they probably saw what they were looking for. And they did a really good job of executing it.”

“Everybody has things that they do, that you might pattern in certain ways with the way you come set or whatever it may be,” said Schmidt. “It’s just constantly paying attention and making sure that you’re staying on top of small things like that [because] it can be a difference in a game.”

While Schmidt turned in a solid effort, the offense was stifled by Bryan Woo, who held the Yankees to a mere two hits over six scoreless innings while striking out seven, including Soto twice and Judge once. The Mariners expanded their lead to 4-0 against the underbelly of the Yankees’ bullpen, with Ty France clubbing a two-run homer off Dennis Santana in the seventh. Gleyber Torres countered in the home half with a three-run blast off Trent Thornton, trimming the deficit to one run, but on the first pitch of the eighth — and his first major league pitch of the season — lefty Clayton Andrews served up a home run to Luke Raley, and then Moore tacked on a ninth-inning solo shot off Nick Burdi en route to a 6-3 victory.

Schmidt’s departure snapped the starters’ streak of consecutive outings of at least six innings at eight. They did so for all seven games of their win streak against the Rays, Twins, and White Sox from May 12–19, as well as on Monday night against the Mariners, when Stroman went 7.1 innings and handed off a 3-1 lead that suddenly turned into a 5-4 defeat when closer Clay Holmes imploded, allowing his first four earned runs of the season. Schmidt’s outing did extend the starters’ streak of pitching at least five innings to 17 straight games dating back to May 2, when Rodón lasted just four innings against the Orioles. In that span, the starters have combined for a 2.08 ERA — best in the league by more than half a run — and a 3.50 FIP across 104 innings. The Yankees have gone 13-4 in that span, turning a one-game deficit in the division race into a 1.5-game lead.

On Tuesday, it wasn’t enough, but so far the Yankees have to be more than pleased with what they’ve gotten from their starters. And if all goes well, next month they’ll have one of the game’s best back in pinstripes for the real deal.

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