It’s a great time to be Gerrit Cole.
The right-hander reached free agency at the end of a 2019 season that saw him soar to new heights. Following a breakout debut year in Houston, Cole threw 212 1/3 innings, led the American League with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts, set a single-season MLB record for strikeout rate (39.9%), and delivered five excellent postseason starts for good measure.
Having only turned 29 in September, Cole now sits at the top of the market, poised to land a substantial contract -- perhaps one that will challenge records.
• Gerrit Cole rumors
The question for teams involved in the Cole pursuit is whether his current level of performance is sustainable. Cole’s next club will be acquiring a player who has been a superstar, but are they acquiring a player who will be one for the next few years, if not longer? For every successful pitcher who excels into his mid-30s, there are many who fall victim to injuries and the natural erosion of talent.
There is no crystal ball here, and some of these things are impossible to foresee. But we can take our best shot and attack the question from a couple of different perspectives.
Projection systems tend to be conservative and cautious, rarely producing extreme results. Typically, a player in his late-20s would be projected to decline over time, as he gets further away from what tend to be the peak years.
That is not the case for Cole, at least according to one system. Brian Cartwright, the developer of the Oliver projections, as well as a writer and consultant to MLB teams, provided MLB.com with projections for Cole’s next seven seasons, covering the likely length of his next contract.
Amazingly, these projections show Cole’s level of effectiveness barely budging over the next few seasons and remaining high throughout that period.
Cole’s projected ERA by year
To put that in context, no starting pitcher had a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the past seven seasons. Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw each did it six times in the last seven years, and no other pitcher did it more than four times.
The next step was for MLB.com senior data architect Tom Tango to take the projections for Cole’s rate stats, combine them with his projections for innings pitched, and produce WAR values. The innings projections were based on what pitchers of similar ages have done in the past.
Cole’s projected IP, WAR by year
2020: 200 IP, 6.5 WAR
2021: 180 IP, 5.9 WAR
2022: 162 IP, 5.3 WAR
2023: 146 IP, 4.6 WAR
2024: 131 IP, 4.0 WAR
2025: 118 IP, 3.5 WAR
2026: 106 IP, 3.0 WAR
Total: 1,043 IP, 32.9 WAR
Average: 149 IP, 4.7 WAR
Maybe that playing time projection seems too low, but remember, counting on pitchers to remain healthy is a risk. Even one major injury in the next seven years would make the 1,000-inning mark a difficult one to reach.
In the past seven seasons, 35 pitchers threw at least 1,043 innings. Only six reached that WAR total, according to Baseball Reference: Scherzer (47.0), Kershaw (40.5), Chris Sale (36.2), Zack Greinke (35.4), Justin Verlander (35.0), and Corey Kluber (33.7). Jacob deGrom (32.7) also missed by an insignificant margin.
In other words, Cartwright’s projections see Cole providing his next team with elite, Cy Young-caliber production -- even accounting for a fair amount of missed time. These projections provide even more reason to believe that Cole will easily break David Price's record contract of $217 million for a free-agent pitcher.
The (recent) historical precedent
Besides projecting Cole, we also can look at how comparable pitchers have fared at the same point in their careers and establish some possible futures for him.
To do that, we’ll focus only on Cole’s past two seasons, since he almost immediately became a new and greatly improved pitcher upon joining the Astros via a trade from the Pirates prior to the 2018 season. Per Baseball Reference, Cole produced a total of 12.1 WAR in those two years, at ages 27-28. So to find some comps, let’s set a few criteria:
• Born in 1975 or later (since pitchers of previous generations were used much differently)
• Produced at least 10 WAR at ages 27-28
• Is now through at least his age-33 season
That yields a group of 13 pitchers with familiar names. Some feel like far better comps for Cole than others, but together, they provide a reasonable range of potential outcomes. As a whole, those 13 pitchers averaged roughly 17 WAR over the ensuing seven seasons (ages 29-35), or about 2.5 per season.
Best-case scenarios: Scherzer (40.6 WAR), Verlander (35.3), Cole Hamels (29.7)
Scherzer’s total doesn’t even include his age-35 season, which will happen in 2020, but he produced more WAR from ages 29-34 than any pitcher since World War II, other than Bob Gibson and Greg Maddux. That’s basically the best-case scenario for Cole, and there certainly are some similarities between the two pitchers, both in terms of style and career path.
As Verlander’s teammate in Houston for the past two seasons, Cole has seen up close how it’s possible for a pitcher to be as good as ever in his mid-30s. Hamels has slipped somewhat over the past couple of years but still produced at least 3 WAR in each of those seven seasons, concluding in 2019.
Modest outlook: Tim Hudson (21.8), CC Sabathia (18.3), Johan Santana (15.3), Adam Wainwright (15.1)
All of these pitchers had some significant successes over the next seven years, but also some disappointments. Each missed all or most of at least one of those seasons due to injury, and each had at least one season in which he posted a below-average ERA.
Yet Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery to throw nearly 450 stellar innings for the Braves at ages 34-35. An All-Star in his age-29-31 seasons, Sabathia then went through a three-year downturn before emerging on the other side as a solid pitcher over the back half of his 30s. Santana’s peak brilliance gave way to injuries, and he threw just 117 innings after the age of 31. Wainwright missed all of his age-29 campaign and most of his age-33 campaign but mixed that with a pair of top-three Cy Young Award finishes.
The red flags: John Lackey (9.3), Jered Weaver (9.2), Dan Haren (8.7), Brandon Webb (5.4), Felix Hernandez (4.7)
None of these pitchers produced as much WAR over the next seven seasons as they had in the two seasons from 27-28. Lackey threw about 1,100 innings but with a league-average ERA+ of 100. Weaver hit a wall at 32 and had negative WAR thereafter. Haren averaged 32 starts through his final (age-34) season but with a 98 ERA+. Webb logged his third straight top-two Cy Young finish at 29, before shoulder injuries stopped his career in its tracks. Hernandez is only 33 but might be done after producing a 5.82 ERA over the past two seasons.
None of these results can be discounted for Cole. There’s no doubt he has the ability to follow in the footsteps of Scherzer and Verlander, and meet those lofty projections. But as many of these examples show, unforeseen obstacles have a way of emerging, and a pitcher’s path is rarely smooth.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.