Nine years. $324 million. Is Gerrit Cole worth it?

December 18th, 2019

A version of this story first appeared on on Nov. 21.

A perfect storm turned into a record-shattering contract for . Now, the right-hander is poised to make good on that investment as he heads to the Bronx, where the Yankees officially introduced him on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.

Cole reached free agency at the ideal time. He was coming off a second straight brilliant season in Houston in which he 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 sat at the top of the market and drew interest from deep-pocketed, big-market clubs eager for his services. A day after temporarily set records for a pitcher with his seven-year, $245 million contract to return to the Nationals, Cole put another charge into last week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego by agreeing to a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. He now holds records for total contract value for a starting pitcher and average annual value for any free agent ($36 million per year).

That might sound extreme, even for a pitcher as talented as Cole. But at least some numbers say he projects to be worth it -- down to the last penny.

The projections

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 with projections for Cole’s next nine seasons.

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
2020: 2.57
2021: 2.56
2022: 2.59
2023: 2.66
2024: 2.75
2025: 2.82
2026: 2.92
2027: 3.09
2028: 3.33

In this scenario, Cole’s ERA wouldn’t rise above 3.00 until his eighth season with the Yankees. To put that in context, no starting pitcher had a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the past seven seasons. and 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 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
2027: 96 IP, 2.5 WAR
2028: 86 IP, 2.0 WAR
Total: 1,225 IP, 37.4 WAR
Average: 136 IP, 4.2 WAR

Maybe that playing time projection seems too low, but remember, counting on pitchers to remain healthy is a risk. One major injury or two would make that innings total a challenge to reach.

In the past nine seasons, 40 pitchers threw at least 1,225 innings, from (1,229 1/3) up to the ultimate workhorse, (1,917 2/3). Only six reached that WAR total, according to Baseball Reference: Kershaw (53.7), Scherzer (52.7), Verlander (51.7), (44.2), (40.7), and (40.5).

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.

Using dollar-per-WAR estimates, Cole’s 37.4 WAR would be worth roughly $329 million. Cole, of course, signed for $324 million. Ultimately, fair or not, Cole will be judged in large part on whether he helps the Yankees add to their collection of 27 championships. But going by these projections, he looks like a pitcher who should make good on his new team’s faith.

The 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 take a wide view of the issue, Tango created a pool of pitchers -- going back to those born since 1922 -- who were within one year of Cole’s 2019 age, and had similar production based on a three-year weighted-WAR formula that puts the most emphasis on the most recent season. (Read about the full details here).

Cole’s three-year weighted WAR is roughly 6.0. Tango found that pitchers in the group who reached that mark produced an average of about 24 WAR over their next nine years -- with plenty of variation within.

The case files

It’s also worth taking a more narrow view of the historical record and focusing on how some specific pitchers have fared in order to establish a range of possible outcomes.

Since Cole almost immediately became a new and greatly improved pitcher upon joining the Astros via a trade from the Pirates prior to the 2018 season, we will only consider those years, when Cole produced 12.1 WAR, per Baseball Reference. 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. Of the 13, four played at least nine more seasons after age 28, four more are still active, and five retired before that ninth season. As a group, they averaged about 15 WAR in the five seasons from ages 29-33, and about 20 WAR over the nine seasons from ages 29-37.

Best-case scenarios: Verlander (43.1 WAR through age 36), Scherzer (40.6 WAR through age 34), Hamels (29.7 through age 35)

As Verlander’s teammate in Houston for the past two seasons, Cole saw up close how it’s possible for a pitcher to be as good as ever in his mid-30s. Scherzer has 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.

Hamels has slipped somewhat over the past couple of years but still produced at least 3 WAR in each of his past seven seasons, and just earned a new one-year, $18 million contract from Atlanta.

Modest outlook: Tim Hudson (24.1), (23.5), Roy Oswalt (19.8), John Lackey (17.8), Wainwright (17.1), Johan Santana (15.3)

All of these pitchers had some notable successes over the next nine years, but also some disappointments. Each missed some significant time due to injury, and each saw some ups and downs in terms of performance.

Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery to throw roughly 750 stellar innings for the Braves at ages 34-37. 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. Oswalt remained productive through age 33 but threw less than 100 innings afterward. Lackey’s best season in this period didn’t come until he was 36. 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. Santana’s peak brilliance gave way to injuries, and he threw just 117 innings after the age of 31.

The red flags: Jered Weaver (9.2), Dan Haren (8.7), Brandon Webb (5.4), Felix Hernandez (4.7 through age 33)

None of these pitchers produced as much WAR over the next nine seasons as they had in the two seasons from 27-28. 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 his future is in serious doubt after he produced 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. Perhaps those are the most fitting comps for a pitcher on Cole’s current level.

But as many of these examples show, unforeseen obstacles have a way of emerging, and a pitcher’s path is rarely smooth.