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Is Gerrit Cole better than Justin Verlander?

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Deep dive into the advanced analytics on their 2019 seasons.

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I can imagine our commenters searching online to find the nearest insane asylum for me. There are a few things I want to clarify here, the first being - I’m only talking about in 2019. Obviously, Justin Verlander is on a Hall of Fame pace and his storied career is something of legend.

This probably doesn’t quell most of the immediate thoughts of “this guy is an idiot”. I mean let’s look at the traditional stats:

Verlander - 8-1, 2.24 ERA, 72.1 IP (11 Starts), 0.73 WHIP

Cole - 4-4. 3.56 ERA, 60.2 IP (10 Starts), 1.04 WHIP

Every one of them screams that Verlander has been the better pitcher. Better W-L, his ERA is 1.32 better, more IP per outing, better WHIP. I mean this seems like a no-brainer. So why would I put up a clearly false argument? Well, I like to debate, and the advanced analytics completely disagree with the traditional stats.

Wins and losses being attributed to the pitcher has been debated forever, and either you’ve already bought into the proof or well, there’s not much I’m going to say to help here.

ERA has a large amount of “luck” in it, such as the defense behind the pitcher, the order the hits come in, a fluky HR rate, etc all could drive it to be misleading to the actual contributions of the pitcher themself.

So let’s take a look at their xFIP. - Verlander - 3.41, Cole - 2.32

Their SIERA? Verlander - 3.08 , Cole - 2.54

Now you may immediately wonder why there is just a large gap between their actual results vs the stats that work to predict what the actual pitcher’s contributions were.

Justin Verlander is currently rocking a LOB% rate of 97% (career 74.8%)!! That’s unheard of. While a slightly controllable skill (strikeout type pitchers generally will be slightly higher on the scale), this rate for every Hall of Famer to terrible AAAA type player generally will range in the 70-75% range. Gerrit Cole’s? 69.4% (Career 74.3%)

Additionally, BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) which generally normalizes around 300 (Cole -.307 for his career, Verlander .282) - also shows lady luck has been in Verlander’s favor (.158 BABIP in 2019), while Cole’s (.304) is basically in line with his career.

Both have suffered from poor HR/FB luck, again with HR/FB rates generally expected to be in the 10-12% range, currently Verlander comes in at 16.2% (8.7% for his career) and Cole has had even worse luck at 18.4% (10.5% for his career)

There’s a stat called wOBA (weighted on-base average) which assigns a more accurate value to each type of hit. xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) works to take elements of luck out of the equation. They look at exit velocity, launch angle, sprint speed, etc and assign values based on how often that ball goes for a hit, double, etc. **If a ball was hit over the fence and was caught vs missed by 2 inches, the batter/pitcher did nothing different but their end stats would be significantly different as an example - this works to eliminate that **

Verlander’s wOBA? .235 —- his xwOBA? .277

Cole’s wOBA? .275 —- his xwOBA? .261

Both reinforce that Cole has been a bit unlucky, and Verlander has benefited from some good fortune.

From a fWAR perspective? Verlander - 1.5, Cole - 1.8

That’s right, despite pitching in 1 less game and 20% less innings, Fangraphs actually shows that Cole has brought more value to the team based on his contributions.

Truthfully, this article isn’t about Cole vs Verlander. It’s about Cole’s year. It has been widely unrecognized how truly remarkable it has been. Cole had a break-out year last year, and many wondered if he would be able to repeat it. Shockingly, he didn’t just repeat his year, he has improved.

His K/9 is up from 12.4 to 13.8 (9.51 on his career), his BB/9 is down 2.88 to 2.37 (career 2.44).

He’s throwing his 4-seam fastball faster (96.9 mph vs 96.5), and that’s not even the most impressive part.

Last year, Cole posted elite spin rates, much to Tyler Bauer’s ire. This year? He’s improved them even further.

Statcast

Which then corresponds to an increase in his Whiff % on EVERY pitch other than his Curveball so far.

Compared to last year: His K% is 3.8% higher, his BB% is 1.4% lower, his xwOBA is .011 better, barrel % is 1% lower. People are making less contact in and out of the zone, chasing a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone, and simply whiffing on pitches more.

It’s obviously still somewhat early, but Cole is having a better year than he did last year, which is something we should all take a second to appreciate.

At the end of the day, we’re all EXTREMELY lucky to have these 2 anchoring the front of our staff. The Astros have truly unlocked Cole’s potential and I’m excited to watch as the season unfolds and some of his stats normalize.