On Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and the complexity of analytics for MLB players

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Andy Martino
·4 min read
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Gerrit Cole grey uniform tight shot
Gerrit Cole grey uniform tight shot

When Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said this week that “analytics are not helping players get paid,” he kicked off a fascinating discussion. The presence of data in the game both helps and hurts players, causing strong feelings that can include resentment.

By applying analytics to their pitching, hitting and fielding, many players have achieved better results. But they also see reductive statistics like WAR used against them in salary arbitration and free agency.

Perhaps no one is better positioned to understand the positive and negative impact of analytics on a player’s paycheck than Gerrit Cole.

As a member of the Houston Astros, he made use of data from high-speed cameras and other advanced technology to improve his repertoire and become one of the best pitchers in baseball. As a direct result, the Yankees paid him $324 million in free agency.

Analytics definitely helped him get paid.

But as a leader in the Players Association, Cole sees how teams can use numbers in more nefarious ways.

“I just don't want to see that kind of stuff used to make the product worse or to manipulate overhead,” Cole said. “That's just stupid.”

On Tuesday, we asked the Yankees ace about Lindor’s comments, his own paycheck, and how he reconciles the two sides of Big Data in baseball.

Cole started by noting the ways that Yankees assistant GM Michael Fishman and his analytics group use the data to help players perform -- the good side of innovation. “These guys are as invested as any player,” Cole said.

But he has also seen what one club executive told SNY last summer was “the soft collusion of analytics.”

“I just think that teams are looking. ... at WAR and everything, and player value on kind of a bell curve, right?” Cole said.

“You pay a premium for the peak, and then maybe you overpay towards the end and the surplus value at the beginning is so high ...

“That's why we see, I think, a lot of competitive offers, or some weird situations where offers are the same, because people are working on the same kind of algorithms.”

In addition to making those oddly uniform offers to free agents, teams also engage in service time manipulation by leaving players in the minor leagues long enough to maximize their years of control before free agency.

“I don't have an answer on how to fix it,” Cole said. “I think it's bad faith.”

He then pointed to comments made by now-former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather in an online video that recently circulated. One of the many ways that Mather caused offense was his strong indication that the team was manipulating prospect Jarred Kelenic’s service time by planning to start him in the minor leagues this year after he declined a team-friendly contract extension.

“Every player should wake up and read the news,” Cole said. “The guy in the Mariners organization -- those conversations are being had in a lot of clubs, unfortunately. That's the kind of way a lot of clubs are acting. I don't know if there's a rule that's going to be able to fix that, because somebody would just probably find a way around that rule.

“As an industry, I'd like to just see us move past that. That's just not productive for anyone. It's not productive for the product, you're not putting the best players on the field for people to see. I mean, this guy's talking about players that are making him money. The product is the people that he's talking poorly about. … It's tired, man. I think players are over it.”

Players also see how data hurts the entertainment value of the game, as it did when Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash famously pulled starting pitcher Blake Snell after 5 ⅓ scoreless World Series innings.

“I would just like to see it applied so that it doesn't hinder the product, or it doesn't hurt the product,” Cole said. “Sometimes we have to learn from our mistakes in that regard.

“I would hope if you pulled a pitcher too early in a pivotal game in the World Series, that the next time if you had the opportunity to get there, you would maybe make a different decision. The only way you're going to learn. ... is by making a wrong call, I guess.”

Cash’s decision was based on information. It’s legitimate to debate whether it was a sound move, and it’s important to note that many similar concepts helped Snell and the Rays reach the World Series in the first place.

But there is no doubt that it made the game less enjoyable for the millions watching.

That’s an issue, as is the use of numbers to undermine a competitive free agent marketplace. In the coming collective bargaining talks, this will be a likely sticking point.

“When the analytics are used to suppress salary or to manipulate service time or for things other than trying to put the best product on the field,” Cole said. “That's concerning.”