It's been a tumultuous June for pitchers across baseball, and none of them has operated under a brighter spotlight than New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. On Sunday, it took one pitch for the spotlight on Cole to brighten a little more.
That pitch was a 96 mph four-seam fastball with a spin rate of 2,414 revolutions per minute, and it was deposited into the first row of seats above the Green Monster in left field at Fenway Park. It was hit by Boston Red Sox infielder Enrique Hernandez. It was caught by a fan wearing a Yankees T-shirt and cap, who seemed way too happy about catching a home run ball coughed up by his team's best pitcher.
That fan perhaps did not know that Cole had never given up a first-pitch homer. He could not know that later that inning, Cole would be touched up for a three-run shot off the bat of Rafael Devers -- on an 0-2 count -- and that Cole had never before allowed two first-inning homers. He could not know that Cole would later give up a third dinger (to J.D. Martinez) and would leave after five innings having allowed six runs (five earned). He could not know that Cole's 4.65 June ERA is his worst during a month since he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2017.
Indeed, that celebrating Yankees fan probably should have been asking the question so many of us are: Should the Yankees be worried about Gerrit Cole?
OK, let's back up a second and acknowledge the hyperbole of the question. Cole had a bad month by his standards. His standards are pretty high. Still, there is no doubt that because Cole's dominance has been so consistent, it's worth at least trying to understand why he struggled (as compared to himself) and whether those struggles are likely to continue. Because the Yankees face an upward climb to get back into contention and need Cole to be the guy pulling them up the mountain.
The Yankees lost 9-2 to the Red Sox on Sunday in a game they really needed to win, especially with Cole on the mound. New York fell to 0-6 against its chief rival with the loss and, with the Toronto Blue Jays beating the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees slipped into fourth place in the AL East. New York is just 17-24 against AL East opponents this season.
Cole looked frustrated at times during his outing, especially during Boston's four-run first. After Devers connected on a pitch located smack in the middle of the strike zone, Cole slammed his fist into his glove and stalked around the mound as Devers circled the bases. Finally, Cole crouched into a squat and sat that way for several seconds with his head down.
"Couldn't get the breaking ball down," Cole said after the game, bemoaning his sporadic command. "Couldn't get the fastball where I wanted to. Tried to make a good pitch to Devers and absolutely pulled it into the wrong part of the zone. The first pitch of the game [to Hernandez] was poorly located as well."
It has been a trying month for Cole. Besides the ERA, he allowed nine homers during June, the second most he has ever allowed during a month. (Cole allowed 10 homers during August of last season.) After Cole struck out 14.8 batters per nine innings during the March/April period, that figure dropped to 9.6 in May and 9.3 in June.
While a pitcher with Cole's track record would ordinarily get the benefit of the doubt for having a so-so month, the timing of Cole's downtick only feeds the spotlight shining on him. Baseball's biggest story in June unfortunately has been MLB's tightening of the rules enforcing its ban against foreign substances being applied to the ball -- the sticky stuff that hurlers such as Cole have relied on for grip and, in some cases, for enhanced spin rate and movement.
Cole was hesitant to address the topic head-on when asked about it earlier this month, which pretty much assured that his spin rate would become headline news for his subsequent outings. It has, but it wasn't obviously the issue for Cole on Sunday.
Cole's spin rate against Boston wasn't back to his pre-June levels, but with an average of 2,442 rpm on 37 four-seamers, per Statcast, it was up from his previous two outings. More impressive was his velocity: Cole averaged 98.3 mph with his four-seam fastball on Sunday, the highest for any regular-season game during his career.
The spin and velocity combinations on Cole's fastball -- just to pick on one pitch type -- continue a recent trend, one that began this month as the news about baseball's since-implemented enforcement guidelines began to circulate. After Sunday's outing, Cole finished June with an average four-seam velocity of 98 mph, the highest of any month in his career. His average spin rate (2,398 rpm) was his lowest since July 2018.
"Some of the swing-and-miss has been a little missing here the last few outings," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "But that's not everything."
In other words, the underlying metrics beneath Cole's performance are evolving, but that in itself is scant reason for Yankees fans to panic. None of those numbers matter if Cole is pitching winning baseball, and despite the poor bottom-line numbers in June, he really struggled in only two of five outings. The loss in Boston snapped a string of three straight quality starts, each of which saw Cole hold his opponent to two runs allowed.
"The bottom line is he's coming off of two really good starts," Boone said. "Today is going to inflate [his ERA] and really if you look at it, it was one pitch that really got him. A three-run homer can wreck an outing, especially someone of his caliber."
As bad as things seemed at times Sunday, and as much scrutiny as Cole and the Yankees have been under of late, with more than half the season to go, there are still few pitchers in baseball you'd rather have on the mound than Cole. Besides, he has had down months before, and Fenway has never been his favorite locale, as he fell to 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA there over four career outings.
Nevertheless, on a day the Yankees tumbled another rung in the standings, the spotlight on Cole and his teammates is glaring. The sooner he navigates the newer, more highly regulated landscape, the better everyone in the Bronx will feel. No one knows that better than Cole.
"It's a pretty brutal feeling to let the team down like that," Cole said. "Obviously wanted to come out and give us a good chance to win, and wasn't able to do that today."