The Blue Jays are quietly improving their bullpen and the addition of AJ Cole is an example of that
On Monday afternoon, the Blue Jays announced the signing of reliever A.J. Cole to a minor-league deal, their first free agent addition of the off-season. While this isn’t the sort of deal intended to dramatically alter the Blue Jays’ competitiveness next season, it is a solid deal nevertheless.
As every Jays fan should now by this point of the rebuild, there is no such thing as a bad minor league deal. The player either ends up performing better than expected (Eric Sogard, Tyler Clippard and John Axford) or they don’t and have no impact on the team’s financial flexibility going forward. In Cole’s case, there are some clear reasons to view him as a strong candidate for a major league bullpen role in 2020, in spite of his lack of a guaranteed contract.
Cole was drafted (in 2010) and developed as a starting pitcher. He progressed through the Nationals system, arriving at Triple-A in 2014, in his age-22 season. He ended up remaining at the level for four seasons, making 70 starts (386.2 IP) and producing a 4.21 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 18.8% strikeout rate, 7.3% walk rate and 0.95 HR/9.
From 2015 to 2017, he made a handful of appearances for the Nats, starting 17 games (4.95 FIP) and coming in from the ‘pen five times (4.01 FIP). Given the chance to sink or swim to start the 2018 season, Cole sank (10.52 FIP in two starts and two relief appearances with the Nats) and was traded to the Yankees for cash.
With the Yankees, Cole was moved to a more permanent bullpen role. His performance as a Yankee reliever was a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, he struck out 29.2% of the batters he faced (well above average) and walked 9.5% of them (average). On the other hand, he gave up 2.13 HR/9 (much, much worse than average). Moreover, he wasn’t trusted in many meaningful situations, facing 138 batters (out of 168 overall) in low-leverage situations (82%).
He was waived by the Yankees in January, claimed by Cleveland, designated for assignment by Cleveland in February and, after going unclaimed, subsequently sent to Cleveland’s Triple-A team. Over 13 Triple-A relief appearances (17 IP), Cole brought it, striking out 33.3% against a walk rate of 7.9%. While he gave up 1.06 HR/9, the mark was actually a bit lower than the International League average in 2019 (1.30). He was also missing bats (14.4% whiff rate) with far more regularity than he had over his prior Triple-A career (10%).
Given his effectiveness, he was called up to Cleveland on May 11, where he pitched until an early August shoulder injury ended his season. Over 25 appearances (26 IP), Cole struck out more batters than average (25.4% K rate), walked fewer than average (6.8% BB rate) and gave up homers as often as the average big league reliever did in 2019 (1.38 HR/9). Unsurprisingly, given those strong underlying stats, Cole produced a solid FIP (3.83) last season.
While Cole’s FIP was strong, his xFIP (4.81) was a bit worse, reflecting his relatively high fly ball rate (50%). That said, in general, the fly balls he conceded weren’t terribly dangerous. For one thing, his barrel rate (3.4%) was better than last season’s reliever average (4.7%). Moreover, his xwOBA on fly balls was a minuscule .308, a mark that ranked 36th among 256 relievers who conceded at least 10 fly balls from May 11 to August 7 (the extent of his 2019 season, between call-up and injury). These pieces of evidence suggest his FIP is likely more reflective of his performance than his xFIP.
Looking at the contact he allowed more generally, his .346 xwOBACON was strong, ranking 81st among 229 relievers (min. 50 batted balls from May 11 to August 7). My eyes light up whenever I see a pitcher strike out, walk and give up contact at rates that are each better than average. Put it all together and you have Cole’s .281 xwOBA, a mark that ranked 49th among 181 relievers (min. 100 batters faced from May 11 to August 7).
Another contact-related point to make has to do with Cole’s very high .355 BABIP. In contrast, based on the quality of contact he gave up, his xBABIP is a much more normal .300. Indeed, the gap between his BABIP and xBABIP was the 15th-largest among 218 relievers (min. 50 batted balls from May 11 to August 7), suggesting he gave up a lot more base hits than expected given the contact he allowed.
Cole successfully carried over his bat-missing skills from Triple-A, generating a 13.9% whiff rate in the majors. Among 200 relievers who pitched at least 20 innings from May 11 to August 7, Cole ranked 45th.
He was also relied upon in meaningful spots by Cleveland to a greater extent than he had been by the Yankees in 2018. In comparison to 2018, when 82% of his the batters he faced were in low-leverage situations, only 59% of his 2019 appearances meant little.
Let’s shift from his performance to his pitches. When Cole was first breaking into the majors, he threw his four-seamer more than half the time. However, since he was used as a starter then, he averaged only 92.5 mph. This season, he once again used his four-seamer about half of the time, but was able to let loose as a reliever, throwing it at an average speed of 94.7 mph. Moreover, he puts some decent spin on his heater—2406 rpm in 2019, ranking 26th among 94 relievers who threw at least 200 four-seamers from May 11 to August 7.
There may in fact be a connection between Cole’s high fastball spin rate and newfound bat-missing skills: the high spin rate on his fastball is relatively new as well. Over the 2015, 2016 and 2018 seasons, Cole threw about the same number of four-seamers as a major league reliever (280) that he did in 2019 (216). However, before 2019, his four-seamer had an average spin rate of only 2167 rpm. A high spin rate results in fastballs with more ride, which are more likely to generate whiffs.
Two big question marks exist with Cole.
One, how is his recovery going? He ended the season on the 60-day IL with a right shoulder impingement. My assumption is that the Jays signing him suggests they are comfortable where his health is now and where it’s expected to be by Spring.
Two, can he replicate his 2019 performance over the course of a full season? We shall see. He faced 118 batters last season, striking out 25.4% and walking 6.8%, good for a K-BB% of 18.6%—that mark ranked 87th among 335 relievers who pitched at least 20 innings between May 11 and August 7.
The “stabilization point” for strikeout rates is 70 batters and 120 for walk rates. That means that past those thresholds, you can feel reasonably confident that the pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates accurately reflected his quality over that stretch. That doesn’t mean he’ll continue to produce better-than-average rates going forward, but it does mean he probably earned those solid marks last season, and is worth betting on for 2020.
One final plus is his contract status. As per Spotrac, if Cole sticks with the Jays, he has two arbitration years left after 2020, giving the team some solid medium-term upside.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.