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The Yankees might have found themselves another relief ace

The Nationals cut bait with A.J. Cole fairly quickly after a rough start, giving the Yankees another possible relief stud.

New York Yankees v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Yankees are a good baseball team. The bullpen isolated by itself is even better. Heading into the season, they were stacked with arms like Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Adam Warren, Chad Green, and so on. Most of those relievers are playing to their expectations or have exceeded them. There’s even been some under-the-radar contributors such as Jonathan Holder and Domingo German.

With loads of talent and depth, the Yankees have easily been one of the best bullpens in baseball as supported by their ranks.

  • ERA: 3rd
  • FIP: 2nd
  • xFIP: 2nd
  • SIERA: 2nd
  • K%: 1st
  • SwStr%: 1st
  • fWAR: 1st

Collectively, the Yankees bullpen has been worth six wins, far and way the best in Major League Baseball this year. This paces them for 11.6 WAR as a group. In the history of baseball dating back to 1901, the highest bullpen WAR by a team ever was the 2003 Dodgers at 9.6. This Yankees bullpen is on pace to blow them out of the water. They are also on pace to beat out the 2017 Yankees for the highest K% by a bullpen in baseball history. This is an historically great group.

And guess what? They might have just added another piece. Back on April 20th, the Nationals DFA’d one of their starters in A.J. Cole. This came after a decent performance in spring training that won the Nationals fifth starter job. None of that success carried over into the regular season though, as after two uninspiring starts (3.2 IP, 10 ER vs ATL and 5.1 IP, 2 ER vs ATL) he was sent to the bullpen, where he also struggled (3 ER in 1.1 IP across two appearances). The Nationals had now given up on him and following his DFA, he was traded to the Yankees for cash.

Cole isn’t a name that came out of nowhere though. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of high school by the Nationals, Cole had a good showing in his first full year in the minors and was later dealt to the Athletics in the Gio Gonzalez trade. After a season and a half in their organization, he returned to the Nationals in a three team trade that was headlined by Michael Morse. It was there that he further cemented his status as a prospect, routinely showing up on top 100 lists, including four appearances on MLB Pipeline’s list.

That same success in the minors (3.94 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9) hadn’t shown up at all with four separate season stints in the majors with the Nationals (4.76 ERA, 8.7 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.7 HR/9). The Nationals had thought they’d seen enough from him in 124.2 innings and decided to cut bait with him. The Yankees were intrigued and took a risk-free chance, finding a spot for him in their already stacked bullpen.

The sample size for Cole with the Yankees isn’t too large (eight relief appearances, 14.2 innings), but he has made some pretty noticeable changes with very good results so far. Since Cole went to the Yankees, here’s some of his ranks among 223 relievers with as many innings pitched as him.

  • 0.61 ERA: 2nd
  • 2.63 FIP: 46th
  • 2.97 xFIP: 30th
  • 23.6% K-BB%: 31st
  • 23.3% Hard-Hit%: 16th

Certainly not elite, but definitely very solid. The first question that comes to mind is what changed. To start off, his pitch usage has changed a bunch.

A.J. Cole Pitch Usage By Team

Team Four-Seamer Sinker Changeup Slider Curveball
Team Four-Seamer Sinker Changeup Slider Curveball
Nationals 26.8% 17.3% 6.7% 27.9% 21.2%
Yankees 22.7% 12.6% 2.1% 42.4% 20.2%
2018 FanGraphs

The results on his three main pitches are much better.

A.J. Cole Pitch Results

Team Four-Seamer Sinker Slider
Team Four-Seamer Sinker Slider
Nationals 0.702 0.862 0.341
Yankees 0.350 0.139 0.152
2018 FanGraphs

What also really stands out is the added velocity.

What I believe is carrying Cole’s success is the slider. In his time with the Yankees, the release point has little variance compared to his early games with the Nationals. Getting a better feel for his slider and finding more velocity in it has done wonders for him, as the SwStr% on the pitch is up from 6.4 percent with the Nationals to 21 percent with the Yankees. A lot of this can explain the strikeout surge.

With all of this success in a small sample size, A.J. Cole is still at the bottom of the Yankees bullpen depth chart. If he can continue this success throughout the duration of the season, he might present the team with another weapon in the playoffs. I guess you could call this the rich getting richer.