Gerrit Cole vs. Aaron Nola: Who You Got?

Did you know some people don’t like to be referred to as a “Twitter person.” On that note, Twitter person Bradley Newman created a poll asking the wild reaches of the baseballverse to choose Gerrit Cole or Aaron Nola for 2019. The poll received considerable attention thanks to an assist from Paul Sporer and Justin Mason. The results, you’ll see in a moment, are shocking.

Or maybe not. Are you not shocked? Explain yourself! Paul and I are shocked. It doesn’t make sense. Over 70 percent of the electorate prefers Nola. My gut reaction was sample bias. It takes willful effort to look at the data and come away preferring Nola. Let’s start with some really basic numbers.

Aaron Nola 2016-2018 Roto Stats
Stat 2016 2017 2018 Total Rates
IP 111 168 212.1 491.1 163.7 IP
W 6 12 17 35 11.67 W
K 121 184 224 529 9.69 K/9
ER 59 66 56 181 3.32 ERA
BB+H 145 203 206 554 1.13 WHIP
Gerrit Cole 2016-2018 Roto Stats
Stat 2016 2017 2018 Totals Rates
IP 116 203 200.1 519.1 173 IP
W 7 12 15 34 11.33 W
K 98 196 276 570 9.88 K/9
R 50 96 64 210 3.64 ERA
BB+H 167 254 206 627 1.21 WHIP

Just based on these figures, I could see preferring Nola. Or Cole. They’re the same asset class. Let’s keep going.

It’s true that Cole was just a guy prior to 2018. And we shouldn’t only consider last season. That’s silly. It goes against the founding of FanGraphs when David Appelman strode out of the corn field and bestowed the Data Tables upon David Cameron while Tom Tango and James Earl Jones nodded sagely in the background. However, it’s also pretty fair to say that Cole made some very sustainable looking changes last year. I think it’s very safe to say a normal projection method will dramatically undervalue Cole.

Nola has only improved since reaching the majors. He feels safe and cozy. Surely, he’ll continue to improve. Anything could happen with Cole. He could turn pumpkin. He throws so hard. He’s an injury risk. Undoubtedly, these are some of the self-justifications used by those who chose Nola over Cole. Of course, Nola has dealt with forearm issues in recent years – a common precursor to UCL replacement. Both pitchers should be considered to have near identical chance to land on the disabled list and/or suffer a debilitating injury.

Fan Reactions

Let’s talk about some of the theories and justifications people used to explain why Nola received such a large part of the vote. These fell into a few general buckets:

  • Age
  • Perceived consistency/stability
  • Perceived health
  • League

Although it’s true Nola is two years younger than Cole, we’re talking about a 26-year-old and a 28-year-old. For the purposes of looking only at 2019 expectations, age is irrelevant here.

Nola certainly gets a point in his favor for consistency given that Cole’s in the conversation due to a breakout while Nola has merely made modest improvements year-to-year – like how all players do in video games. We’re schooled to “trust” this form of growth more. As for health, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest we should worry about one of these guys more than the other. They’re pitchers. Injuries are common.

Lastly, pitchers do benefit from working in the National League. However, they also benefit from things like run support, defense, home park, and division rivals. The net benefits of playing for the Astros probably outstrip Nola’s NL-bonus. At the very least, these are offsetting factors.

The Finish Line

Let’s really hammer this home with some quick analysis of both players. As I mentioned, 2018 Cole was a new man. He discarded a poorly performing sinker and amped up his curve ball use. Both pitches featured improved spin rate, making Cole a right-handed Rich Hill wannabe who also throws 96 mph. And has a good slider. All of which is to say he became an ultra-rich man’s Rich Hill. Among qualified pitchers, Cole posted the seventh highest swinging strike rate (14.1% SwStr%), the highest K/9 (12.40 K/9), the fourth best K%-BB% (26.5%), and for good measure, the 14th lowest hard contact rate. Incidentally, the low hard contact rate is something he’s accomplished throughout his entire career.

Cole is projected by Steamer to post 14 wins, 235 strikeouts, a 3.47 ERA, and a 1.13 WHIP. Don’t forget, Steamer doesn’t know anything about the change in pitch usage or spin rates. This is a pessimistic projection.

By comparison, Nola is a classic command artist. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he’s able to mix four offerings in such as way as to keep hitters woefully off balance. You thought Cole prevented hard contact? Nola ranked second best with only one quarter of hits labelled as “hard.” That’s great for his bandbox home park, as is his 50 percent ground ball rate. His 9.49 K/9 was right in line with his career rates and rank a decent 17th best among qualified starters. His 12th-ranked 12.4 percent swinging strike rate offers some room for optimism, but only if he consciously decides to chase more strikeouts. Efficiency over punch outs seems to be his style of choice.

Where he lets down fantasy owners is with his strikeout rate. Steamer projects just 12 wins, 210 strikeouts, a 3.59 ERA, and a 1.20 WHIP. These numbers are all worse than Cole’s projection. And in this case, Steamer is playing with all the information. While I’ll certainly bid the under on this projection, I’m not doing so as aggressively as I will for Cole.

Parting Shots

Well then, it’s time to say goodbye for the day. For all this noise, I’ll leave you with this – there’s a pretty good chance Nola will outperform Cole in 2019. This is how things work around here. We deal in probabilities. Cole is more likely to be the better pitcher. If I were cleverer, I could put some numbers to it. Instead, I’ll share the wild ass guess I suggested on Twitter – I figure there may be something like a 60 percent chance Cole is the better pitcher +/- 15.

Yes, a huge margin of error. These pitchers are in the same asset class. If you’re forced to choose between Cole and Nola and pick the latter, you probably didn’t ruin your season – at least not for any preventable reasons. Injury doesn’t count in this case because the risk is roughly equal. Yet, there is something to be said for picking the marginally better bet time after time after time. And in this case, only the softest, squishiest arguments can be said to favor Nola.

We hoped you liked reading Gerrit Cole vs. Aaron Nola: Who You Got? by Brad Johnson!

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Geez that poll is brutal. 70/30 for Nola?

I’m taking the guy with the 34% k rate and 14% swstk rate every time.