As many FanGraphs readers know, David Cone is more than a former All-Star pitcher and current color commentator for the New York Yankees. He is also a stat-head. The borderline Hall of Famer — he ranks 50th all-time in pitcher WAR — has shown a willingness to introduce sabermetric concepts to the listening audience. Cone talked about his appreciation for advanced metrics, and his evolution as a pitcher over 17 seasons, during a late-summer visit to Fenway Park.
David Cone: “I was fairly far along as a pitcher when I started out — that was in 1986, with the Royals — because I had several years in the minor leagues and a couple of years of winter ball. Going to Puerto Rico for two years really helped me as far as my overall command and style. I then evolved more at the big-league level, as far as secondary pitches.
“I really learned how to pitch later in my career, when I lost a little velocity and my skills and my arm speed started to diminish a little bit. I continued to evolve in terms of arm angles and different grips. Early on, I relied more on power. My first few years with the Mets, I was probably more of a thrower than a pitcher. I spent six years with Mets and six with the Yankees, and I’d say that my Yankees years were more my pitching years, and my Mets years were more my strikeout-power years. In between, I had the shorter stints with the Royals — my second time with them — and Blue Jays.
“Early on, I was a fastball-slider guy. I threw a four-seam fastball for the most part. I threw an occasional curve. Later, with the Mets, I developed a splitter. Ron Darling had a good splitter and I watched him. It took me probably three or four years to really develop a good feel for it.
“We didn’t have nearly as much data when I pitched. I think it would have helped me. I would have loved to have seen the hitters’ tendencies, as well as data on my own pitches. I’d have liked data on which hitters were more selective, and which hitters chased out of the zone more. And if they did, which pitches did they chase?
“Earlier this year I looked up some data on Ben Zobrist. This was back when he was struggling, but was still getting his share of walks. His on-base percentage was still decent. I broke down the individual counts, like how many 2-0 and 3-1 counts he saw. He’d seen more than anybody else in the league at that point, but he also swung less than anybody else on those counts. Knowing that type of tendency would have been helpful to me when I pitched.
“I know that the Yankees have an extensive database. Brian Cashman and Billy Eppler — his right-hand man — are into all kinds of data. Joe Girardi is as well.
“Some players get overloaded with data. There’s a balance there, especially as a pitcher. If you become too oriented toward hitters’ weaknesses instead of your own strengths, you can get into a defensive mode and end up pitching defensively instead of aggressively. Data is good, but you need that balance.
“When I think back to some of my old teammates, Ron Darling would have been really good with a lot of data. Bobby Ojeda is another. Jack McDowell would likely have been interested in having it. Other guys wouldn’t have. An example might be Sid Fernandez, who had some remarkable numbers. He was one of the toughest pitchers to hit in the game.
“Sid didn’t throw with great velocity, but he had great movement. He had a four-seam fastball that had a lot of life up in the strike zone. He got a lot of swings and misses with it, and he also had a big, slow curveball that he threw in the upper 60s. He had a really wide differential between his fastball velocity and his curveball velocity. He was a guy who didn’t want to shake off pitches. He wanted Gary Carter to call the game and he would focus entirely on execution. He was like a skeet shooter or a sniper, just focusing on the target and not wanting to be clouded with anything else. Trying to disseminate a lot of information would probably have just dragged him down.
“Bret Saberhagen, conversely, is another guy who would have been good with a lot of information. I guess it comes down to who can handle information and who can’t. Some can use it to their advantage, while others would get jammed up.
“I think I would have been interested in data as a young pitcher, but more so later in my career. More recently, I’ve gotten into mounds of information. I’ve looked at a lot of different things, simply trying to quantify my own career. But even when I was playing, I was a big fan of numbers. In a couple of arbitration cases, we used some advanced metrics to did a little deeper. They were very effective. I won a couple of arbitration cases, because my agent, Steve Fehr, was very progressive. This was in the early 1990s.
“There were a couple of years where my record was around .500, but I didn’t get a lot of run support. I was 14-14 one year and thought I’d pitched better than my record. I had to prove it, because most of the general managers back then just kind of looked at batting averages, RBIs and won-lost records. It would be, ‘Well, you didn’t win 20.’
“I was happy to see Zack Greinke win the Cy Young award. The same goes for Felix Hernandez when he won it. There have been major breakthroughs. It’s great to see so many baseball writers buying into it, and how that affects the voting. It would be interesting to go back and have a re-vote on certain years.
“When I started looking deeper into my own career, I thought 1993 was interesting. Jack McDowell was with the White Sox and I was with the Royals. He won the Cy Young award and I went 11-14 with the lowest run support in the league. I was in the top 10 in innings pitched and ERA. Some of my other metrics were good as well, including strikeouts. If you look at the two lines — Jack McDowell’s numbers and my numbers — you’d have a hard time picking out which one of us won the Cy Young award.
“The year I did win [the Cy Young award], I think I deserved it based on the numbers. Overall, it was one of my best years, even though I may have had other years that would rate higher in terms of WAR. I know that Jimmy Key had a good year. It was a strike-shortened season, so it was kind of a quirky year.
“Won-lost records, or even ERA, don’t tell the whole story, and I guess that’s the idea behind a lot of the metrics. There’s just so much more, but for a lot of years, that’s solely how we were judged. It was also how we were compensated. I’ve always thought there was a better way to judge — a better way to look at things — and I think a lot of pitchers have felt that way.
“When you look at Felix Hernandez getting the Cy Young in a year he won 13 games, the writers have come a long way. There’s a lot more thought going into it, which is really nice to see, A lot more writers are on board with advanced stats, and them having votes is changing the system.”