What’s behind Gerrit Cole’s slow start in pinstripes?

The incomparable Mike Axisa stole my thunder a bit in today’s RAB Patreon post (worth every penny), but it’s worth discussing here too: it seems that much of Gerrit Cole’s hard contact problems this season stems from his inability to throw anything except his fastball in the strike zone. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. First, from last night:

Cole has no issue pounding the zone with fastballs, but when it comes to his breaking ball or changeup, it’s a whole different story. As Mike wrote, it’s a lot easier for a hitter to sit and crush fastballs with the knowledge that it’s the only offering Cole’s locating. Just look at the numbers against his fastball this season vs. last:

Metric20192020
Exit Velo90.192.6
Barrel %8.111.3
Hard Hit %40.051.3
Whiff %37.625.2
xSLG.321.575
xwOBA.248.366

Cole’s got a great fastball, but big league hitters don’t miss if they can pretty much sit on it.

Now, about the locations on his secondary pitches. Zone percentage tells us just part of the story — now let’s see where he’s missing. First, here’s where he located all of his pitches last year:

2019

Fastballs over the heart of the plate paired with a slider and curve that he can throw for a strike and get batters to chase. The changeup location is pretty damn good too. Alright, how about this season?

2020

The fastball is more or less in the same spot, if not even more elevated and out of the heart of the zone. But the curve and slider? Far more often than that, it’s falling out of the zone. His changeup, which appeared to be his most effective pitch yesterday, has been a little more middle-middle this season although it hasn’t really burned him (batters are 1-for-6 against it with a requisite homer).

So the answer is simple: throw more strikes with the curve and slider, right? Just like this:

Ah, if only it was that easy. Why Cole is having a hard time throwing stirkes with his secondary pitches is a mystery for you and me, but often times, it comes down to feel. Cole’s curveball, for instance, is of the knuckle-curve variety. That’s a somewhat unusual curveball grip that I have to imagine is not easy to throw all the time. Especially if the ball changed from year-to-year. Remember how Masahiro Tanaka struggled with his splitter grip last year?

If it’s not feel, perhaps it’s mechanics (or both). I’m no pitching guru, so the best I can offer is a look at his release points. If there’s a noticeable difference there, perhaps there’s something awry mechanically. To Brooks Baseball we go:

There’s a noticeable drop in the height of Cole’s release point compared to last season. So, it seems possible that something mechanical could be going on here. I also wonder if this change in release could be affecting the movement on his pitches. See below:

Pitch Vertical Movement (inches of drop)20192020
Fastball10.911.8
Slider31.831.3
Curveball55.651.0
Changeup22.924.9
Pitch Horizontal Movement (inches)20192020
Fastball11.412.4
Slider4.95.1
Curveball11.79.9
Changeup15.315.3

So, there seems to be a correlation on some of his pitches. The slider looks about the same, but his curveball has lost a decent amount of vertical and horizontal movement. Meanwhile, his fastball is dropping roughly an inch more and has an additional inch of armside run.

I’m not sure what to make of the curveball movement, but I think the fastball movement change is notable. A drop in release point is quite possibly the culprit for this movement increase, but more drop and armside run isn’t necessarily a good thing for someone like Cole. He thrives on a high-spin fastball that gives the appearance of rising, which it’s doing less so this season. Additionally, more armside run could make it more likely to leak out over the heart of the plate, especially if he’s trying to go inside on lefties.

All of this analysis isn’t to say we should be worried about Cole. Is it annoying to watch him get rocked? Of course. But he’s still got stellar strikeout (31.9 percent) and walk (6.4 percent) rates and his fastball velocity (96.5 MPH) hasn’t gone anywhere. Instead of worrying, let’s be patient.

On the bright side, maybe yesterday was a step in the right direction? As odd as it sounds, he did throw his slider and changeup in the zone more frequently. See below:

Cole’s next start comes against Baltimore, which should be a team he can feast on. This season hasn’t gotten off to an ideal start for him, but then again, what’s been ideal for anyone in 2020? I know we’re all expecting instant gratification from him, but even the best need to work out the kinks from time to time. Cole will be just fine.

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1 Comment

  1. MikeD

    Interesting read, as was Mike’s. As I conjectured on Mike A’s blog, this could be a slight hangover from his heavy workload and pitching deep in to last year’s postseason. For whatever reason, it’s not uncommon for pitchers to have some command issues throughout the following season. His velocity is fine, spin rates good; it seems command related. Also, he had a 2.75 ERA as recently as last week when the big story around Cole was him being PO’d about being taken out of a game. If there is a concern, it’s related to familiarity, which relates to your point about perhaps release points. Is it mechanics? The Yankee coaches and catchers haven’t worked with Cole prior. If there’s a slight mechanical adjustment required, his prior team–the Astros–might have picked it up by now. Or, simply, maybe this is a version of SSS theater. Through his first 11 starts of 2019, he was 4-5 with a 4.11 ERA and had given up 11 HRs. He’s only at 8 starts this year. He had a 4.17 ERA after 8 starts last year. Toss in last year’s workload and the short summer camp, and this is not a great concern as recent history shows, as long as they can correct it in short order. Cole taking off on a 2019 run post game 11 would serve the Yankees well heading into the postseason.

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