I’m excited for baseball to be back, but that excitement is uncomfortably packed, like a bunch of Jasson Dominguez-sized people trying to squeeze into a tiny Hyundai Sonata for a cross-country road trip. I started thinking, what specifically is really exciting about baseball right now? And then a smile came to my face. I thought of old Carson Cistulli podcasts at FanGraphs, from before he turned into a Blue Jay. He used to pose a question to Dave Cameron, before he turned into a Padre: “What in baseball is like ________________?”
The blank could be anything. Today, we answer this: what in baseball is like a candy store, bringing forth sugary joy, perhaps some jitters, and, generally speaking, a whole lot of fun?
Gerrit Cole. Gerrit Cole being baseball’s best pitcher. Gerrit Cole having signed with, and, at publishing, nearly debuting for baseball’s biggest team. Gerrit Cole spinning his arsenal in such a way that makes you grin like a kid in a candy store.
No one needs a reminder that Gerrit Cole is the best pitcher in baseball. He’s not going to make a tweak that unlocks some new level like the last time he moved between teams. He’s a set-it-and-forget-it ace now. But it has been a while since we’ve actually been able to process what that means and how it looks.
Let’s go on a trip, using the chart below as a Willy Wonka-like guide.
|Pitch||Percent Thrown||Whiff Percentage||League Avg Whiff Percentage|
The Four-Seamer, Reese’s Cups
Cole’s four-seamer is a powerhouse and possibly the meanest pitch in all of baseball. Like a Reese’s, you aren’t turning it down. Our Wonka chart above tells us that it generated nearly twice as many whiffs as the average heater hitters would otherwise see. The data point is stark, but the other thing we have to remember in this context is what the league-average fastball looks like. In 2019, it came in at 93.6 mph. Cole’s was 97.4, a career-best. Of guys who threw at least 250 pitches last year — so, basically every pitcher who played at least a couple weeks — only four guys had more active spin on their fastball, meaning nearly all the spin was contributing to its movement and kept gravity from pulling it down and into a hitter’s happy zone. Only one of them was a starter (Justin Verlander). Cole’s fastball “rose” three more inches than the league average and had 3.6 inches more run. And he used it to challenge anyone and everyone.
Notice how Yelich walks away like he just got turned down at the bar? Can’t even be mad at that thing! What’s a hitter supposed to do with it?
Nothing, really. Hitters only took the pitch yard 17 times last year, despite Cole throwing it more than 1,700 times. No one generated more strikeouts with their fastball than he did. It’s a legit snack. How efficient and overpowering Cole can keep it will be something to witness. Guys don’t generally add velocity at this point in their careers, but Cole also isn’t just a regular dude.
The Slider, Lemonheads
If Cole’s four-seamer is a classic powerhouse like Reese’s, then his slider is like a lemonhead. It’s zippy and likely makes batters pucker after seeing it. The thing about Cole’s slider is — like his fastball — it became better than ever in 2019. He tightened up the movement on it by adding an additional inch of drop while minimizing its side-to-side break, helping it act like a scythe that could slice in, out, up, or down through the zone. He also threw it more than five mph harder than the average pitcher. Here it is cutting up Marcus Semien:
The thing about getting Semien to swing like this is that Semien had his own career year last season, and he did it by swinging a lot less and chasing a lot less than he ever had. This is a 3-2 pitch that breaks away, just out of the zone, to a guy who had been locked in like he’d just gotten Lasik all year. Semien was helpless.
Of note in regard to Cole’s slider usage is how closely it is in line with how often Yankee pitchers have employed the pitch in the last three years: 24.2% in 2017, 21.7% in 2018, and 21.2% in 2019. These kinds of trends depend on which pitchers make the roster and what pitches they actually throw, but over time they can show an organizational philosophy. In particular, it’s a smidge more than Astros pitchers threw sliders, and it’ll be worth watching to see if Cole leans into the offering a little more in New York, especially if he can continue putting guys away with it at the same rate.
The Curveball, Twix
In 2019, Cole’s curveball featured more depth than ever, as he added two inches of drop and tightened it up so it spit out less to the arm side. Sometimes, like a Twix that sat on the shelf too long, it wasn’t great. The thing about it, though, is that he still demonstrated an ability to drop it at the bottom of the zone, or below it, and baffled guys. It’s still a Twix. And that’s the point, if you didn’t notice the trend yet — it’s not just that he has the stuff, it’s that he knows exactly what he wants to do with it. Like this one he spun at Austin Meadows:
Meadows finished 2019 having swung at the 14th-fewest pitches among qualifiers. You just about had to twist his arm to get him to swing. But here Cole drops a hammer right at the bottom of the zone and gets Meadows to stumble out of the box. In addition to this version of the curve, he can also manipulate it to be more of a riding wave than a crashing one, like a slower, bendier version of his slider.
Like everything else, Cole throws his curve harder than the rest of the league — three miles harder on average. Its movement is also still a tick above average, too. If you’re counting along, that’s three pitches he throws more than 15% each that are harder and move more than ordinary.
The Changeup, Gobstoppers
As his fourth offering, Cole’s changeup is like a gobstopper in that you never quite know what flavor will show up next, but you know you’re looking forward to it.
By just vertical movement, you wouldn’t think it’s anything special, registering 281st of 290 pitchers who got at least 25 whiffs in 2019 with their changeup. But here’s the thing about changeups — you have to assess them off of a pitcher’s fastball, and we already know Cole’s is dynamic. The rise on that pitch, plus the reduced arm-side run, make the drop and fade on his changeup extremely useful, especially as a weapon against lefties.
The pitch comes in about nine miles slower than his fastball, which is a velo sweet spot for changeups compared to their fastball partner. That said, it’s still also about four mph harder than batters might expect from another pitcher. Just watch how it made Shin-Soo Choo chase:
Choo has regularly posted some of the lowest chase rates in MLB for a decade, and Cole sends him packing with a changeup that was never even near the zone.
Cole also throws the occasional, perhaps even accidental, two-seamer. They totaled just 2.4% of his pitches in 2019, making them those weird Hershey’s Kisses with almonds in them you don’t pick up again once you get that awkward crunch in the first one. We won’t really spend time on this.
To beat Gerrit Cole almost seems to mean Gerrit Cole needs to beat himself by throwing a mistake. We already knew he was a bona fide ace, but hopefully taking the time to appreciate his sweet assortment of plus pitches helps get you jacked up for some baseball. Good luck, Nationals.
Welcome back, everyone.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)