Going Deep: Gerrit Cole, the Houston Astro

(Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire)

Even after his disappointing season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, members of the baseball community praised the Houston Astros post-World Series trade for Gerrit Cole. For one, they added a 27-year-old, who had already contended for a Cy Young, without sacrificing any of their top-tier prospects. But possibly the main reason why people were so quick to ignore what happened to Cole in 2017 was their belief in Houston’s pitching philosophy and coaching staff.

Last season, the Astros starting pitchers threw a breaking ball 33.3% of the time, the third highest figure in the league. In his career, Cole has never even cracked 30% usage of a breaking pitch. Cole created an identity for himself as a fastball pitcher while in Pittsburgh. Since 2014, Cole’s fastball usage of 64.8% ranks 11th out of 79 pitchers (min. 500 innings). He loves to use his fastballs, but the returns have diminished. The success of his four-seam fastball and sinker have declined steeply since his excellent 2015.

Seasons FF SLG SI SLG
2015 .342 .310
2016 .405 .448
2017 .427 .515

In 2017, Cole’s fastball was, frankly, awful. But people trusted the Astros organization to rework Cole’s pitching and reorient him as not just the straight-shooting fastball pitcher he was on the Pirates. Many pointed to what Houston had done with Justin Verlander. In a Sports Illustrated piece during last year’s playoffs, this was released regarding Verlander:

“The camera showed Verlander the position of his hand on his slider that needed improvement to give it more tilt. Verlander had always thrown his slider in a way that more resembled a cutter. But with the camera’s help, he began to carve off nasty sliders that bore to the back foot of left-handed hitters.”

The article referenced a high-speed camera that was able to break down a pitcher’s release into tons of frames. In a post-season start against the Yankees, Verlander threw 40 sliders, a career-high. Information like that created a belief from the public that the Astros would be able to unlock Cole’s breaking ball stuff. Manager AJ Hinch claiming that the team would “tweak” his pitch usage nearly confirmed what everyone was awaiting.

Sure enough, these beliefs were omnipresent in his first start of the season. Looking at every single one of Cole’s 128 starts in his career, the one on Sunday is possibly his biggest outlier. Here is a plot of his fastball usage vs. his breaking ball usage for every start he has made. His recent one is highlighted in yellow in the top left:

Aside from a May 11th start last season – the point farthest to the left – this is his most obscure. Against the Texas Rangers on Sunday, Cole recorded his third-lowest fastball usage and highest breaking ball usage for any start in his career. The results: 7 innings, 1 ER, 3 BBs, 11 Ks.

Now, everything we’re looking at must be taken with a grain of salt. There are only 102 pitches to draw from with Cole in 2018. The way Cole threw and mapped out his pitches could just be his plan for that individual start. Regardless, there were some stark differences in his pitching approach. Especially concerning left-handed hitters.

Cole has long struggled with lefties, and in his first start in Houston, the Rangers came out and threw five at him. The most notable difference in the way Cole attacked lefties was that he essentially threw out his changeup and displayed an unseen confidence with his breaking pitches against them.

Here’s a look at his changeup use vs LHH:

Seasons First Pitch Two Strikes
2017 18% 23%
Sunday 8% 4%

And his slider use:

Seasons First Pitch Two Strikes
2017 1% 24%
Sunday 0% 39%

Lastly, the curveball use:

Seasons First Pitch Two Strikes
2017 28% 11%
Sunday 46% 13%

Last season, Cole utilized his changeup in all counts against lefties, working it as both a strike getter and a strikeout getter. On Sunday, he showed great confidence with his curveball to steal early strikes and relied on his slider as his wipeout pitch to lefties. Overall, his slider usage to lefties jumped from 9% to 28% and his changeup usage fell to 9% from 27% on Sunday.

Here is Cole getting ahead early against those lefties with great first pitch breakers:

Cole perfectly locates both curveballs right at the knees. Hitters are forced to watch, as Jurickson Profar did, or take a cut and likely fail to do anything with it, as Joey Gallo did. If Cole locates the pitch like that consistently, it could go a long way towards mitigating his lefty problems by consistently getting ahead in counts. Establishing confidence in his devastating slider to punch out lefties wouldn’t hurt either:

Cole possesses a power slider that looks untouchable at times, but he has failed to utilize it consistently against lefties. Getting a feel for the pitch against LHH will result in a lot more situations like the frame above.

I mentioned earlier how Cole used his fastball with one of the fewest frequencies of his career in this start. And it was definitely for the better. That isn’t to say his fastball is not a weapon; he throws it harder than nearly every starter in the league (96.5 mph). It will likely always remain the centerpiece of who Cole is, even with these adjustments away from the pitch. On Sunday, Cole manifested it’s weaponry in a different way than he had in the past.

The lowest zone rate for Cole’s fastball in his career is 55.1%. Last start, he threw just 38.8% of his 53 fastballs in the strike zone. Whether by design or not, he ended the day with a 22.5% swinging strike rate on the day. That’s higher than what his slider recorded. While both the zone rate and whiff rate are unsustainable for a fastball, how impressive the pitch looked cannot be overstated. Cole created a career-high 21 whiffs, and 11 came on the fastball. His strikeouts? 7 of the 11 were on his fastball.

Cole’s velocity enables him to locate with some versatility. Like most power pitchers, he can go upstairs to get whiffs, but he can also keep it down. As he did to Drew Robinson:

Cole was able to whiff hitters all over the strike zone on Sunday. Look at where all the fastball swing and misses came:

 

 

The adjustment towards breaking balls that the baseball community awaited with Cole was there in full force on Sunday. The results that many anticipated would occur with this change were certainly there as well. I want to avoid hyping up a guy after seven innings as much as I can, but what we witnessed from Cole felt wholly different. Even as he sat consistently above 95 mph the last two seasons, his fastball felt strangely lifeless. It’s prudent and smart to not put too much weight into this start, but the way Cole looked makes that quite difficult. A much larger sample will be required to make a determination, but if utilizing his breaking balls more often revives the 2015 devastation of Cole’s fastball…trouble could be brewing for the AL West and American League.

Henry Still

Henry is from Houston and has contributed to the Fangraphs Community.

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Comments


Stephen

I find pitch usage always interesting. If we didn’t know Cole’s history (obviously we do) we may look at the dominant fastball and possibly think he should throw it more. It seems like the new sequencing/usage make it much more effective, but in general this is such a delicate balance. Personally, I think being predictable at all is the worst thing you can do, if you can locate your offspeeds there should never be an obvious “fastball” count.

Tommy

I’m from Pittsburgh and a big pirates fan. Just wait a couple of starts then we will see if you still fill the same. We waited for him to get here from the minors with anticipation to only watch every team catch up to his fastball hoping he would develope another pitch (he didn’t)

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