Cole Ragans, Highly and Appropriately Hyped

Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not the first member of the Cole Ragans fan club – that’d be Nick Pollack. I’m not an early member – hi Eno and Esteban. The cat is out of the bag: A scout called Ragans “left-handed deGrom” in a recent Jeff Passan roundup. The Royals’ left-hander looks like an absolute terror on the mound.

So I’m not going to try to convince you that Ragans is good. Those other articles have surely done a good enough job of doing that. I’m also not going to try to convince you that he’s a left-handed version of the best inning-for-inning pitcher of the 21st century. But I do want to take a quick look at how he’s continuing to change his arsenal, and how some of his old skills could help him keep his tremendous run of form going in 2024.

The reason Ragans has drawn such flashy comparisons likely starts with his fastball. As Passan noted, he averaged 99.2 mph in his first start of spring. Statcast didn’t track it, but I was able to capture some of it by watching the broadcast. There was no radar gun, but the announcers frequently mentioned his velocity and never said a number lower than 98. It certainly looked pretty sharp when he blew it past Mike Trout:

The best I can do for matching the data is looking at Ragans’s fastest fastballs from last year, and to throw a bit of cold water on an outrageous comp, Ragans’s fastball shape isn’t exactly otherworldly. He throws incredibly hard, but he isn’t inducing the kind of ride that makes deGrom’s fastball so ridiculous. Ragans threw 97 fastballs clocked at 98 mph or harder last year, averaging 98.7 on them. He induced 16 inches of vertical break on those pitches, per Statcast. By comparison, deGrom averaged 99.1 mph on his 98-or-harder fastballs, but induced an extra 1.5 inches of vertical break.

Put another way, 45 pitchers threw 75 or more fastballs at 98-plus mph last year. Ragans ranked 26th in induced vertical break, more or less average in that elite group. His fastball looked a lot like Luis Medina’s and Tanner Scott’s versions of the pitch when it came to vertical break.

That’s only vertical break, though. Ragans generates an ungodly amount of spin on his fastball, and he harnesses it quite effectively, as well. Out of that same cohort, Ragans generated the third-most horizontal movement thanks to the fourth-highest spin rate. In terms of total movement, Ragans’ hardest fastballs were third in baseball, behind only Félix Bautista and Ryne Stanek and just ahead of Eury Pérez. This is absolutely elite company, even if the shape is a bit strange.

In other words, Ragans might not have the best fastball yet, but he has the raw tools to improve it, even if that isn’t that necessary. Eli Ben-Porat’s recent research suggests that fastball shape matters less than location when you’re touching 100. But a shape change would undoubtedly be helpful. For all the drooling over his fastball, opponents did a passable job putting it in play and doing damage. By our pitch values, it was his fourth most effective pitch, even if you isolate only his time on the Royals. Baseball Savant’s version of run values agrees; the only worse pitch he threw was his curveball, his least-used offering and one I think he’ll likely shelve as he gets more comfortable with his slider/cutter combination.

About that: Lance Brozdowski broke down how Ragans split his hard breaking ball into two options, one a low-90’s cutter and the other an upper-80’s gyro slider. I haven’t seen any definitive velocity readings on his slider this spring, but his cutter looks to be a few ticks faster in 2024, which suggests the slider will be as well. That slider is the real key to Ragans’ success.

Seriously, this is just unhittable:

Gyro sliders like this one (less than an inch of gloveside movement and a smidge of ride) play well against all hitters. They’re not usually so devastating, though. Sweepers have gotten a lot of hype lately, but you don’t have to make your pitch sweep to miss bats. Here are the sliders that induced swings-and-misses most frequently last year:

Best Slider SwStr%
Player Sliders SwStr%
Spencer Strider 1,048 29.2%
Giovanny Gallegos 409 28.9%
Jacob deGrom 167 28.7%
Dominic Leone 265 27.5%
Ryan Helsley 223 26.9%
Gregory Soto 377 25.7%
Cole Ragans 164 25.6%
Andrew Chafin 323 25.4%
Camilo Doval 412 25.2%
Josh Hader 242 25.2%

The only people hitting these numbers are relievers with elite breaking balls and the very best starters in the game. I mean, what more can you say? You could say this:

Best Slider SwStr%… and Usage
Player Sliders SwStr% Slider Usage%
Spencer Strider 1,048 29.2% 33.8%
Giovanny Gallegos 409 28.9% 46.3%
Jacob deGrom 167 28.7% 37.0%
Dominic Leone 265 27.5% 29.9%
Ryan Helsley 223 26.9% 36.7%
Gregory Soto 377 25.7% 39.0%
Cole Ragans 164 25.6% 14.0%*
Andrew Chafin 323 25.4% 35.1%
Camilo Doval 412 25.2% 36.2%
Josh Hader 242 25.2% 23.2%
*: Usage% in Kansas City, excluding slider-less Texas stint

Goodness gracious, that’s enticing. Ragans is sitting on one of the game’s best sliders, and he’s using it far less than he could. The fastball numbers are of course impressive, and his overall velocity is key to his success. But this slider, one he only learned last year, seems like it could be major difference maker this season.

Even crazier: He has another elite secondary option. That would be his changeup. I know “Bugs Bunny-ish” is an overused changeup description, but c’mon:

That’s absolutely elite stuff, and its velocity is trending the same way as everything else: up. It’s the kind of pitch that, while I can’t quite quantify this, makes everything work better; he throws it frequently enough that batters always have to worry that a changeup is coming instead of a fastball, and it sits in a similar velocity band as the slider despite breaking nearly a foot in the opposite direction.

Another benefit: Ragans, like all lefty starters, faces a ton of righties, three times the number of lefties he faced last year, and his changeup is at its best against righties. He threw it 30% of the time against them. He also prospered when he threw his slider to righties, but he only did so 7.4% of the time with the Royals, half as often as he threw his ineffective curveball. I think there’s room for him to use both his changeup and slider more frequently, and that should be an absolutely terrifying thought for opposing hitters.

If he had a weakness in 2023, it was command. Even in his dynamite Royals run, he walked 9.4% of opposing hitters. It certainly wasn’t because he failed to generate swings when he left the strike zone, as is evident from the gaudy swinging strike numbers he put up on all of his pitches. His bigger issue was that for someone with elite stuff, he didn’t come after hitters as much as I’d like.

One way of looking at it: When pitchers as a whole fell behind in the count in 2023, they threw pitches in the strike zone 56.1% of the time; Ragans was below average, at 55%. He acted like a pitcher with average stuff instead of one with a hellacious array of unhittable nonsense. That’s a problem, especially because his stuff plays even when it is in the zone, so much so that he should be more inclined than most to throw in the zone when behind in the count. After he joined the Royals, when opposing batters swung at his in-zone pitches, he produced 3.2 runs above average per 100 swings. That would’ve been fourth in baseball over a full season, tied with Gerrit Cole, who threw 61.1% strikes when behind in the count. Even if you include Ragans’ blah stint in Texas, he sat at 2.8 RV/100, 13th in baseball last season. Even when meeting hitters on their terms, he has the advantage. If he keeps throwing multiple elite secondaries with a fastball approaching 100, walking will be the easiest way to beat him. Last year, his approach played into that a little too much.

Is that fixable? It’s not immediately obvious. It sounds like an approach issue, where he should just chuck it in the zone and not worry about going full Blake Snell. But consider this: Ragans threw 98 pitches in 2-0, 3-0, and 3-1 counts last year, and hit the strike zone with just 51% of them. That’s much less of an approach question at that point; most of those are counts where you just have to throw in the zone, and he couldn’t.

What’s my conclusion on all of this? I’m going to go out on a limb (note: not really a limb) and say that he’ll be a top 15 starter. Ragans undoubtedly has ace-level stuff. I’m not in love with his cutter, but his slider and changeup are both ludicrous and his fastball isn’t far behind. There’s reason to believe he’ll perform better in 2024 than in 2023 without having to do much other than just change his pitch mix – but that’s all academic, because he’s throwing harder too.

Against these positives, there’s really only one major negative: whether he has the command to make those great pitches truly sing. I tend to bet on guys with so many good pitches to figure out the command side of things – call it the Spencer Strider Conjecture – and I think Ragans’ floor is quite high even if he walks 10% of opposing batters.

Will Ragans be one of the best pitchers in baseball this year? I think so, and it’s not because he’s popping 100 or bullying people with his fastball. It’s because he has many ways to beat hitters, and might still be improving as he grows more comfortable with his new repertoire. Now that’s a scary thought – a guy scouts are comparing to deGrom is still getting better. It’s not a can’t-fail situation – nothing ever is when it comes to pitching – but if I were designing a pitcher in a laboratory, he’d look a lot like Ragans.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 months ago

Taking a massive leap in stuff midseason and then again in spring just feels like we’re waiting for his UCL to turn into confetti.

2 months ago
Reply to  jamesnewburg

I am completely convinced that as long as his arm holds out, he will be that Top 15 starter than Ben mentions. But anecdotally, it seems like a big leap forward in “stuff” often precedes arm injuries. I guess we will see and maybe he will be fine but I am just waiting for the other shoe to drop.