Gerrit Cole’s Crucial Pivot

Let’s begin by considering the experience of today’s top amateur pitchers. Each time a coveted prospect at the prep level begins his delivery to the plate, he’s confronted by the same vision: a crowd of radar guns raised in unison by the scouts looming just beyond the chain-link fence behind home plate. For them, the radar gun is the objective, truth-telling scouting tool, one that often decides draft-day fortunes.

One of the most notable features on a player’s Perfect Game profile page is not a pitchability score or makeup grade, but rather his top velocity reading. Riley Pint was a top-five overall pick in 2016 because he could hit triple digits in high school. And while the Rockies aren’t particularly worried, he’s demonstrated little command or feel for pitching thus far in his pro career.

It’s not that velocity does not matter. Velocity matters a great deal. It creates margin for error, reduces batters’ timing, and enhances the effects of breaking pitches and off-speed offerings.

But these arms are now arriving in the majors at a time when batters are adjusting to the increasing fastball velocity. Batters’ expected wOBA against fastballs was .343 in 2015, a figure that improved to .352 in 2016 and .358 last season, according to Baseball Savant’s Statcast data. This has occurred despite a consistent year-over-year increase of average fastball velocity in the PITCHf/x era. I explored how batters might be adjusting to increased fastball velocity last fall. As part of that post, I spoke to Driveline Baseball’s Kyle Boddy about the capacity of major-league hitters to keep pace.

From that piece:

“I think velocity will asymptotically increase, and hitters will progressively learn to hit it (already happening),” Boddy said via Twitter correspondence. “Minor leaguers see that kind of velocity every day now, and the subset of players that reach the big leagues had to have success against it to get there.

“By definition, those in the big leagues (for a decent amount of time) have adapted to the new paradigms in some fashion.”

The split between the experience of the amateur and the professional means that, while pitchers are incentivized to focus on one skill (velocity) to earn a high draft spot, they might have to shift their focus to succeed in today’s game. While this has always been true to a degree, such a pivot might becoming more necessary — and extreme — in today’s game.

That brings me to Gerrit Cole, who touched and exceeded 100 mph en route to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in 2011 but who has experienced a drop-off in performance since his excellent 2015 campaign. Writing for The Athletic last week, Hall of Famer Peter Gammons made an interesting case as to why Cole might still possess considerable upside and why a team like the Yankees should remain interested in his services.

Few people better understand Cole than Jim Benedict, a Cubs pitching guru who was formerly with the Pirates. Benedict helped rebuild Cole’s delivery with the Pirates. I reported on their relationship as a beat reporter.

Benedict has seen Cole evolve from a pitcher working with elevated fastballs to one who targets the bottom of the zone. He believes Cole is capable of making further advancements.

Said Benedict to Gammons:

“Kids grow up creating velo at the expense of deception, for instance. He’s now reversing that.

[…]

“It’s unusual today for a starting pitcher to be primarily a fastball pitcher. Realize, today, the way kids grow up hitting in showcases where velocity is what is considered the measuring stick for pitchers, hitters grow up hitting fastballs. Big league hitters can hunt fastballs, and they can hit them. Hitters have learned to hunt Gerrit’s fastball. He’s now making adjustments and learning.”

As Gammons notes, hitters have performed better and better against Cole’s fastball despite its 96 mph average velocity last season, a career-best mark. Scouts have long thought Cole’s fastball was flat. Statcast data has shown that it has merely average spin. Batters have become more adept at zero-ing in and crushing Cole’s fastball. Cole conceded a a career-worst .191 ISO on his fastball last season, and batters produced a .212 ISO mark against his two-seamer, another career worst.

He allowed 18 home runs on his four- and two-seamers — this compared to five and seven the previous two years. Batters pulled 91 air balls against him last year, with an .852 wOBA to the pull field, both career-worst numbers by some distance. Batters are becoming better fastball hunters, as Cole can attest.

Air Balls to Pull Side vs. Gerrit Cole
Season Team TBF H 2B 3B R ER HR AVG SLG w OBA HR/FB
2013 PIT 38 20 9 0 2 2 2 0.526 0.921 0.622 0.14
2014 PIT 50 31 14 1 7 7 7 0.62 1.36 0.851 0.27
2015 PIT 65 40 10 1 4 4 4 0.615 0.984 0.683 0.19
2016 PIT 45 33 15 0 3 3 3 0.733 1.266 0.841 0.21
2017 PIT 91 57 15 2 19 19 19 0.626 1.461 0.853 0.42

The good news? Benedict believes Cole can evolve. I have personally seen Cole evolve, becoming more serious about his maintenance routines following trips to the disabled list in the 2014 season. And Gammons has an interesting possible potential comp for Cole: Max Scherzer.

“The first thing you have to understand about Gerrit Cole is that he is extremely intelligent,” Benedict said. “I appreciate the analytics you discussed. But to a highly intelligent player, analytics should provide inspiration. They are very important because of that inspiration, and provide a basis for the learning process.”

Scherzer is a good comp because he, too, is exceptionally intelligent. He went through learning curves. He was traded by Arizona despite the fact that many felt he had the best stuff in his draft, but he was a tough sign because of Scott Boras. He had a couple of seasons that did not meet his expectations, but he learned new pitches; he learned the fine art of creating deception; he improved his conditioning and preparation. He is now a legitimate superstar whose performance seems to be constantly pointing upwards. Scherzer was 36-35 going into his age-27 season. He is 105-40 since.

Scherzer has, for instance, reduced his fastball usage throughout his career. He threw the pitch at a 70% or greater rate with Arizona earlier in his career and then gradually reduced the offering as he became one of the game’s best pitchers. For the first time in his career last season, Scherzer threw the fastball at a sub-50% rate. We’ve seen other pitchers move away from the fastball, most famously Rich Hill, to adapt to today’s game. In 2017, starters produced their highest slider and curveball rates of the PITCHf/x era (2007 to present).

There were some encouraging trends from Cole in 2017. For instance, he began to reduce his fastball usage last season — dropping usage from 66.7% to 60.1% — and doubled his changeup usage. He is perhaps already evolving.

Today’s young pitchers have to evolve, from what they’ve been conditioned to do (please radar guns) to what they must do to achieve success in the majors. That includes developing deception and an array of breaking pitches, while also building up durability and stamina.

Cole will need to adapt to find another level. But for teams interested in investing in him, he’s shown a willingness to evolve before. Cole is just entering his age-27 season and his best years could be ahead of him.





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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CCSAGE
4 years ago

Scherzer has always had a deceptive delivery and a ton of movement on his fastball, so I’m not sure he’s the best comp for Cole. JV is a little closer comp if we’re using those two criteria.