Gerrit Cole’s Increased Curveball Usage Is Paying Off

Giancarlo Stanton
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole is your prototypical right-handed power pitcher. With an upper 90s fastball and upper 80s slider, he is consistently among a few at the top of the strikeout leaderboard; unsurprisingly, he led all of baseball in strikeouts this season with 257. Given his stature and that season mark, you’d expect he would also be somewhere near the top of the WAR leaderboard. Well, not quite, largely in part because Cole also led all of baseball in home runs allowed with 33, the most in his career.

As a primary fastball pitcher who lives in the middle to upper part of the zone, Cole is bound to give up home runs. His approach is and, as long as he still has velocity, will be: here’s my fastball, try to hit it. In early August, I wrote about how his mechanics can sometimes fluctuate from inning to inning through the course of a game, and how in turn the shape and locations of his pitches can get distorted. I didn’t get too in the weeds of how his fastball shape declined this year, but Michael Ajeto of Baseball Prospectus dove deep into Cole’s fastball shape just a few weeks ago. In his piece, he explained the various contributing factors: a higher release point due to a slight change in his lead leg block/plant; decreased spin despite career-high velocity; and a near-career-low vertical approach angle (VAA) of -4.6 degrees. Ajeto also pointed out that it might be a good idea for Cole to up the usage of his slider, the pitch with the highest RV/100 in his arsenal.

Cole, however, went in a slightly different direction at the end of the year:

Focus on the last two points on that graph, when Cole’s curveball usage shot up to its highest usage rate of the 2022 season. Similarly, in his ALDS Game 1 start against the Guardians, he threw the pitch 26% of the time, yielding eight whiffs on 11 swings; that whiff rate (73%) is his highest in a single game this year for either of his breaking balls when throwing the pitch at least 10% of the time. It’s something Guardians hitters did not plan for, either, as it hasn’t been in Cole’s bag for the last couple of years.

In ALDS Game 1 especially, the key for Cole was command and consistency in placing the ball at the bottom or under the zone. Add that to the two regular-season starts when he upped the curve usage, and you can see how impressive his control has been:

Aside from two hits, including a home run on a pitch right down the middle, Cole has buried the pitch under the zone time and time again — pink, pink, and more pink! The success has come as a semi-surprise; as Ajeto noted, Cole could have simply just thrown his slider more. But the curveball has brought a level of surprise to at-bats that Cole hasn’t had given his aggressive approach.

It’s all the more surprising because of how little he’d used it previously. I remember watching Cole’s second of two rough outings against the Red Sox in September and wondering where in the world that pitch had gone. He hadn’t thrown it in any “need an out” situations in late August or going into September; it had become a tertiary-at-best pitch that was used as a get-me-over strike or a throwaway under the zone:

Gerrit Cole CU% When Ahead in Count
Game Date Total Curves Thrown Total Ahead in Count Percent
Before 9/22 89 950 9.4
After 9/22 32 113 28.3

That’s a pretty big change in approach while ahead in the count. Rather than being a pitch that Cole went to around 10% of the time when ahead in the count, the curveball is now something he throws more than a quarter of the time! That change is remarkable, and usually not something you see from an ace pitcher with his stuff.

Consider the separation in movement during Cole’s ALDS start. The curveball offers a different look from both his slider and fastball, his primary and secondary pitches. On the most recent episode of FanGraphs Audio, our Jay Jaffe talked with ESPN color commentator David Cone about Cole’s uptick in curveball usage. In that discussion, Cone described the curveball as a way to keep hitters honest against Cole’s slider. The movement separation chart validates that theory; the curve adds much more vertical depth.

When I initially started thinking about Cole’s struggles and need for another pitch, I theorized that the curveball was an ideal pitch to keep hitters off the fastball. But after hearing Cone’s explanation, I thought, porque no los dos?

Pitch sequencing isn’t about absolutes; like any other facet of baseball, any one pitch can reinforce the usage of one or two others. When facing Cole, hitters tend to sit on the fastball, knowing they only have to swing at the slider if it’s hanging in the zone or if they’re behind with two strikes in the count. That simplifies their approach and gives them the best chance to get a barrel on the high-90s fastball. And with Cole’s depleted fastball shape, it’s become easier to sit exclusively on his heater. What the curveball has done is add another dimension, and a big reason why is because Cole’s spin axes between the fastball and curveball complement one another.

This is ideal if you’re trying to add a level of deception, and it plays well within the context of Cole’s arsenal. That’s a key component to consider when thinking through how to change a pitch mix: what the other pitches look like. There are other parts that matter, too: for example, the pitch gets 7% more vertical movement and 27% more horizontal movement than average. It’s a good pitch on its own, but it gets even better when you consider that hitters have gotten aggressive on the fastball. The visual point of view further reinforces its increased usage; all three pitches work in tandem:

As an ace with a $300 million contract, it’s easy to settle into who you are and not want to change that. Cole has been a top pitcher in the sport for five years now, and that success has been driven by one of the best four-seam fastballs in the sport. But as that fastball has regressed somewhat in the last season or so, he has shown a willingness to change and adapt to his own circumstances. It may have taken about 30 starts for Cole to come to this version of himself, but better late than never — especially as his team tries to make a deep playoff run.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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David Kleinmember
3 months ago

Don’t have much to add other to say this is a great piece.