Gerrit Cole’s Resurgence Is Here To Stay

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite articles from the offseason was Ben Clemens’ piece about Gerrit Cole. It’s a thorough explanation of why and how Cole is still one of the league’s best pitchers, this despite a down year and public perception that several others had surpassed him. Through the first few weeks of the season, we’ve gotten strong reassurance that Cole is indeed still one of the best pitchers in the sport.

Cole has been fantastic through five starts and 34 innings pitched, with a 0.79 ERA, a 2.21 FIP and — get this — zero home runs allowed. That last point is the most important one. Last year, no pitcher in the majors gave up more home runs than Cole (33). It was his kryptonite the entire season. He would be coasting through a game, striking out 29.3% of the batters he faced, and then suddenly a ball would find itself in the seats and his start would blow up in front of him. His longest stretch without giving up a long ball in 2022 was three games, a feat he managed on two separate occasions. But this year, he seems to have turned the corner. The key to Cole’s success during this turnaround has been his fastball. There are a few things contributing to this that tie in with one another, but I’ll start with his four-seam fastball location:

Cole has been excellent in keeping the ball up on his arm side both in and out of the zone. You can see that in the heat maps, but if it helps to know, 32.4% of his four-seam fastballs have been in the upper third of the strike zone, or above and to either side of the upper third. Last year, that mark was only 21.1%, the lowest it has been since before his breakout year in 2018 with Houston. Cole has one of the best four-seam fastballs in terms of velocity and stuff; if he locates the pitch in its ideal spot up in the zone, it’s extremely difficult to hit. The following two pitches are great examples of how hard it is for a hitter to get on top of a precisely located, high-velocity fastball with ride:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Chapman have been two of the best hitters in baseball this year in terms of both hard contact and results. Both are routinely crushing fastballs. Yet neither was able to get their best swing off due to Cole’s location. Even the best hitters can’t square up Cole when his fastball command is on. That’s perhaps an obvious statement, but it’s necessary to point out. It’s why he broke out with Houston and why he has been one of the most productive pitchers in baseball over the last five seasons. The question, then, is how he returned to having great fastball command. For that, I’ll turn to some information on his release point and extension.

Gerrit Cole Release and Extension
Year Vertical Release (ft.) Horizontal Release (ft.) Extension
2018 5.66 -2.20 6.2
2019 5.85 -2.02 6.3
2020 5.61 -1.91 6.6
2021 5.68 -1.92 6.6
2022 5.78 -1.79 6.5
2023 5.90 -1.68 6.3

It’s a simple concept. If you want to more precisely target a specific spot in the zone with a pitch you throw half the time, then alter your release point to set yourself up for consistent success. Cole is releasing the ball higher and closer to third base than he ever has in his career, and with the least extension he’s gotten down the mound since his Pittsburgh days. You might be thinking that’s counterintuitive. Typically, a four-seam fastball’s qualities will be the best with more extension and a lower release point, and you’d be right to think so! However, there is some nuance to consider with Cole’s situation.

So far, this is the least amount of induced vertical break (IVB) he has had since joining the Yankees, but a sacrifice in IVB due to an altered release point and decrease in extension has allowed him to have pinpoint command. If you want to learn more about IVB, check out Justin Choi’s incredible piece from last year, but as a quick refresher, it’s essentially the movement that causes a fastball to “rise” relative to a hitter’s expectations. It’s not like Cole’s fastball is suddenly bad — it’s still sitting at 17.6 inches of IVB, a -4.4 degree vertical approach angle (VAA), and 96.8 mph average velocity. The IVB is still well above average. His VAA, the angle at which a pitch enters the zone, is still flat enough to fool hitter’s expectations. And the velo is still top notch! Basically, the sum of the parts still makes for an elite, 99th-percentile pitch, especially when you add the command improvement. The .141 batting average against and -9 run value he’s accrued (-8 last year) prove the sacrifices are paying off.

Cole’s improvements in the top of the zone are having effects elsewhere, too. If I were a hitter facing Cole, I’d be forced to focus my eyes up and nowhere else. You have to pick your spots against a pitcher of this quality. If you don’t hunt the fastball in its most frequent location, you’re going to get beat by it over and over again. Because of that, when Cole does target the bottom of the zone, it’s unexpected — and it’s freezing hitters. He has only thrown 51 total fastballs at or under the bottom third of the zone, but 21 (41.2%) have gone for called strikes. That’s up 10 percentage points from last year and is the highest mark since his 2018 breakout. It doesn’t matter who you are, covering 97 with ride at the top and bottom of the zone is nearly impossible.

Other than the four-seam fastball itself, Cole has made some other tweaks here and there that have contributed to his resurgence. The first is how aggressive he is in 0-0 counts. To put it plainly, he is attacking hitters. The ace has never been within three percentage points of a 70% first-pitch strike rate, but this year, he is at 71.5%. It’s not just from his fastball either; he is using his curve as an 0-0 offering in the zone more frequently than last year. In general, he has continued the uptick in curveball usage that we saw at the end of last year. That’s also in line with Cole’s general willingness to be more adaptable with his pitch usage on a game-to-game basis. This year, he has used his fastball as much as 64.2% of the time and as little as 42.3% of the time. Better command and less predictability keeps hitters honest.

When you’re a great pitcher who hasn’t seen any notable decline in the quality of your stuff, you’re typically a safe bet to regain elite form. At Gerrit Cole’s level of talent, it doesn’t take a dramatic overhaul. A slight adjustment in release point was all he needed to be the top-of-the-zone killer he had been in the previous four seasons. That, along with strategic in-game adjustments, suggests there is no regression coming any time soon.

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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10 months ago

Love to see it. Seems like a good dude and has gotten a raw deal from Yankee fans that expected Walter Johnson

10 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

I’d say that the hate has been way more concentrated from other fans, as he’s hated far more than reasonable especially after the sticky stuff issues, then of course joining the Yanks doesn’t help. There’s about a dozen other guys on the team that gets more hate from their own fans.