It’s possible you haven’t had the opportunity to watch every single game over the first few days of the 2017 season. For those games you’ve missed — say, Pittsburgh against Boston on Monday — you’re likely to have glanced at the box score to see how certain players performed. In the case of that Pirates-Red Sox game, you find that Andrew Benintendi hit a homer, Rick Porcello pitched six solid innings, and that the home team won by a score of 5-3.
If you looked at the line of Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole, you’d see a flawed five innings, with just two strikeouts, one walk, that homer to Benintendi, and all five of Boston’s runs. That’s not how Cole wanted the season to start, but the stat line isn’t quite as bad as it would appear.
Gerrit Cole has been successful in the major leagues primarily due to a great four-seam fastball. When he complemented the fastball with increased slider usage, he started dominating. There had been some talk earlier in the spring about an increased use of the changeup, as well, but when he spoke with Travis Sawchik, Cole indicated he was prioritizing his health and returning to what made him successful.
This spring Cole is not trying to re-invent himself. He has a modest goal: a healthy season. While he’s toyed with the idea of throwing more changeups the last couple of springs, he has rarely thrown the pitch in the regular season. He says he plans on continuing to be “me,” which indicates he will lean on a fastball that has averaged 95.2 mph or better in each of his first four major-league seasons — he threw it 66.7% of the time last year in line with his career (66.5%) usage — and the slider as a put-away offering.
For Cole, being “me” would suggest a combination of heavy fastball usage with the slider for whiffs. Did he stick to that plan against Boston, though? Not so much, actually. Cole did throw that fastball roughly 70% of the time, which is right in line with his established levels. As for the non-fastball offerings, however, he actually didn’t return to the slider that had made him so successful, ultimately throwing the pitch just six times.
As for explanations, we could chalk it up to efficiency. Cole threw just 76 pitches total. Through four innings, he’d thrown just 50 pitches to 13 batters. Cole wasn’t striking batters out. If hitters were putting the ball in play early in the count, then it’s possible he just arrived in fewer situations where the slider made sense. That wasn’t the case, however.
Cole was getting quick outs, but he also made 11 two-strike pitches, per Brooks Baseball. Of those 11 pitches, five were fastballs — which, once again, is in line with his career rates. Of the other seven pitches, though, he threw just one slider, instead opting for four changes and two curves. Not that it matters too much, but that one slider got a ground-ball out.
This isn’t the first time that Cole has experimented with a change. He’s thrown it somewhere between 2% and 5% of the time every year of his career, and he spoke with Travis Sawchik about it back in 2014.
“The changeup is a feel (pitch), and I guess you could maybe lump conviction in with feel,” Cole said. “It’s one of those pitches where when you are throwing it in a bullpen, you really get no read on it. Unless you are Johan (Santana) or (Francisco Rodriguez) and the changeup is a pitch you can throw it any count, for most of us, it is a pitch you throw off of the fastball. So you kind of have to get the swings and the reads and be presented with the situations to get the feel going.”
Cole evidently didn’t quite get the feel for the pitch back in 2014, nor did it really happen the past couple of years, either. As noted in the earlier Sawchik piece, Cole had some struggles translating his stuff into strikeouts. In 2013, between the majors and minors, he struck out under 20% of batters. In 2014, he abandoned a cutter and threw his curve, leading to a solid 24% strikeout rate. In his breakout 2015 season, he nearly doubled his slider use, maintained that 24% strikeout rate, and also dropped his walk rate from 7% to 5%, leading to a 5.4 WAR season.
Last year, Cole wasn’t completely healthy, and his slider didn’t generate quite as many swings or as many swings and misses, but it was still a fairly effective pitch, especially with two strikes. Fifty-six plate appearances last season ended on his slider and 31 of those were strikeouts against just four walks. Of the nine hits he allowed in those situations, just one, a double, went for extra bases. Cole’s stuff is nearly singular: the only pitcher with at least 50% four-seam use and a higher ground-ball rate than Cole over the last two years is Clayton Kershaw.
As for the game in Boston, Cole nearly pitched a gem. With two outs in the fifth inning, he’d recorded 54 pitches total and faced just one more batter than the minimum. Then Jackie Bradley came up. After a called strike one on a fastball, Cole missed with two changeups and then went back to the fastball. He got too much of the plate, though, and Bradley pulled it into the right-field corner for a triple. According to Statcast, this was the first batted ball of the game with an expected hit percentage above 60%. Only one other batted balls he’d conceded had a mark above 50%. Then things got a little unlucky. Pablo Sandoval beat out a grounder in the hole — a ball that gets turned into an out 61% of the time — that scored Bradley. So 61% of the time, Cole is out of the fifth with a shutout intact — and maybe even more often than that, considering Sandoval wass the runner.
After Sandoval, Sandy Leon beat the shift on a bunt that Cole almost fielded and is a hit just 13% of the time. Then, Dustin Pedroia hit a hard shot up the middle that’s a hit 57% of the time. That drove in Sandoval. Then Benintendi came up, took a changeup — a ball — fouled a second changeup, took a fastball for a strike, took a curve in the dirt and then hammered a fastball over the heart of the plate to give the Red Sox a 5-0 lead.
Based on exit velocity and launch angle, the odds of all three batters before Benintendi getting a hit was 2.9%. Even if you want to up Leon’s bunt to 50% because it was against the shift, we’re still talking about a 90% chance that Cole escapes the inning having given up just a single run.
Cole’s stat line looked pretty ugly. After a rough 2016 season health-wise, it’s fair to be skeptical about what he will bring to the table this season. That said, he looked pretty efficient in his first start against a very good offense. As mentioned, the slider usage is something to monitor. The change shouldn’t necessarily be abandoned, as it can be a successful pitch, but the slider deserves its spot, too. There could be a bunch of reasons, whether scouting or feel for the pitch that day, but Cole has been most successful when he’s had the slider working.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.