How Did Eric Sogard Hit a Home Run Off Gerrit Cole?

Gerrit Cole simply dominated the Rays across his two starts in the ALDS. Across almost 16 innings, he allowed just one run and nine baserunners while striking out nearly half of the batters he faced. That lone run he allowed was a solo home run off the bat of Eric Sogard. Of all the players on the Rays’ playoff roster, no one would have guessed it would be Sogard to hit a dinger off one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. But was it really that unlikely?

For his part, Sogard put together a career year this season. He posted career highs in ISO, wRC+, and WAR while launching 13 home runs, two more than his career total across eight previous seasons. Long viewed as a light-hitting utility infielder, Sogard showed he was capable of hitting for power in a way that he had never been able to before. And yet, he only averaged an 84.7 mph exit velocity this year, and his hard hit rate sat in the third percentile in the majors. But by adding an extra 2.5 degrees to his average launch angle — and with some help from the dragless ball — 13 of those hard-ish hit fly balls snuck over the fence.

Cole did struggle a bit with the long ball this season, allowing 29 home runs and a career-high 16.9% home run per fly ball rate. That’s 10 more home runs than he allowed last year and just two fewer than the career high he allowed in his final season in Pittsburgh in 2017. But Cole’s home run troubles and Sogard’s newfound power only tell part of the story in broad generalizations. So let’s dig into the specific event to see if we can find anything more interesting. For starts, here’s the video of Sogard’s home run in case you missed it last night.

Sogard gets around on a 95-mph fastball on the inside corner and hits it solidly enough to reach four rows back in right field. The pitch itself was rather peculiar. Cole’s average fastball velocity this season was 97.1 mph. In the game last night, he averaged 97.3 mph. This fastball was the second slowest fastball he threw all night. When Cole’s fastball velocity has dipped that low, opposing batters have had a much easier time handling his heater. Here’s a table showing how batters have fared against his fastball at different velocities:

Gerrit Cole, results per FB velocity
Pitch Velocity (mph) SwStr% Hard% wOBA
< 94 4.3% 16.7% 0.225
94–94.9 10.4% 27.8% 0.225
95–95.9 13.7% 26.5% 0.519
96–96.9 17.3% 17.1% 0.457
97–97.9 20.4% 15.2% 0.221
98–98.9 26.0% 17.7% 0.187
> 99 27.4% 19.5% 0.191

When he’s throwing over 97 mph, his fastball is deadly. But as it dips below 97, swings-and-misses happen less often, and when batters do make contact, it does a lot more damage. Cole threw 19 pitches in the first inning, including 15 fastballs averaging 97.7 mph. After a long bottom half of the frame, Cole went back out and threw a slow first-pitch fastball to Sogard. It’s possible the long break between the top of the first and the second inning caused Cole’s arm to cool off a bit after starting off strong. The next three fastballs he threw in the second inning were all thrown under 97 mph too. Sogard definitely took advantage and launched the first fastball he saw into the right field bleachers.

But Sogard himself may have been the best equipped batter in the Rays lineup to handle a Gerrit Cole fastball. Not only does Cole’s fastball have elite velocity, it’s also possesses an elite spin rate, giving him a tremendous amount of ride on the pitch. On fastballs similar to Cole’s — velocity greater than 95 mph and a spin rate greater than 2400 rpm — Sogard has posted a .455 wOBA over the last three years. Here’s how the rest of the Rays lineup has fared against hard, high-spin fastballs like Cole’s:

Rays vs Hard FBs, 2017-2019
Player Name SwStr% Hard% wOBA
Eric Sogard 4.8% 26.3% 0.455
Avisail Garcia 19.7% 51.6% 0.367
Tommy Pham 10.8% 46.9% 0.364
Travis d’Arnaud 16.7% 42.9% 0.341
Austin Meadows 10.5% 50.0% 0.311
Ji-Man Choi 10.8% 33.3% 0.280
Willy Adames 14.8% 20.0% 0.251
Kevin Kiermaier 18.6% 45.5% 0.235
Joey Wendle 9.3% 31.3% 0.176
Fastball velocity > 95, spin rate > 2400

Sogard’s secret to success is simply an ability to make tons of contact with these kinds of fastballs. He’s swung and missed just six times against hard, high-spin fastballs in the last three years. And even though he isn’t making hard contact, when he’s put these fastballs in play, he’s gone 11-for-19 with nine singles, a double, and a triple. He can add a home run to that tally now.

This ability to hit the fastball is something that Sogard has done well throughout his career. He’s run a lifetime 96.2% contact rate against four-seam fastballs, very rarely whiffing when he sees a heater. Cole’s fastball is prototypical in the modern game: high velocity, high spin, and high ride. Batters have such a hard time with these kinds of fastballs. When they’re not whiffing through them, they’re popping up or hitting weak fly balls. But Eric Sogard has managed to survive and thrive against the modern fastball, and that skill was on full display last night.

We hoped you liked reading How Did Eric Sogard Hit a Home Run Off Gerrit Cole? by Jake Mailhot!

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Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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kev1nchoi
Member
kev1nchoi

Gerrit Cole is so good there’s an entire article based on the one mistake he made lol

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Hes tipping his pitches! That was the article they wrote for the other starter.