BRADENTON, Fla. – Gerrit Cole was really never himself last season, certainly never his 2015-self — his best self — when he finished fifth in NL Cy Young voting.
The trouble started early when Cole sustained an injury while working out in the offseason, rib inflammation which disrupted and delayed the beginning of spring training for him. From that point, as he tried to play catch up, his season was interrupted three times by trips to the disabled list.
After a healthy 2015 during which he reached 200 innings for the first time in his professional career — a season in which he recorded a 2.60 ERA, 2.66 FIP and 5.4 WAR — Cole landed on the disabled list on June 11 for a strained right triceps. He returned to the DL on August 25 for right elbow inflammation and was placed on the DL again on September 13 with right elbow posterior inflammation after lasting 13 batters in his return from the DL. His season ended with 116 innings of work, 2.5 WAR and a 3.88 ERA. It wasn’t until the newly married Cole was honeymooning in the Caribbean in November — Cole is married to the sister of former UCLA teammate Brandon Crawford — that he said he felt healthy again.
“I did everything I could,” Cole said. “That was the frustrating part. Scratching and clawing to find answers and not getting them. I was just determined [this offseason] to put myself in the best position I could this year. I just started attacking things from Day 1. I was pretty beat up all year, and out of shape toward the end of the year. I figured I’d take every single day we had [this offseason] and try to get better. I started with small stuff initially and built from there.”
I’ve chronicled Cole’s career closely. He was handled carefully as an amateur, not permitted to throw year round like other Southern Californian kids, in part because his father read about the Verducci Effect. While the merits of the Verducci Effect have since been refuted and challenged, the general premise that overworked young arms are at greater risk of injury is generally accepted. As a professional, Cole has explored just about everything that might keep him healthy, from wearable technology that monitors stress levels and energy usage to the ancient Eastern practice of “cupping.”
While Cole has avoided the knife, his 2014 and 2016 seasons are just more reminders that pitching is a hazardous occupation, one further complicated by elite throwing velocity. Cole has made five career trips to the DL.
To become an ace, a pitcher has to first stay on the mound. To return to front-of-the-rotation status in 2017, Cole knows the effort begins with health. It’s why he spent the offseason at a training facility of his agent Scott Boras, slowly building back his strength.
And it was health that allowed Cole to become an ace in 2015 — not simply through a volume of quality work — but through repeating and mastering a delivery he revamped with the help of Jim Benedict after entering professional baseball. That delivery allowed him to execute his slider at a career-best level in 2015.
In 2015, Cole was actually better against lefties (recording a .266 wOBA against LHH vs. .283 wOBA against RHH) than righties in part due to his ability to consistently back-foot his slider against left-handed hitters. For his career, he has a .304 wOBA against lefties and a .288 mark against righties. Since he generally doesn’t throw a changeup, the pitch became a way to neutralize lefties.
In 2015, Cole’s slider produced the 15th-highest whiff-per-swing rate in the game (40.8%) among starting pitchers, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards. In 2015, the slider produced a 7.6 linear-weight runs greater than average. Last season, Cole fell to 50th in whiff-per-swing rate at (34.6%) and the pitch had a negative -1.4 linear-weight mark.
Cole said his delivery in 2015 “stayed connected” and became “muscle memory.” That was not the case last season, as Cole didn’t exhibit the same command and execution of his go-to, bat-missing offering.
Last season, Cole’s slider more often spun up in the zone against left-handed hitters, as demonstrated in the following heat maps, from Baseball Savant:
Cole’s 2015 slider work against lefties …
And his 2016 portfolio ….
In 2015, Cole used the slider to bully lefty hitters, including his new brother-in-law:
Last season, the pitch more often spun in the strike zone rather than diving below it for swing and miss:
“I didn’t execute at any level. I just wasn’t very good,” Cole said of 2016. “I just have tried to take a step back and be me… You have to be so precise out there and, if you can’t get your body in the right position, it’s tough. I broke in the slider [Wednesday]. I will continue to use it as I had before.”
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. (He believes fastball location is the key to longevity. But he is perhaps at greater injury risk by leaning on his fastball so heavily, throwing it with the fourth-most frequency among qualified starting pitchers since his MLB debut.)
For Cole, being great again begins with health, which leads to consistent reps, which leads to mastery of a delivery and of the slider. It’s the pitch that made him in ace in 2015 and perhaps can do so again.
Said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington to ESPN of the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft: “There’s no coincidence that we were good when Gerrit was good.”
So if you’re a member of #BucNation looking for optimism this spring while residing in a division with the Chicago Cubs, take some comfort in knowing, as of today, Cole is in a much better place than he was a season ago.