The Astros Might Be the Perfect Team for Gerrit Cole

After a couple false starts earlier in the week, the Houston Astros finally acquired right-hander Gerrit Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates last night. As Travis Sawchik notes, the deal makes sense for both teams: the re-tooling Pirates get a collection of useful players, all within close proximity to the majors; the Astros, meanwhile, receive two years of a pitcher with a great arm and history of success. It’s mutually beneficial.

There’s a third party that might benefit from the deal, however, and that’s Cole himself. He might be worth more in Houston than anywhere else.

As a major leaguer, Cole has been either good or really good in each of his five seasons. There’s always this sense, however, that the former No. 1 pick could be great. Earlier this week, Travis Sawchik proposed one way that Cole could perhaps unlock the remaining upside in his 27-year-old arm –namely, by throwing his fastball less. In this way, his move to the Astros represent an opportunity: not only is Cole’s secondary stuff ready for more action, but his new team is uniquely suited to help this adjustment along.

Sawchik rightly pointed out that Cole’s fastball is hard but also straight. If you stack his pitches up against the rest of the league, this pattern holds true for the hard stuff. But look at how his bendy pitches rank.

Gerrit Cole Pitch Percentiles
Pitch Spin Horizontal Vertical Velocity
Four-Seam 27 33 96
Curve 74 79 37 76
Sinker 80 56 97
Slider 42 55 87
Change 38 60 46
SOURCE: Pitch Info
Higher percentile = better. Movement and velocity percentiles based on research on spin, changeups, curveballs, and sliders linked here.

Velocity is clearly a strength for Cole, who ranks in the top 10 for sinker velocity and averages over 96 on both fastballs. But you can see that his four-seam doesn’t have the ride or spin associated with the best four-seamers in the league.

Cole threw only one curve out of every 10 pitches in 2017, but that looks like a standout pitch by movement and velocity. High-spin curveballs do well by contact rate usually, so it’s weird to see that Cole’s curve had below average whiffs (9% against a league-average 12%) — especially since, with 140 pairings, he was third in baseball in pairing the four-seam with the curve last year. A high-spin curve after a low-spin fastball should produce the best outcomes, according to this preliminary investigation by Jeff Zimmerman.

Curve and Fastball Combos by Spin & Outcomes
Situation Called-Strike Rate Swinging-Strike Rate
High Spin CB after High Spin FA 10.0% 12.5%
Low Spin CB after High Spin FA 12.7% 13.3%
High Spin CB after Low Spin FA 11.3% 16.1%
Low Spin CB after Low Spin FA 12.8% 14.0%
SOURCE: Jeff Zimmerman
“High” = over one standard deviation over mean.

Maybe by throwing more curveballs, Cole can reap the benefits produced by similar curve and fastball combos around the league. This is a nice looking pitch, after all.

The slider looks good based on above-average drop, especially for a pitch with that much giddyup. Cole, incidentally perhaps, threw that slider most often in his best season. The change looks like it could be average, but it used to have more drop when it got average whiffs in the past.

The most likely change for Cole is to throw fewer four-seamers, more sinkers, and more breaking balls. That would go with his strengths — by spin, movement, and velocity — and away from his weaknesses.

Conveniently, the Astros are all about this sort of change. Only four teams have thrown fewer four-seamers in the history of PITCHf/x technology, for example. This is a team that took Collin McHugh from the Rockies based on a high-spin curve and then encouraged him to throw more cutters than straight fastballs. They repeated the trick with Charlie Morton, at least by encouraging more curves than he’d ever thrown before.

The next breakout for Gerrit Cole might arrive by throwing more sinkers and high-spin breaking balls. The good news is, he’s now headed to a team that’s all about that sort of change. The defending champs just got better.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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John W.
6 years ago

Good Stuff.

6 years ago
Reply to  John W.

Not good stuff. The trade has been obvious for months, Eno (typically) provides no new facts.

6 years ago
Reply to  nv