The Cole Train Has Taken Kansas City by Storm

Cole Ragans
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This year, trade deadline season kicked off when the Rangers acquired Aroldis Chapman from the Royals at the end of June. Texas desperately needed relief help, so it pulled an early trigger in getting Chapman a full month ahead of the deadline. In today’s game, teams moving rental relievers typically do not get anything too exciting in return. That seemed to be the case with Kansas City’s part of the deal: Cole Ragans and 17-year-old outfielder Roni Cabrera. Emphasis on seemed.

Ragans had pitched 24.1 innings in relief across 17 games with the Rangers after an extended but rough debut in 2022. Like last year, things hadn’t gone well. He walked 13.2% of the batters he faced, and hitters slugged .561 against his four-seamer. In that short span, he accumulated -5.2 run value on that pitch alone. Even with a nasty changeup and a four-tick velocity jump from ’22, he was still struggling to get the results he needed.

But after his move to Kansas City and a rough first outing, everything changed. Eno Sarris’ profile of Ragans from last week does a fantastic and thorough job at explaining his career turnaround, from his training at Tread Athletics in the offseason to create his velocity jump to consulting with them and Royals pitching coach Brian Sweeney after his first start in Triple-A Omaha to add his gyro slider. I strongly urge you read the piece, because mine is as a supporting actor to that story.

I don’t want to take a jab at the Royals, who deserve some credit here but haven’t done a great job of late in developing pitchers. But there’s something to be said about a team supporting its player in consulting outside sources mid-year. It makes even more sense from an org that doesn’t have a great track record. So far, the collaboration is looking fantastic. It’s only been 47 innings, but Ragans has been undeniably elite.

As Eno noted in his piece, pitch arsenal and usage changes are the first thing we look to when analyzing a turnaround like this. The table below shows the difference in Ragans’ mix before and after the trade:

Ragans Pitch Mix Change
Pitch KC TEX
Four-seamer 36.9% 48.4%
Changeup 26.3% 22.2%
Slider 14.6% 0%
Curveball 12.7% 14.5%
Cutter 9.5% 14.9%

His approach was four-seamer heavy in Texas, which makes sense: With a big velo bump, you might as well see how it plays in games. But as I noted earlier, the pitch was getting hammered. He did have success with his changeup, his plus pitch as a prospect, but you need more than just that. Hitters can lay off the pitch if they can ID it and then wait for the fastball if there isn’t another weapon.

Even so, it was smart of Ragans to increase the changeup usage, because it was simply too effective not to do so. Throw your best pitch more often if other pitches aren’t working! But the changeup wasn’t as good against lefties as it was against righties. It was still effective, but he didn’t throw it as often; it’s a tough pitch to command against same-handed hitters. That’s where the new toy comes in: a hard slider with some depth, the perfect solution against lefties. Add that to an upper-90s heater and three other options? Yeah, good luck.

As Marquee Network analyst Lance Brozdowski wrote about with regards to Ragans, adding the slider essentially involved turning his already existing cutter into two new pitches. This is important: making small tweaks to something you’re already capable of doing is exactly how a pitcher can make a change like this on the fly. Commanding a gyro slider isn’t too difficult if you’ve already thrown a cutter a ton.

Now let’s see how the difference in movement has played out. The first chart is from his final major league appearance in Texas (June 12); the second is from his outing last week against the Pirates (August 29):

The cutter has moved away from the 0” line and split in both diagonal directions, creating some separation and diversity of movement. Additionally, Ragans has added velocity separation with these two pitches, throwing the bullet slider at 86.8 mph and the cutter at 92.2. By comparison, his cutter was at 90.5 in Texas.

In Sarris’ piece, Ragans says that he wanted a harder option with which to miss bats, because hitters were too often making successful barrel adjustments against the cutter. That was a great decision, and even better execution on his part, with the pitch currently running a whiff rate of nearly 50% and a .175 xwOBA. When you locate a pitch like this and perfectly separate it from your cutter, you’re going to be alright:

You can see how that might be a doozy for any left-handed hitter. It’s good against righties, too, but it seems like Ragans is still getting comfortable with throwing the pitch to them (and in general). After limiting right-handed hitters to a .276/.267 wOBA/xwOBA split with the Rangers this year, he has slightly improved that line with the Royals, down to a .257/.244 split. But it’s the improvement against lefties that’s been stunning. Albeit in a small sample, his K-BB% in Texas was -8.3%, and lefty hitters were posting a .387 wOBA against him. With the addition of the slider, the K-BB% has shot up to 31.4%, and the wOBA is all the way down to .216. He now uses it a whopping 42.9% of the time, with a wOBA against of just .164.

It’s important, too, to see how Ragans uses the pitch in the context of an at-bat. I’ll start by showing you one against Lars Nootbaar from August, and then another against Triston Casas.

Pitch 1 (0–0, four-seamer)

Pitch 2 (0–1 count, slider)

Pitch 3 (0–2 count, four-seamer)

Pitch 4 (1–2 count, slider)

Left-on-left heaters at 96 mph and at the top of the zone are not the ideal pitch to ambush. With a patient hitter like Nootbaar, it’s a great way to get ahead in the count. To follow that up with a slider just off the black is great execution. You’ve given him two different eye levels and made it clear that you can spot the slider in an unhittable area.

Notice that Ragans is all the way to third base side of the rubber, which lets him hide the ball longer against a left-handed hitter. That’s probably why Nootbaar was frozen on the painted fastball. If you can live here against lefties, you will always keep their eyes in limbo trying to identify in or out of the zone. That’s exactly what happened on the put-away pitch: Nootbaar, having just seen a spotted heater, did not realize this offering was a slider dipping under the zone. That is magnificent pitching.

Now, onto the at-bat against Casas.

Pitch 1 (0–0 count, slider)

Pitch 2 (0–1 count, slider)

Pitch 3 (0–2 count, slider)

Pitch 4 (1–2 count, four-seamer)

From my perspective, it looked like Casas was ready to ambush the slider; if he did his prep, he knew that Ragans would attack him with it, so he let off his best hack. But that’s the beauty of executing your pitches: If you locate your best weapon, the odds are strongly in your favor. The second slider wasn’t as ideally spotted, but it’s a good mentality. You want to attack my slider? Fine, try again.

Despite two good swings from Casas, he fell into an 0-2 hole, and Ragans still hadn’t flashed his heater. He went a little further out of the zone on the next pitch, but Casas doesn’t tend to chase too much. And while Ragans wanted the 1–2 heater a little more outside, when you set a hitter’s sights down and away, 97 up and in isn’t a bad spot to miss.

After dominating the White Sox on Monday, Ragans is now on a three-start scoreless streak, and while Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago don’t have great lineups, his performances can’t be discounted. He’s got plenty of competition coming anyway: Down the stretch in September, he’s set for back-to-back appearances against Houston. I’m excited to see how he holds up, but either way, it’s clear the Royals have found themselves a potential ace — and all for a rental reliever.

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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5 months ago

Esteban – you pulled out all the stops in your writing arsenal masterfully here, just Cole Ragans appears to be doing right now with his pitching arsenal in KC.

5 months ago
Reply to  tz

What a crap comment. Go away.

Chip Lockemember
5 months ago
Reply to  paulkrugman

Am I missing something with the original comment?

5 months ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Lol, this IS the original comment. Not sure what’s so awful but. …

Chip Lockemember
5 months ago
Reply to  tz

I mean, the guy making the allegation is either a troll or just a very sensitive, right wing, tigers fan (he makes ridiculous and sometimes politically charged comments quite often) so I’m not surprised. I am surprised at the downvotes though.

formerly matt w
5 months ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Yeah I don’t get it, isn’t “pulled out all the stops” a compliment?

(Nerdy etymology comment, it comes from pipe organs where pulling out all the stops means making it so all the different sets of pipes play at once, for the loudest sound you can make–so it works well for a pitcher diversifying his repertoire.)

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
5 months ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Something doesn’t translate here.

Ostensibly Ridiculousmember
5 months ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Perhaps this is related to some Premier League football banter?