It’s still early in the season, but it’s not too early that we can’t start drawing out some conclusions from trendlines. So it’s with a strong degree of confidence that I can say that Gerrit Cole is back to his 2015, Cy Young-contention form. Much was made of his 2016 performance, but it was one that was beset from the very start of the season. Cole never entered 2016 healthy, as his rib injury precluded him from ramping up in Spring Training to the desired level. He was then hampered by various injuries to his triceps and elbow over the course of the year. It wasn’t a bad season, per se, but by the standards expected of him (especially coming off the outstanding 2015 season) it did not live up to expectations.
So here we are in 2017 and Gerrit Cole is back to dominating the Cardinals, like the good ol’ days. Here’s a sizzle reel from his April 19th start against them:
Of course, he still can’t beat the Reds, but that’s nothing new for him.
The highlight of the early part of the season for Cole is, surprisingly, a loss. On April 25th, Gerrit Cole had his way with the World Series champion Cubs. He pitched 7 brilliant innings, allowing just two hits, no walks, and striking out eight. Here’s the highlights for you feast your eyeballs on his blazing fastball and dominant slider.
And for all of his efforts, Cole got saddled with the loss, because…I hope you’re sitting down for this…his defense let him down and the bats were anemic. With one out in the 2nd inning and Addison Russell on 2nd, Alen Hanson made a throwing error that allowed Russell to score. Cole came right back and struck out the next two batters, but the bats were stymied by Kyle Hendricks all night. This is yet another example on why judging a pitcher by his win-loss record is outdated and incorrect. Cole had no control over what his 2nd baseman did with the ball and had no control over how his teammates batted, but he got hung with the loss after a dominant performance.
Aside from renewed health, what else is fueling the resurgent Gerrit Cole? It could be the fact that, like my financial advisors from Wu-Tang Financial told me, he’s diversified his portfolio. Cole has always had the top-end velocity heater, and his slider is his bread-and-butter strikeout pitch, but now he’s ramped up the usage of his changeup to great effect. Cole’s throwing his fastball only 57.8% of the time this year (as of May 5th), down from 66.7% last year. In its place, he’s upped the selection of his changeup from 5.4% to 13.6% this year. The changeup has been highly effective, as PitchF/X has it worth +6.15 runs/100 pitches thrown for him, in comparison to his somewhat straight fastball being worth +0.18 runs/100 pitches.
The changeup has been virtually unhittable, not necessarily in the swing and miss sense, but rather it’s not been hit for hits. Don’t take my word for it, check out this chart generated from Brooks Baseball:
Batters are hitting a microscopic .118 against the cambio this year, which is an oh-so-slight improvement from the .539 they apparently hit it for last year. You can see that his other two primary pitches, the 4-seamer and the slider, have improved slightly, but the changeup has been the biggest gainer from years past.
As Cole expressed to TPOP’s Alex Stumpf on Friday, Cole has been “finding the release point a little better.” Cole also expressed that he’s more comfortable with this year and is “able to focus on pitching.”
That bears out when you look at his vertical release point data, again from Brooks Baseball.
This looks drastic, but the difference from last year to this year is about 2 inches. But in baseball, a 1/2 inch here and there can sway things.
It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for Cole this year, though. He’s been way more homer-prone this year than at any point in his career so far. He’s given up 7 homers in 43 innings already this year. His career-high is 11 that he’s done twice, one of which was in 2015 over 208 innings. Here’s the pitches he’s served up delicious taters on:
- May 7th v. Brewers — 94 mph 2-seam to Hernan Perez
- May 1st v. nemesis Reds — 84 mph slider to Adam Duvall
- April 19 v. Cardinals — 94 mph 4-seam to Dexter Fowler that was inside, 96 mph 4-seam to Fowler that was outside
- April 9 v. Braves — 95 mph 4-seam to Dansby Swanson that was inside slightly, 80 mph curve to Freddie Freeman that was center cut
- April 1 v. Red Sox — 98 mph 4-seam to Andrew Benintendi that was up and in
Cole has certainly not benefited from much run support either. While he’s been in the game, the Pirates have only scored 10 runs. That’s 1.43 runs/start. And four of those ten runs came in one game, his lone win, against the Cubs of all teams. In his other six starts, the run support has been: 0, 2, 1, 0, 2, 1. It’s tough to pitch with no margin for error. (Props to that pattern, though. Looks like a goose egg is coming next.)
Because baseball is a cruel game, it appears as if the Pirates are not going to be in contention for much this year, even with the as-of-now weak NL Central up for grabs. Cole’s 3.14 ERA/3.83 FIP isn’t going to earn him many down-ballot votes for the Cy Young, either. But he’s healthy and has his swagger back. With two wingmen in Taillon and Nova, the front of the rotation is strong. The offense is missing two key cogs in Starling Marte and Jung-ho Kang that they are struggling to overcome, especially with down performances from other key contributors.
I can only hope that Cole isn’t becoming resurgent just in time for Neal Huntington to flip him in an underwhelming team season that is out of Cole’s control.