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Gerrit Cole can bail himself out, even when he doesn’t have his best stuff

Cole lived and died with the heat, but also made some secondary adjustments.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Gerrit Cole can get by on the mound in several ways, even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Game One of the ALDS was one of those starts. Although Cole finished with eight strikeouts in six innings, and he only allowed three runs in the win, it was clear that he wasn’t entirely himself on the mound.

Fortunately, Cole has enough weapons and smarts to win even without his “A” stuff. Cole still lived and died with his fastball against the Rays, but he slightly varied his secondary offerings and was smart in how and when to deploy them in the victory.

Cole threw his fastball 52 percent of the time, which is right along his season norms. However, he threw his knuckle-curve far more often than his slider, and even mixed in his changeup a bit more. Cole fell behind more than usual on Monday night, only getting 14 first-pitch strikes out of the 26 batters he faced. He battled to get back in the count, and finished off hitters with the heat.

The Rays are a good fastball hitting team, so it makes sense to try and attack them with the offspeed stuff first, and then finish them with the cheese. The Rays are slightly above average in terms of swinging first pitch, and scouts advised that they should go fastball hunting, much like the Yankees did against Shane Bieber. That’s exactly what Cole prepared for, and tried to get them off-balance.

Cole still was able to get plenty of strikes with his fastball; he threw 68 percent of them for strikes. His worst ones, such as the one that came on a 2-0 count to Randy Arozarena and missed Kyle Higashioka’s glove terribly, were hit hard. However, his best ones came when he was ahead in the count and attacking, using it as a put-away pitch, such as this 100 mph smoke that blew away Manny Margot:

It is true that Cole seemed to miss the glove more than expected at times Monday, but a scout in that same piece mentioned that it’s just part of Cole’s style. It’s not a big deal for me, so long as his zone breakdown looks like this:

Rather than this (which came from his worst start against the Rays this year):

Cole did a far better job of avoiding the middle of the plate in the first graphic (Game One on Monday) than he did in the second one (a start vs. Tampa in August). In the first one, Cole only threw nine pitches that were in the three middle squares of the zone, and just two were middle-middle. In the second one, he threw 22 pitches down the three center squares, and four of them were middle-middle. As long as Cole is avoiding the hitters’ happy zones, he can dominate.

It is also interesting that Cole threw his curveball so much more often than his slider. Some of this could just have to do with a one-game personal preference based on how his grips were feeling on Monday, but a healthy 64 percent whiff rate on his curve and just three balls put in play off it sure are encouraging. Three of his eight strikeouts came on the knuckle-curve, which he threw to both righties and lefties. By comparison, his slider was used exclusively against right-handers and he mostly throws his changeup versus left-handers, so Cole’s ability to use his curve to get anyone out is a positive development.

If Cole faces the Rays again this year, it would be in a do-or-die Game Five on short rest. In order to thrive in that scenario, he’d benefit by throwing more first-pitch strikes and continuing to vary his pitch mix. The Rays finished with the second-worst whiff rate in baseball this year, and they swung and missed on a whopping 39 percent of their swings in Game One. As long as Cole doesn’t become predictable with the fastball, he’d be set for more success against Tampa Bay in Game Five.