Imagine you’re a major league hitter, one of the 400 or so absolute best at your job in the world. You’re in the box and all of a sudden find yourself down 0-2 in the count. What’s coming next? Something in the dirt? A breaking ball away to get you to chase?
If you’re facing almost any starter in baseball, you’d be right. Conventional wisdom says get ahead with heat, finish off away. If you’re facing Gerrit Cole, then about half the time you fall behind 0-2, he’s giving you 98 mph because his fastball is just that good. Odds are, you’re going to miss it, too.
Poor Javy Baez. He’s one of the best players in the game, and that’s a fastball dead red over the plate. But it’s 0-2, he’s looking for a waste pitch, and you see how late he is to close out the inning.
Only Lance Lynn throws more fastballs on 0-2 counts than Cole, and like Lynn, everything about Cole’s ascension to the top of the game comes from his four-seamer. Justin Verlander used to be the poster boy for spin rate; the future Hall of Famer was the perfect framing device for the usefulness of advanced pitching metrics, with a 99th percentile fastball spin rate that’s kept him dominant even as he’s aged. Cole’s fastball, meanwhile, spins at the exact same rate as Verlander, but he throws about three mph harder:
There’s no substitute for throwing the ball really hard, and there’s no metric that drives strikeout rate quite like velocity. Pairing velocity with great movement, though, gives you the best pitch in baseball.
This next chart shows exactly that: how much every pitcher’s fastball moves relative to league average. You’ve heard of a “rising” fastball, and while pitches thrown overhand can’t actually climb, they spin so tightly that they drop less relative to the competition, and so hitters can’t track the ball nearly as easily. For this graph, you want to be in the top right quadrant—a fastball with lots of “rise” and lots of horizontal movement:
And that’s exactly where we find Cole and Verlander, the guy he’ll be compared to for as long as JV still pitches at an elite level. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Cole has the best fastball in baseball; he throws it with as much tricky movement as Verlander, but considerably harder.
Of course Cole augments this with a great curveball and slider, which are elite pitches on their own. But everything he does on the mound flows from a hard, moving fastball, one that’s almost unique across the game. Crucially, this also keeps his approach simple.
A guy like Masahiro Tanaka is quite impressive when he’s on. Being able to throw five or more pitches, with all kinds of movement in all four directions, makes for a show when everything’s working. But with Tanaka, when he loses one or two of those pitches for any reason—ahem, rabbit ball in 2019—he struggles to work through games, since no one pitch is dominant.
Cole can pretty much work through the order the first time using just his fastball. It’s so fast and has this unique movement pattern that even if guys go up looking for it, they’re still not going to have much luck. It keeps the game-plan pretty straightforward for Cole. That was always the Astros’ strategy, and can now work for the Yankees.
Beyond all else, the goal of the Astros as an organization has been to leave as little to chance or luck as possible. Part of this is why they cheated: I make my own luck when I tell my hitters what pitch is coming. But part of this is the pitcher’s approach to build an incredible fastball and lean on it as much as you can. This means for guys like Verlander and Cole, they don’t have to worry if they can’t get “on top” of their slider or curveball in any one start. For someone like Tanaka, that could be disastrous. For Cole, he sits back on the fastball and still puts together a strong start.
For a while the Yankees were a team that eschewed the fastball, largely because largeparts of their rotation—CC Sabathia, Tanaka, Jordan Montgomery—didn’t boast great fastballs. That’s going to change in 2020, with Luis Severino the hardest thrower in baseball, James Paxton among the best flame-throwing lefties in the game, and Cole’s near-foolproof four-seamer. You could say the heater is back for the Yankees.