When Gerrit Cole reported to spring training, he was asked questions on a wide variety of topics. One of his responses included an appraisal of fellow teammate Masahiro Tanaka, whom Cole called the “quintessential professional.”
Cole has shown in his brief time in camp already that he’s a true master of the craft. He’s talked in depth to his coaches about details like where he’s comfortable missing when executing his pitches, and it’s clear that he’s learned a lot from the various elite pitchers he’s had as teammates. Pointing out Tanaka as someone he’d like to learn from makes sense because, in Cole’s own words, “his style is a lot different...and you can always learn from the flipside perspective.”
Tanaka stands out as the unique pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation. He’s the only pitcher who relies strictly on his movement and deception to get outs as opposed to the power-heavy approach that Cole and fellow starters Luis Severino and James Paxton do. There’s a lot that Tanaka has to execute to succeed in his style, but when he does so he can be ridiculously effective. Even though he’s already one of the best pitchers in baseball, Cole sees room to improve and Tanaka could have some answers for him.
Cole has experimented with several offspeed pitches over his career. When he broke into the league with Pittsburgh he favored a sinker with a slider and a curveball to back it up, but more recently the slider has become his second option. His decreased usage of the sinker has been part of a league-wide shift against the pitch as home runs have become far more prioritized, and Cole’s shift to pitching horizontally has netted him plenty of strikeouts with Houston.
Tanaka, meanwhile, embraces movement on both axis to fool hitters. He pairs his slider with a splitter to generate a wide variance in location that keeps opponents off balance, and allows him to force bad contact.
This could be the biggest takeaway for Cole. A pitcher that already led MLB in strikeouts learning another method to attack the zone could cause chaos for offenses across the league. Cole doesn’t even need to pick up the splitter to do so, either. Tanaka is one of the league’s most experienced vertical pitchers, and any tips he could have to improve Cole’s curveball to a more lethal version would accomplish the goal here.
Cole spoke about getting to learn from Tanaka, but there is something Tanaka could get out of this partnership as well. As previously mentioned, the league is going away from the sinker, and Tanaka has been impacted negatively by that. Tanaka has effectively abandoned the pitch the past two seasons, replacing it with a higher percentage of fastballs — which aren’t his strong suit.
Cole has also severely toned down his usage of sinkers in the same time period, and has found success with his current mix. If Tanaka ever needs to readjust his pitch selection, he could look to Cole and his curveball to potentially find a new weapon, as Tanaka has mostly used the curve as a show pitch over his career.
When the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, there were some obvious indications of how he would improve the pitching staff. His attitude towards improving and the lessons he has to share could be an unintended benefit as well.