In the last week of training camp, Gerrit Cole estimated that one-third of his starts he’d have his best stuff, one-third he wouldn’t have his best, and the remaining third would be somewhere in the middle. Through his first two starts, we haven’t quite yet seen Cole’s best stuff, but he’s done well enough to keep Yankees fans as excited as they were in December.
Everything for Cole works off his fastball - abandoning sinkers inside in favor of fastballs up is what made him the best pitcher in the American League. Last night his fastball wasn’t quite what we’re used to seeing—it was about a mile per hour slower than his Yankees debut, and his max was also a mile per hour slower—plus his swinging-strike rate was lower on the fastball. In fact, he recorded fewer swinging strikes overall—six—with the fourseamer than he did six days ago. He worked lower in the zone than Thursday as well, with 60% of fastballs in the upper third of the zone compared to 67% on Opening Day.
This is what I’m talking about. Cole’s fastball succeeds, and gets whiffs, because it’s incredibly hard, doesn’t sink as much as most fastballs because of a high spin rate, and Cole throws it up, above the uppercut swing of the launch-angle generation. Against Baltimore, he was just a hair slower, and the ball was down just a little more frequently, and guys were able to recognize the pitch and make more contact.
In a way you wonder if Cole’s not quite fully stretched out. He threw more breaking balls as a percentage of pitches than he did Thursday, which may indicate he knew his fastball was missing just a little something, and wasn’t fooling hitters the same way it normally does. Yet despite laboring a little more than usual, he wasn’t really hit hard until his final two-thirds of an inning, when every pitcher is going to look worse.
We’re really slicing up Cole’s performance, since he still struck out more than a batter per inning, and again, was never really vulnerable until the seventh inning. He struggled in the first and last innings, when every starter posts their worst numbers. Even Cole is bound by the laws of the physical universe. It’s been a crazy run up to the regular season too, one couldn’t blame Cole for not being 100% comfortable given the three-month delay in spring training.
Still, pitchers in general are way ahead of hitters early in the season, and Cole’s contemporaries for Best Pitcher In Baseball—Jacob DeGrom, Max Scherzer, to name literally the only two—are throwing harder than they were last year. If Cole’s fastball isn’t totally right, a better hitting team than the Orioles could make him pay before adjustments get made.
But one of the marks of a true ace is the ability to work through games where you don’t have your best stuff; what separates Cole from almost everyone else in baseball, is in those one-third of games he talked about above, he can still manage at least average run suppression. He’s had two games in 2020 without his dominant stuff, and one was a very good start against Washington and one was an acceptable one against Baltimore. The fastball is worth keeping an eye on, but the biggest takeaway for Gerrit Cole is the team is 2-0 when he starts, and he hasn’t really kicked it into high gear just yet.