On Friday, by the numbers, Gerrit Cole had his best start of the year. He threw a truncated seven-inning, complete-game shutout, while striking out nine, and allowing just three baserunners. He had his best fastball working, missing triple digits by just a third of a mile per hour, overpowering an aggressive Orioles offense. Better yet, this was Cole’s first start of the year in which he hadn’t served up a long ball.
As David Schoenfield explains here, Cole’s fastball has been hit significantly harder this season, even though he’s throwing it at almost exactly the same speed and nearly maintaining his high spin rate. Opposing batters have slugged .545 on Cole’s 2020 fastball compared to the .348 mark they posted in 2019. Last season, when Cole allowed the most homers in the majors (29), he had a HR/FB rate of 16.9%. This year, that number’s ballooned to 22.4%. Though, as Tom explained in his article, giving up home runs is part of being a power pitcher, so this elevated rate should start to regress to Cole’s much lower mean.
Still, it’s hard to explain exactly why batters hit his fastball so much harder. Even though none of the Orioles were able to hit Cole hard on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t for a lack of mistakes (at least relative to Cole’s norm). In line with the frequency over the course of this season as well as last, Cole threw eight “meatballs,” four of which were fastballs—a pitch that hitters have slugged .750 against this season and already crushed three bombs.
Last season, opposing hitters slugged .776 and hit six home runs against Cole’s middle-middle fastball. That Cole threw four fastballs down the middle and allowed no hits, against a relatively strong big-league offense, is extremely lucky. Only one of these balls was put in play, and it was hit 102.7 mph off the bat by outfielder Cedric Mullins. Fortunately for Cole, it was hit directly at Tyler Wade playing second base, despite its .430 xBA. Further, it was hit plenty hard enough to have cleared an outfield wall had Mullins lofted it high enough in the air despite the mistake coming on a 1-2 count to a career .218 hitter. There’s no good time to throw a fastball as a “meatball,” but Cole definitely got away with it when he did on Friday.
Another concern from Cole’s complete game is his contextually lopsided arsenal. Upon joining the Astros, Cole (like all new Astro pitchers) boosted the rate at which he threw his curveball to a career high. Since joining the Yankees, he’s maintained the pitch’s preponderance and recorded a steady swing-rate against the pitch, but he’s thrown it in the zone far less often than he did during his two seasons in Houston. Of his 25 curveballs against the Orioles, just seven were thrown in the zone (28%), even lower than his season average of 35.6%, which is dwarfed by last year’s mark of 49.5%. The combination of hitters swinging at the pitch at nearly the exact same rate as last year, but its location being so rarely in the zone, accounts for the drastically increased swing and miss rate.
Although hitters swing at the curve just as often as last year, they do so during different counts. Time after time on Friday, when Cole threw curveballs well outside of the zone in even counts, he’d then have to come back with another pitch to get the batter out if he didn’t generate a wild swing and miss. This season, hitters are almost as likely to swing at Cole’s curveball in at bats when they are ahead in the count, compared to when they are behind.
In Houston, hitters were much more likely to swing at curveballs when behind in counts. This could have something to do with the fact that when hitters fall behind, if they see a curve, they often expect it to be a ball, since Cole’s rarely thrown the pitch for a strike— especially in those counts. Last year 41.3% of the curves Cole threw while ahead in the count were in the zone, whereas this season, it’s been more than halved to just 20%. Hitters have swung at curves more often than they are strikes, and rarely make contact when they do, but Cole’s frequent missed locations have cost him some unpredictability with the pitch.
Also, Cole scrapped his sinker, so instead of throwing five pitches for strikes, he’s functionally down to just three. This could help explain part of why his fastball has been hit so hard this year. Cole’s fallen behind in the count at almost exactly the same rate that he has last year, but when he has, hitters are slugging .586 compared to last year’s mark of .465. Hitters can be more comfortable selling out for the fastball, knowing that curveballs for strikes have been almost entirely removed from the equation. It seems as though by trying to maximize Cole’s effectiveness with his best pitches, the Yankees’ pitch calling has made him more predictable, and therefore hittable, overall.
The final pieces of evidence pointing towards Cole’s increased predictability are the radically increased pull percentage against him, and his near-inability to put people away with his fastball. This season, opposing hitters have pulled 45.7% of all balls in play, compared to last year’s mark of 37.3%. When a batter is early, he’s more likely to hit the ball to the pull side, suggesting that hitters have been more willing to guess fastball and react to everything else. This leads to some of the wild swings and misses on misreads, but hitters have also had more success when they’ve guessed right. Most alarmingly, Cole’s fastball Whiff% and PutAway% have plummeted from 36.7% and 33% in 2019 to 19.6% and 6.3% in 2020. Since hitters are now expecting the heater in every count, they are more often on-time for the fastball, leading to greater contact overall, especially to the pull side. Despite recording nine strikeouts on Friday, Cole was able to finish off just one batter with the fastball.
Even getting hit the way he has, Gerrit Cole is still a beast. At his worst, his ability to throw near-100 mph for strikes, along with heavy sliders, changeups, and curveballs, is going to generate a ton of strikeouts. Some of his struggles this year can be chalked up to a dollop of bad luck, but if he wants to reach last year’s height, the team should consider recalibrating a more balanced pitch mix to keep hitters from sitting “dead-red” on every count.